Derry Girls Lisa

Lisa McGee interview (creator of Derry Girls)

Category: Interview

For those who haven’t seen Derry Girls, explain a bit about the show.

It’s about five friends growing up in Derry in the mid-90s, and all the scrapes and messes they get into, while around them there’s an armed conflict going on. But they’re still obsessed with their own lives, it’s just against that backdrop. It’s about their love lives – or lack of love lives – and their ambitions, and problems with their families, and teenage stuff, but in a very specific environment.

The first series was a phenomenal success. When did you realise it was going to be a hit?

After the first episode went out and everyone responded so brilliantly to it, I was still convinced that people would stop watching it next week. So, I didn’t fully believe it was a hit until it was over. But it’s crazy, a year later people are still taking about it. It took me a long time to breathe out, and go “Oh, people like this, thank God.” I’d had other stuff that I thought had more of a chance, and this never happened. I thought this was so specific. I thought it might get a little cult audience, but it really surprised me that everyone got it.

It was particularly huge back home, where it got record audiences. Everyone likes watching stuff set where they are from, but this is more than that, isn’t it?

Yeah. I think Northern Irish people have never seen themselves represented this way before. They really responded to being shown a more positive, funny side to home. It was something that they felt ownership over, they really saw themselves in it. It was a really joyful thing to watch unfold, actually, to watch everyone get behind it. It’s been amazing, the response there.

You make jokes about everything from the Orange Order to the IRA. Before transmission, were you worried that it might prove controversial?

Yeah! Worried is probably an understatement. Petrified is more accurate. When you’re writing it, you can’t think like that, you have to write whatever’s best or whatever’s funny and truthful and think “Future Lisa will worry about the backlash if it doesn’t work.” And then it was coming out, and I felt like “Oh dear Jesus, I know they’re going to do this IRA joke now, or this Orange Order joke now.” But thankfully everyone just got the joke, and appreciated the tone of it. And because the lines were being said by characters who are teenage girls, people were all the more accepting of it, because they’re just kids. So, I think that helped – you got to say what you really wanted to say, but through the mouths of these young people.

Has it been too raw for anyone?

Honestly, no. No one that I’ve encountered.  Honestly, it’s a miracle. In Northern Ireland, a lot of people were directly affected by The Troubles, because the place is so small, but even then, they still loved the show. I was prepared for it, but no-one has taken offence. The only comment I’ve had over and over again is “Can you write more Protestant characters?” Which I have done this series. Because I’m from a Catholic background, I came at it from my point of view. But the fact that the supposedly ‘other side’ of the community really likes the show and wants to see themselves in it is great.

The cast was phenomenal – how did you enjoy working with them?

I just love them all. It’s a very honest relationship, it doesn’t feel like a typical filming situation. I feel like I can say whatever I want. We’re just trying to get this right, it really matters to everyone – it’s more than just a comedy for us, it’s a show about Derry, and about getting this representation of Northern Ireland right. They’re a great bunch, and we’re very clear and sharp with each other. There’s no dancing about things, it’s such a tight show to make, we haven’t got time, so we just like to push it as far as we can. It’s a really interesting dynamic. They’re great, they’re so talented, I still can’t believe we found them all.

Music played a big part in the show - was that you basically cranking out your favourite 90s tracks?

Yeah. Myself and Liz Lewin, who exec produces the show, and Caroline Leddy. We had no idea what the sound of the show should be, and there was a time when we wondered if it should have a freshly composed soundtrack, but the 90s stuff just works. The one thing we didn’t anticipate it to feel was cool. We didn’t want it to feel edgy, so we used a lot of breezy, bright stuff, and we tried to use stuff with a lot of female vocals, because it’s a show about young women.

Hold on. I really liked the music in it. Does that mean I’m not cool?

[Laughs] One of the things I think is that teenage girls do a lot of dancing. A LOT of dancing. Most of my teenage life was spent doing routines with my friends and fighting over who was which Spice Girl. So, we wanted to go for that element, rather than the edgy feel.

The show’s also on Netflix internationally. How does that feel?

That’s just crazy. What’s so funny is seeing people trying to get their head around The Troubles, and all the different sides to it. And also trying to understand the slang, and never having heard accents like it before. All that stuff’s great. And it’s just crazy to think that all of these people from all around the world are just sitting down to watch our wee show.

You’re from Derry yourself. Do you think people from Derry have specific characteristics?

Yes. I think it’s got quite a strong sense of self, Derry. It’s quite delighted with itself. It’s quite proud of itself. I think the women in particular are quite sharp. People from Derry think they’re quite funny.

The final show in the last series ended on an incredibly moving note. It won the Radio Times poll for TV moment of the year – that must have been a huge thrill.

Yeah, I couldn’t believe that – that a moment from a comedy show would win that. It was the thing I was most relieved about from the series – that that scene went the way that we wanted it to go. The important thing, for me, about that moment was that the Northern Irish people felt it was truthful. And when I watched that go out on Channel 4, and people started tweeting about it, I felt like we’d done what we set out to do, which was putting that innocence, and the idea that life goes on, against the atrocities that sometimes happened at that time.

What can you reveal about season 2? You’ve mentioned that there will be more Protestant characters…

The girls go on a scheme, which I actually went on, and which every person who grew up where I did have been on when they were teenagers. In the show it’s called ‘Friends Across the Barricade’, where they basically go on a residential weekend with boys from a Protestant school. And they all have different reasons for wanting to meet these Protestant boys. Michelle obviously wants to…

We know what Michelle wants!

[Laughs] But it all goes very, very, very wrong. The cross-community relations do not go to plan. And we have four great Protestant characters.

And you actually went on the real thing as a teenager?

Yeah. It was called Reach Across the Divide or something. It was not as bad as what I’ve written, but it was pretty bad. It was all about the boys, because you fancied them, nothing about peace. You can imagine!

I’ve read the series might tackle the ceasefire, and the visit of Clinton?

Yes, we do the first IRA ceasefire, and then after that Bill Clinton, which happened in ’95. Bill Clinton visits Derry, and it’s just all the excitement about that, with the president of the USA coming to Derry, and how the family and the girls respond to that. The idea of Derry being on the world news, for something other than violence, is a first. So, we recreated that in Derry, in the Guildhall Square, where it happened. That was crazy, for me, because I was a teenager when he came, and I remember it all very well. So, to relive it was mad.

One of the joys of the series is that The Troubles felt like a thing of the past. Do you still feel confident that this will remain the case, in view of the political situation, Brexit etc?

I’m maybe being optimistic, but I really, really hope that in the last 20 years we’ve moved closer together and seen the benefits of peace enough to not jeopardise it. But the thing that does worry me is this: For Catholic nationalists, the EU allowed them to feel Irish. And the minute they start to feel pulled away from that, that’s going to change things, particularly if there’s a hard border. I don’t know how that will be handled. I hope that it’ll be challenging, but we’ll get through it, but I think it’s bound to pull Northern Irish people apart a bit, and people might lean more on their Republican or Unionist identities.

Do you think the people of Northern Ireland feel like this was considered as a bit of an afterthought?

Yeah, completely. I think they really feel they still are an afterthought. I think they don’t feel hugely important, or that their wishes are being considered. It’s Northern Ireland that will be the most affected by this – physically, if there’s going to be a border. So, it’s a bit depressing. It’s also so hard to follow, every week it seems to be something different. It’s so confusing, and such an uncertain time for everyone.