Ten years ago a comedy with The Troubles as its backdrop would have been booed off television. However, in 2018 Lisa McGee has gotten it just right – and made every person in Ireland, North or South of the border, fall in love with her witty and engaging sitcom, Derry Girls. Centred around four teenage girls all attending their local Catholic school, Orla, Erin, Michelle, and Clare, alongside their unlikely sidekick James (a “wee English fella”), as their teenage experiences make for a classic coming of age humour. Clare, ever anxious, is introduced as wearing a denim jacket, and then bins it when she discovers Erin isn’t allowed to wear hers – she doesn’t want to be an individual by herself after all. She participates in a day-long fast to raise money for Kamal, a small boy in Ethiopia, a theme laughably relatable to anyone who attended a Catholic secondary school. Erin, self-righteous and a ring leader, always finds herself in the worst situations – including accidentally accusing a visiting Chernobyl girl of being a prostitute. Michelle opens the first episode with a new swear word, which she learned from a VCR tape of Pulp Fiction, and everyone has a friend like Orla, away with the fairies.
While McGee may have missed the mark with her 2013 sitcom London Irish, which wasn’t well received due to the degree of profanity and darkness, she has found the perfect middle ground in a lack of sentimentality cushioned by a witty script and the certain level of empathy we apply to teenage girls, who are just trying to not fail their exams and get to the chipper on a Friday. It’s difficult to find anything containing history of the Troubles other than old newsreels and videos, and the teenage perspective of this time, which in Derry Girls appears as an inconvenience to teenage girls who have much bigger things going on, like Erin fancying Dave, who is in a band (every teenage girl’s heartthrob), and Michelle wanting to get off with one of the Chernobyl boys. In Derry Girls it’s less about the horror of war, and more to do with the everyday hassle of bombs being planted under the bridge, which means taking the long way to school. The inconvenience, and lack of understanding of the events by the girls, acts as a vehicle for the comedy more than anything else. In an early episode British forces come onto the school bus in a routine check, and the viewer tenses up only for a second, as it melts away into the background of the plot.
Having the girls from Catholic families and attending Catholic schools can at times seem exclusionary, however the degree to which the characters don’t care about the religious divide, and the portrayal of both Catholic and Protestant aspects of life in Derry, makes for an even greater comedy (hint – there’s an Orange Day parade in which Tommy Tiernan pretends to be Australian). Clare also wears a union jack t-shirt, in protest of the fighting, to the prefect’s house party, something both hilarious and poignant in the context of the episode. Simple ideas, perfect punchlines, it all makes for a show that hits the ‘coming of age comedy’ nail on the head. With all the grittiness of Skins embodied in the rip-roaring Michelle, played flawlessly by Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, to the daft and profane humour an Irish audience associate with Father Ted.
The pack are a microcosm for what one could imagine as Ireland at the time; they take pity on James because he is English (they couldn’t send him to a Christian Brothers school after all), and because they think he’s gay, the latter of which they are happy to forgive. The internalised English hatred is felt throughout, as the mildly uncomfortable agitation between James and Michelle at the beginning of the show, but like the bomb under the bridge and the Brits on the bus, it all melts into the background, and James becomes as integral to the story as anyone else. From this point alone, McGee’s creation is more than just a comedy, but something with emotional depth and historical context. The script keeps its lines simple, but employs the use of Derry slang. The show may have a deeper historical context, but at the end of the day, it’s a show about teenagers, who talk like teenagers and have their own everyday issues and problems, which are the centre of the script and storyline.
If you’re a fan of Father Ted, Skins, Fresh Meat, Young Offenders, or any comedy that makes you say, “I should not be laughing at that, but it’s so funny,” then Derry Girls is the show for you. A comedy about the everyday, with nothing off limits; Holy Mary apparitions, sneaking a freedom fighter across the border, and tying a Chernobyl teenager up in a toddler leash. If you haven’t seen it yet, catch up, all episodes can be binge watched on All4.