‘Derry deserves better’: Cracking Brexit and borders with the Derry Girls

They're back. Say hello again to the Fab Five as the Derry Girls get ready for series 2 with Adrian Lobb

Derry Girls was the breakout comedy hit of 2018. Created by Lisa McGee, it was a phenomenon that landed out of the blue and showed teenage joy and hope flourishing against the lurking dread of the Troubles. That shadow was alluded to but rarely fully addressed…until the great final scene.

And how people loved the show. It scored the best ever viewing figures for a Channel 4 comedy launch, and since December, fandom via Netflix in the US, Cuba, Australia, Argentina, Canada and Mexico.

Now it returns as Northern Ireland – and Britain – are at a vital turning point again.

The Big Issue: How has it been for you all since Series One took off so dramatically?

Nicola Coughlan [who plays Clare Devlin]: It is the most watched show in Northern Ireland ever, which makes it quite difficult to buy toilet roll when you are there. Me and Jamie-Lee once had a bunch of teenage girls following us around the shops. At one point we were like, there are 10 teenage girls in a group and they have been in every shop we have been in. I’m pretty sure they are following us. I was just buying toilet roll. I wish I was doing something better!

Saoirse-Monica Jackson [Erin Quinn]: It has been an amazing experience. A world of positivity. 

Louisa Harland [Orla McCool]: We were very confident it would do well at home because we were pissing ourselves laughing at the script so much. And I’m delighted the UK liked it and it is doing so well in the States on Netflix. I don’t know how they are getting the jokes in places like Cuba, but they seem to be.

And Derry Girls has a mural now?

Jamie-Lee O’Donnell [Michelle Mallon]: It is a great honour, being from the city I know how important the murals are to the city. And it is so lovely to be part of that. I’m so honoured.

S-MJ: That’s us done. Mic drop.

Why do you think it has struck a chord with so many people?

LH: There are so many elements – it’s set in the Nineties, the music is so great, it is shot so well, and it is a female-led cast and yeah, it is a comedy with not a very funny backdrop. But if we had to pinpoint anything, we would all say Lisa’s writing.

A lot of the stuff we have seen about Northern Ireland in fiction has been so grim,

S-MJ: For her to write 11 leading characters and each one of them to be so well-rounded, so identifiable, so funny – every character has a different beat, a different tone, a different formula.

NC: Lisa has done an amazing thing, because a lot of the stuff we have seen about Northern Ireland in fiction has been so grim. Obviously a lot of awful things did happen, but they didn’t show the humour. And the humour is such an important part of that place.

And the depiction of teenage female friendship isn’t something we have seen done like this before.

NC: A lot of teenage shows are based around relationships, getting the boy or whatever. But this is more true to life. I was obsessed with my friends as a teenager. It is not spoken about, but I remember my best friend making friends with another girl and I wanted to murder her! I was not happy, driving home from her house, leaning out the window crying. You think you are going to form a band, go to college and all study the same thing.

Lisa taps into that really well. Everything to them is so massive – the history exam is the biggest thing in the world, the dog dying is the biggest thing in the world, it is an intense age. But it is so nice because you care so much about stuff. There is a level of sincerity that we lose as adults.

Dylan Llewellyn [James Maguire]: And you see the innocence of the girls as well. The last episode, combining those two, with the parents watching the TV while they are dancing.

Talk us through that final scene, which encapsulated the series – there’s the freedom and solidarity of them dancing on the stage at school, juxtaposed with the adults watching a report of a major bombing on TV in silence.

LH: When I first read it I was really nervous. I realised it was such a beautifully written ending. And I didn’t want to go too over the top in terms of the dance. You have to get the balance right.

It is a true testament to Derry at that time that people tried to shield their kids from what was going on,

NC: It was a very emotional scene to shoot. We had never seen Louisa do the dancing before. They cleared the hall and the four of us saw her do it for the first time. I bawled crying. Then when we shot it, everyone was crying. And seeing it on screen for the first time I just bawled again.

S-MJ: The stillness of that scene. It’s the first time in the whole show that you see any stillness within the characters and the subtlety of Ian McElhinney [Granda Joe] putting his hands on Tommy Tiernan’s [Da Gerry] shoulders. It was a beautiful small detail. It is a true testament to Derry at that time that people tried to shield their kids from what was going on and people got up and got on with it. But there were horrific moments that happened that did stop everybody in their tracks.

Derry-Girls-2-Mural-001
Derry Girls creator Lisa McGee, second from left, with cast members Dylan Llewellyn , Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Louisa Harland and Nicola Coughlan when they visited the 'Derry Girls' mural on the gable wall of Badger's Bar, Derry. Image: Lorcan Doherty/Press Eye

J-LO’D: It goes to show the reality of what it was like in Derry back then, the juxtaposition of the reality for the adults who understand the depths of what is going on and the innocence of the next generation living through it. You have the free spirit of the young people and that positivity in the future, dancing about on stage. It was gorgeous to act. I can see why so many people love that part.

NC: And Dolores O’Riordan [The Cranberries singer] had passed away a week after our first episode came out. So now Dreams has become so intrinsically linked with the show. I will never hear it and not think of it. So awful.

Was there any trepidation about following the success of Series One?

LH: That difficult second album? There were definitely fears. But Lisa outdid herself.

S-MJ: We were all scared that we would be completely different. I was scared that I had forgotten how to be Erin. But as soon as we got back we were right there immediately. 

