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Derry Girls: ‘What Lisa McGee has done is change the path for all Derry girls going forward’

Derry Girls Jamie-Lee O’Donnell and Saoirse-Monica Jackson look ahead to the final series of the iconic comedy and assess its legacy

The third and final series of Derry Girls has begun. More than six years have passed since we first encountered Derry Girls Erin, Orla, Clare, Michelle and James and it’s been quite the ride.

Creator Lisa McGee and the central cast have produced one of the finest depictions of the intensity and resilience of teenage girls’ friendships since records began.

The series has changed the narrative on life in Northern Ireland during the 1990s towards the end of the Troubles – observing difficult times through the eyes of five teenagers, their obsessions foregrounded while the politics plays away in the background.

It has also educated so many across the UK. By going out on a high with one final series, this will remain one of the great television shows of our time.

Here’s Jamie-Lee O’Donnell and Saoirse-Monica Jackson (aka Michelle and Erin) – Derry Girls on screen and real life Derry women off it…

Saoirse-Monica Jackson: Well, let me start with the fact that I’m raging – I’ve just found out that you got to watch it before we do.

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The Big Issue: But at least you know what is going to happen…

Jamie-Lee O’Donnell: True. It’s a bit different to sit and watch it and enjoy it, though. We’re bustin’ for that. We’re really excited.

TBI: How different did it feel this time around – not only knowing it was the last one but also with filming in and around the pandemic?

S-MJ: I don’t think the pandemic had a huge effect on us. We were all very conscious of it, and we had a lot of vulnerable people throughout the cast and the crew. So everybody did their best and stuck to their own bubble. But to be honest, you know, like, we’re so busy when we’re on Derry Girls, that we’re sort of in that world anyway. A lot of our crew has returned over the three seasons so it was amazing to see we got a real core of those crew members back.

We were just relieved to make it to that point and relieved that we were in a position where none of our scripts and storylines had to be compromised. That was definitely a big thing for Lisa – the fact that we didn’t want to film it in so-called Covid-y times, so we wouldn’t have to compromise any of our storylines, because Derry Girls is so epic and employs huge numbers of people. And it would have been a real shame to lose that buzz around the town that Derry has.

TBI: How emotional was it, going into it?

J-LO: As much as it was very bittersweet to say bye to such amazing, beloved characters for ourselves, I just think that Lisa’s just done an unbelievable job. And I think we’ve all worked really hard to give the audience something that they’re going to be happy with. So that was something that’s that we were excited about.

Lisa has matured the girls a wee bit. She’s so good at checking in with us and with the characters and seeing where they’re at in life. It felt like we were doing them justice.

TBI: Does it feel very satisfying, doing three perfect series then going out on a high?

S-MJ: I don’t know if satisfied would be like the word I would use. I’ve grown up with Erin – I’ve been on this journey with her. And I still can’t come to terms with the idea of really saying goodbye to her. I’ll always have a curiosity of where Erin would be or what she would be doing at the moment. So I don’t think you’ll ever be truly satisfied with something like that. But where we go with all our characters and the things that we’ve got to explore – I’m definitely really happy and I think that the audience will be satisfied. But, selfishly, I will always miss her.

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J-LO: I agree. It’s the same thing. I absolutely love what Lisa has done with everybody and Mike the director, on where he took us all for the end of the season. I really hope the audience love it as much as we’ve enjoyed making it and again, it’s not really feeling satisfied – I don’t think you’ll ever be satisfied putting someone like Michelle to bed. I’ll always always have a wee place for her in my heart and I’m so glad that I’ve got that character and I’ve got that experience in my life and a job I’m so connected to.

TBI: You’ll always be Derry Girls

SMJ: We are Derry Girls.

J-LO: Always.

Derry Girls – series three trailer

TBI: How were the final scenes?

J-LO: I found it a wee bit surreal. It’s like it’s one of those moments when you know something’s happening, you’re not sure if you can sort of get through it. So you sort of take a wee sidestep and compartmentalise a wee bit and focus on the job in hand. The scenes on the last day, on the last evening, were absolutely hilarious. Obviously, we can’t talk about it. But we really owned it – just a crazy, typical Derry Girls scene with the five of us being our extra selves. Then, obviously, there were all the hugs afterwards. It was sad. It was weird as well. It’s strange to think I’m not going to be coming back next year.

S-MJ: I did really have a last day of school feeling. From all the crew giving you a hug and looking at you like, ‘haven’t you grown up’, and like they’ll never see you again. It’s surreal.

TBI: Are you able to assess the legacy of Derry Girls?

S-MJ: Me and Jamie Lee talk about this quite often – just how proud we are to be part of the show. We’re both from the town and it really is like a love letter to our hometown. Obviously, I hope to have a very fruitful career. And I’ve got a lot of exciting work that’s coming my way. But if Derry Girls was always the thing I was remembered for, then I would be delighted. I don’t think that there could ever be a bigger accolade than a hit TV show from your home town that’s painted it in such a tremendous light, with such gorgeous writing. It’s an extraordinary thing that Lisa’s done for the town. It’s quite overwhelming when you think about that.

J-LO: What Lisa McGee has done is change the path for all Derry girls going forward. Even the opportunity of seeing people on film and TV that are from a regional place, with strong accents, from a town like Derry – that changes things for people going forward. That’s an amazing legacy within itself.

TBI: Is that especially profound for you two, coming from Derry yourselves?

J-LO: It’s really overwhelming to think that we get the opportunity to come from Derry, which is a very working class town, and lead a show that’s Derry people, that’s Irish people, that’s women, with a female writer. That’s all unbelievably impressive to me. And it’s something that I’ll always be proud of.

As Saoirse says, if they remember me as Michelle, that would be my life made. I’d be delighted. I think the best thing about it too is it has changed the narrative. Derry is a great place to be from, and I think it’s added to a rich history of our city. And it’s very in keeping with the people who are there and the relationships that are built there and made there. It’s very true to life so it’s great that people get to see that on such a big scale.

TBI: You talk of Lisa painting Derry – and then Derry painted you all on that amazing mural…

S-MJ: Lisa wrote this TV show for her own people. It’s for people from Derry. It’s for people from Ireland. And it’s for the women of the town. I think that was the key to its success. For us to be immortalised – well it feels like it is Erin, not me. I know that sounds like such an actor thing to say, but it really does. It feels like it’s Erin. And I love Erin and I want Erin to be there forever.

That’s Lisa’s gift to the town – the character we have created together. It’s great now that the five of us Derry Girls will be on the town forever, no matter what we all go off to do separately. The Derry Girls will always exist there. And I think that’s lovely.

J-LO: There’s a lot of historical significance with murals within our town and the North in general. It’s a way to signpost and demark memorable things – no matter how hard or how traumatic these memories are, they are historical points within our city that mean something to the people. And for Derry to add us onto that as something positive just feels really overwhelming.

Derry Girls airs on Channel 4 and All4

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