What a triumph Derry Girls has been. The sitcom signed off this week with an emotional one-hour special set against the backdrop of the Good Friday Agreement referendum, and won plaudits from viewers and critics alike.
Its phenomenal global success is all the more remarkable because Northern Irish politics is usually a complete turn-off to outsiders — and not all those turned off are outside. Dramas, let alone comedies, have found locals to be a very tough audience, even if they manage to get one.
Yet on social media, many around the world said the series helped them understand the complexities of our recent history for the first time, which is a remarkable tribute to the show’s writer Lisa McGee and the cast. Such responses show the almost alchemic power of stories and, equally, memory.
Of course, Derry Girls was told more or less exclusively through a nationalist lens. How could it not be? This is the story of five school friends and their extended families and acquaintances. The fact that Protestants/unionists barely get a look in is an intrinsic part of the underpinnings of the sitcom.
The reality of Derry Girls speaks of the reality of Northern Ireland — sectarian division and non-interaction with ‘the other’. The only time there is any interaction is part of some officially sanctioned do-gooding events, which don’t bring anyone together and, worse, add a few more myths to the pile — remember, only Protestants hate ABBA.
But we would do well to remember that a story is not the story of our times. Indeed, a rare strained note in the Derry Girls special was the argument between Erin and Michelle over whether convicted killers (Michelle’s brother is in prison for murder) should be freed as part of the Good Friday Agreement.
To her credit, Lisa McGee knew the issue had to be aired but, due to the very nature of the show, it came across largely as an intra-nationalist debate, with unionists being, literally and metaphorically, on the other side of the Foyle.
It’s a tribute to McGee’s writing that even when the lens gets noticeably greener than usual, the ‘situation’ and the comedy win through and keep even those politically at odds on board. That is why comedy and drama should never be tampered with, no matter how challenging. It will stand or fall on its quality and its humanity.
So, this is no more a complaint about Derry Girls than it is a call for some version of ‘Prod’ comedy. In any case, no one suddenly decides that what TV needs is a sitcom based in Derry about schoolgirls during the Troubles. That idea comes from a writer who has those stories to tell and that perspective to take.
That’s what attracts TV companies and leads to a show such as this being made and finding the audience some think it will have.
Maybe there is an audience out there for a story about comic Protestant lives during the Troubles. Maybe there is a writer with those stories to tell. There is certainly no shortage of writers from that background. But there hasn’t really been a great deal of evidence that there are many who want to hear those stories or see the world from that perspective.
And though many living elsewhere found it informative about our history, let’s remember that Derry Girls isn’t a documentary. It’s not primarily redressing anything, countering anything, proposing anything, dismissing anything. It’s entertainment — a noble art in itself which needs no other purpose.
This isn’t to say that Derry Girls hasn’t registered other, complex, moods. In the final episode, the magisterial Liam Neeson deployed all his considerable skills to depict an RUC inspector tussling with huge moral dilemmas as he voted in the Good Friday Agreement referendum. The turmoil on his face as he removed his cap as a salute to fallen comrades was deeply moving.
Yes, the show made the shiny future of the agreement as magnetic and attractive as possible, in the same way the eponymous shrine in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark dragged everyone towards it. But at least the Neeson character was given the time to colour in a sense of disquiet, reluctance and hurt. Momentary, of course, but it doesn’t need to be longer.
Some of us remember the astonishing impact of Graham Reid’s Billy Plays, back in the 80s. It wasn’t so much the fact it was a Protestant working-class family that held centre stage as it was the simple, unexpected noise made by the Belfast accent, raw and untreated, blaring out from the TV screens of Britain and Ireland. Maybe for the first time, the accent wasn’t just a regional feature or the sound a drunk makes, but the very pulse of real life — the backdrop against which the Troubles was being played out, rather than the other way around.
It was all of us, suddenly, recognisably — those small houses, those narrow streets, the shuffling, surly sensitivities of our sisters and brothers, mums and dads.
Now, closing an odd but pleasing circuit, Billy himself, Sir Kenneth Branagh, has gathered plaudits around the world for his film Belfast, most recently a coveted Oscar for best screenplay for Branagh himself. And every frame is steeped in the personal story of our greatest actor — glimpses, fragments, instants, echoes and shadows of other movies where the heroes sometimes fail.
The movie Belfast, like the city it portrays, has yet to be truly appreciated by the population in Ireland. Its story hasn’t quite found the audience here that it has found elsewhere — the tale is darker, sadder, scarier. But it will surely in time be regarded as much a classic of both the city and cinema as Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out.
Which is just to say, in the end, it is the story which matters. No one version is enough. There isn’t one big enough, with enough rooms in it to hold everything that needs to be said about us and our journeys. But stories must be told, and if ever there was a template of what we need to complete the process of reconciliation and healing — even to begin it, because it hasn’t started yet — it is in the freedom of these tales, brought to life in front of our eyes, almost against our will.
There are millions of stories among us. Most of them true, and we need to hear every single one of them.