NC: Filming the first series, we didn’t know the universe of the show yet. Sometimes we might think we are making big choices acting-wise and wouldn’t know if it was maybe too much. But they gave us freedom to try mad things. And I don’t think you often get to see women on screen doing that. You had The Inbetweeners, which was brilliant and we all loved, but you don’t normally see girls get rid of that vanity and act like complete dicks.

What’s in store for the girls this time?

They wear rainbow badges – you can see it on the mural, actually.

NC: There is no point in taking Clare out of the closet then shoving her back in. For me it was always a really important part of the character. I knew that Clare was gay when I very first auditioned. It ended up being about six months before anyone else in the cast knew. I think people will be very happy with how it is dealt with and how the gang support her. They wear rainbow badges – you can see it on the mural, actually.

S-MJ: Erin is definitely still ambitious and still thinks she is an incredibly gifted writer. Which I’m sure she will become one day.

DL: James still gets a scolding from the girls a lot, but it is a tough love thing. If someone random was to pick on him, the girls would be like, Hey! We are the only ones allowed to pick on him. That is a real thing.

LH: We meet a group of Protestant boys, which is really interesting.

J-LO’D: And if there are boys you will find Michelle, let’s be honest. That’s her goal. Michelle is bigger and badder than ever.

SM-J: There’s a new addition to the family with Ardal O’Hanlon, he is so amazing [Channel 4 reports that he plays “Eamonn, the awkward, middle-aged mummy’s boy of the Quinn/McCool extended family”]. And we go to one of the biggest concerts in the North at that time which was really fun to film.

LH: There is a wedding, and Bill Clinton features as well.

Bill Clinton? That’s quite a cameo.

SM-J: Ha! Quite a cameo, yeah. Apparently there are a few Bill doppelgangers in Northern Ireland.

How are you enjoying the fame that goes with Derry Girls?

LH: In Derry we are The Beatles!

S-MJ: We are The Beatles in Derry. It is amazing. Me and Jamie-Lee are obviously from there, and I think it is most bizarre for the other three.

So the city has taken you to its hearts?

One thing about people from Derry, they are honest.

LH: And thank God, because it could have gone the other way.

S-MJ: One thing about people from Derry, they are honest. And if they didn’t like us, we would have known about it.

NC: There are Derry Girls walking tours.

LH: It’s quite short, really, the tour. The shop we film in, that we call Dennis’s Wee Shop – they have made their own sign and it is now called Dennis’s Wee Shop. Smart.

S-MJ: And we have a lot of hen parties coming over dressing up as the Derry Girls. It is so amazing.

What are Derry Girls’ tips for visitors to the city?

J-LO’D: You have to head to Doherty’s or McDaid’s Bakery for the buns. They are the best in the world. They have the best buns and fries. And there is quite a lot to see, a lot of history – The Derry Walls, the town museum and the famine exhibition. Definitely hit the shops and then maybe a pint in Sandinos cafe bar.

SM-J: There is a real buzz around Derry. Even before we were The Beatles there was a massive buzz. Do the Derry Girls tour, get a blow-dry – we have the world’s biggest blow-dries. Go to the Playhouse theatre, we have some great live music. Then take a 20-minute drive to Donegal where you will see some of the most amazing views and landscapes in the world.

Has your new fame enabled you to use your voices to raise awareness of certain issues?

J-LO’D: I have relished it. It is one of the perks of the job. I am working with an abortion rights charity and on women’s sexual health rights. Abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland and that is something we feel quite passionate about.

NC: We got really involved in the Repeal The Eighth campaign. That was an important time for Irish women and it is still a situation in Northern Ireland. And it was important playing a gay character on TV to support LGBTQ charities and causes that are close to my heart, and always have been.

LH: It is still illegal in the North to get married if you are gay. It is legal in the UK which they are part of, and it is legal in the Republic, as is abortion now. So we feel strongly about the North being recognised. Nicola’s character Clare wouldn’t be able to get married today and that is ridiculous, it is something we feel strongly about.

DL: Dealing with suicide in young people is quite close to home for me. Addressing that and knowing that young people need to express themselves more, and that it is OK to not be OK.

J-LO’D: Mental health is a big issue in Derry and Northern Ireland, especially men’s mental health and suicide awareness. I grew up in a town where things like that and substance abuse were quite bad and still are. So I am always happy to help out if I can by using my face from acting, lending my voice. It has affected me personally and probably everyone I know in Derry.

DID YOU KNOW…

If you pay for the magazine you should always take it. Vendors are working for a hand up, not a handout.

How do you feel about the new series coming out against the backdrop of a bombing in January, and Brexit and the border issue?

The people of Derry deserve so much better.

J-LO’D: There is a big conversation to be had. Unfortunately. As usual.

NC: The people of Derry deserve so much better. Lisa McGee has shone a brilliant spotlight on what is a brilliant city full of brilliant people. And I don’t think the true heart of Derry is going to be shaken by this at all, to be honest, because it is so resilient.

S-MJ: I’m sure the whole of the UK and the whole of the world is scared of Brexit and don’t know what is going to happen – but especially Northern Irish people. What Lisa has done with this show is absolutely incredible given the social climate. It is a fantastic way to remind us that we don’t want to go back there, we don’t want to be divided. And what a fantastic way to remind us through humour and these beautiful characters that Lisa has created.

Derry Girls returns to Channel 4 at 9.15pm on March 5.