When Theresa May entered into a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party last year, there was a sense that suddenly the rest of the UK was being forced to acknowledge the little corner it so often overlooks: Northern Ireland. The DUP’s retrograde views on abortion and the collapse of the Northern Ireland government were – belatedly – mainstream concerns. And just when the region was enjoying a new relevance, Derry Girls, a raucous but warm-hearted sitcom chronicling the lives of four Derry (or Londonderry, depending where your loyalties lie) schoolgirls, kicked off on Channel 4. Immediately, it was a hit.
The reviews were ecstatic, the Twitter response wildly enthusiastic and the viewing figures backed up the hype. The first episode has been watched by nearly three million people and it is Channel 4’s most successful comedy since Ricky Gervais's Derek. Immediately after the first episode aired on 4 January, a second series was commissioned.
It is understandable, then, that the creator and writer Lisa McGee describes herself as “a wee bit overwhelmed” about the success of the last few weeks. “I've been writing telly for a while now and I've never had a reaction like that,” she says. “I sort of didn't think that happened anymore, just because of the way people watch TV now [on catch-up and streaming services]. I didn’t think people reacted to something so immediately.”
The idea of bomb scares being an inconvenience was absolutely true. You can't be terrified all the time
Thirty-six-year-old McGee – who wrote the pilot around two years ago while pregnant with her first child – has been working as a writer for TV for almost 15 years now, having begun soon after she graduated from Queen’s University Belfast. She has a couple of hits and a couple of misses under her belt, but Derry Girls has quickly become the most acclaimed and most well-known project she’s ever worked on. It’s also the most autobiographical.
Like our heroines – Erin (priggish, but lovable), Michelle (rebellious comedy genius), Orla (daft, hopefully in a harmless way) and Clare (sweet, but screechy) – McGee comes from Derry, “right bang in the city centre”. She grew up in the 1990s, when the show is set, and the scripts are full of brilliant nostalgia. Bedroom walls are adorned with posters of The Cranberries and the soundtrack is crammed with Britpop classics (there’s also a nod to 1992’s A Woman’s Heart, the bestselling compilation album that every Irish mother played on repeat). “That was my experience and I am very fond of that period,” she explains. The 90s setting also allowed her to depict a school life before mobile phones and social media: “That was interesting for me as a comedic writer. You couldn't just solve something by searching for it on the internet or picking up your mobile or whatever.”
But there was a challenge in setting an irreverent comedy about a bunch of self-obsessed, ridiculous teenagers against a backdrop of 1990s Derry – namely, The Troubles. Could sectarian violence ever be funny? And how can a bomb scare fit into plots about detention or a missing family pet? “I thought about not setting it in The Troubles, about just making it now,” admits McGee. “But there's so many things set around that time that don't show the other side of what was going on. I wanted to tell the reality of it for me. You know, how it was, how it really was – showing the lighter side of it too.” And so, we have the ditzy and vain Aunt Sarah, who is put out, rather than terrified by, a bomb scare, as it interferes with her sunbed appointment. “I’m not enjoying this bomb,” she says. “I’ve an appointment in Tropicana at 12.” The “wee English fella” James must accompany the girls to their single-sex school for his own safety – but that’s a jokey subplot, rather than anything actually menacing.
“The idea of bomb scares being an inconvenience was absolutely true,” says McGee. “When you step away from it you realise that that was a weird way to look at things – but you had to. It had to become mundane or you'd have never done anything. You can't be terrified all the time.”
I wonder how McGee felt having to look back so closely on her teens; the show nails the hysterical prudishness of teenage girls as well as their naive self-centredness. Was she embarrassed or bemused? “It was quite sad in a way,” she says. “I sort of longed for those times: when that was your whole world and that was all you had to worry about – whether your friend was speaking to you. It made me feel a little bit sort of nostalgic for those times.”
She realised that, although she is still close to the friends she grew up with, there is an intensity to teen friendships that’s impossible to replicate as an adult. “It's just an amazing thing, female friendship. It's a really, really important thing, I think.” And school – “when you were really in each other's pockets" – is where that flourishes. It’s a time she’s only recently been able to mine for comedy: “The idea of writing about your childhood, you need to feel like you're an adult to do it. And until quite recently, I didn’t.” Now that she’s a parent and a bona-fide success, perhaps she will be able to look back, further and further, again and again.
Her priority is writing a second series of Derry Girls – she’s hoping to find comedy in the 1996 ceasefire and the Bill Clinton visit – and, beyond that, she’s pleased that we have reached a point where women’s stories are being told on screen. “It's a great time to write TV because it seems full of hope. You can write about young women and you can write about Derry and these places that maybe 10 years ago you couldn't have. There seems to be a lot more possibility for telling those stories now about places that people haven't heard much about.” Looking at the conversations about female representation that are happening post #MeToo, as well as the success of women-led films like Bridesmaids and Girls Trip, encourages her. And true equality will mean unlikeable, messy female characters. “We should be able to have the female version of The Sopranos,” she says.
Tony Soprano. But a woman. From Northern Ireland. Written by Lisa McGee. Channel 4 should really think about commissioning that.