Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

Derry Girls aloud: Stars of hit comedy on becoming national treasures

Maiden City takes cast and crew to its heart

Orla (Louisa Harland), Clare (Nicola Coughlan), Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), James (Dylan Llewellyn) and Michelle (Jamie-Lee O'Donnell)
Orla (Louisa Harland), Clare (Nicola Coughlan), Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), James (Dylan Llewellyn) and Michelle (Jamie-Lee O'Donnell)
L-R: Mary Quinn (Tara O'Neill), Gerry Quinn (Tommy Tiernan), James Maguire (Dylan Llewellyn)

By Kelly Allen

Empty Tayto bags are flung on the floor, remnants of Tunnocks snowballs are smeared over one girl's face and gold foil from chocolate coins has been discarded over the table. No, Sunday Life hasn't stumbled into a midnight feast but the set of Derry Girls.

The show, which follows the antics of Erin Quinn and her three friends and the Wee English Fella growing up in The Maiden City in the early 90s, was the biggest comedy hit for Channel 4 in a decade. Written by Derry local Lisa McGee it struck a chord not just at home but around the world.

We were invited to the top-secret filming location - a warehouse just 200 yards from the Crumlin Road Gaol in north Belfast - to get a sneak peak of the much anticipated second series, which returns to our screens on Tuesday.

The scene, from episode two, is set as the adults have gone on a date to the cinema leaving Erin (played by Saoirse-Monica Jackson), her cousin Orla (Louisa Harland), Clare (Nicola Coughlan), Michelle (Jamie-Lee O'Donnell) and James (Dylan Llwellyn) alone in the house. And after feeling peckish they commit the cardinal sin of tucking into the stash in the 'Christmas cupboard'.

The gang also go on a cross-community school trip called Reach Across to meet kids from across the barricade - but really it's an excuse for boy mad Erin and the gang to meet some 'Protestant boys'.

And this familiarity of Christmas cupboards and the 'novelty' of mixing with the 'other side' which is loosely based on Lisa's own life, is what has made everyone fall in love with the Derry Girls.

Lisa McGee says: "I'm relieved by the reaction, the thing that would have been awful would have been if people at home had hated it because going back would have been awkward. They've really taken ownership of it.

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"Everyone knows we were pushed together in very unnatural situations. All the girls were interested in was getting off with Protestant boys. That happened."

Tommy Tiernan, who plays Da Gerry adds: "I think it's amazing the way stuff like this can become important to the people whose town is represented. We started out to make people laugh but it's become a thing that strengthens them and a thing of pride."

In fact the city is so proud of the show that they have ice cream vans selling cream horns on Pump Street, tours of locations from the show and even a huge mural with the cast's faces painted on it.

Derry Girls Christmas cupboard.
Derry Girls Christmas cupboard.

Nicola Coughlan (32) reveals that the show is so popular that she had to travel incognito with pal Dylan to catch a glimpse of the mural: "It's very weird seeing it as it's so impressive in person. It's really big. We snuck down to see it incognito but then immediately got spotted.

"So they said sit down there and get a photo. But they put me in front of Saoirse. They were going 'That's the main girl'. I didn't want to embarrass them but people confuse us a lot."

And it has made stars of the cast - people flock to get pictures with them everywhere they go.

"We were in Belfast airport very hungover with people asking us for photos," revealed Nicola. "You want to cry and say, 'We are disgusting. You don't want a photo'. But it is amazing."

Lisa adds: "I feel like I'm out with the Spice Girls walking around Derry with them. It's a surreal experience."

Louisa agrees it can be overwhelming how the public has taken Derry Girls to their hearts, saying: "I don't think I've really absorbed it. It's still very exciting for us and still incredibly cool to go into Derry and people call you by name. Overwhelming I think I would say."

It's not just the characters who are best friends - the cast have become inseparable and are clearly best friends. Dylan, who has been nicknamed Dylly has become a regular visitor to Nicola's home in Galway. She also went on holiday with Louisa to New York to celebrate their birthday.

"We have sleepovers around each other's places," Dylan (26) reveals. "We see each other a lot even when we aren't filming. We actually do like each other."

The second series starts a year after that poignant finale when, as the girls danced without a care in the world in school, the adults watched a TV report of a bomb blast killing 12 people.

However, while it is set against the backdrop of the Troubles, the show still manages to be funny.

Nicola explains: "The Northern Irish humour is so dark. I was in a cab in Belfast the other day and the driver said, 'do you like it here?' and I said, 'yes everyone is so nice and welcoming', and he said 'aye we like other people, we just used to kill each other'."

"Northern Ireland has quite a strange sense of humour," admits Lisa. "But we had to find a way of dealing with a weird set of circumstances and some very dark things. They've developed this sort of strange sense of humour. I think the tone of the show comes from that."

Gerry Quin (Tommy Tiernan), James Maguire (Dylan Llewellyn) Clare Devlin (Nicola Coughlan)
Gerry Quin (Tommy Tiernan), James Maguire (Dylan Llewellyn) Clare Devlin (Nicola Coughlan)

The cast and crew is predominantly Northern Irish so everyone takes pride in the show because everyone wants to produce something that is successful.

Director Michael Lennox reveals: "It's like working with your mates. There's a real energy on set. There has been some amazing stuff done in Northern Ireland before but there's not enough done on places like Derry. There is not enough done on the lighter and more positive side. Like Derry can have these serious issues but it can also be mad and extremely funny at the same time. It's about capturing that balance."

Lisa adds: "Me and Mike have this sort of affliction with showing Northern Ireland in a pretty, bright and non-scary way. That's very important to us and looks like somewhere you might want to go."

When filming the second series they had crowds gathering while filming scenes which includes US President Bill Clinton's visit to Derry in 1995.

"We were quite worried about it but there were crowds but they were very respectful," Lisa says. "They would tell other people off for making noise. Everybody in the city had to be quiet because we were filming. They were telling the dogs off for barking. It was a brilliant experience."

And it's offering the rest of the world a positive image of Northern Ireland. Tara Lynne O'Neill, who plays Ma Mary, explains: "For years, if I heard someone from Northern Ireland on the TV I hated the sound of my 'own accent', because that wasn't what I was hearing. We were defined by the voice of the politicians on TV, and that was angry men most of the time. To this day people still mimic our accent and it's Ian Paisley they're doing.

Picture by Lorcan Doherty / Press Eye
Picture by Lorcan Doherty / Press Eye

"Derry Girls could be a documentary. In terms of putting a camera in anyone's kitchen. We've all got stories like this. There's so much familiarity about it and that's what makes it genius."

Derry Girls is on Channel 4 on Tuesday at 9.15pm.

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