22 May 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
“I couldn’t write a sitcom about The Troubles without looking it in the eye”, writer Lisa McGee discusses Derry Girls
20 Apr 2023 : Nathan Griffin, Luke Shanahan
Lisa McGee
IFTA-winning writer Lisa McGee speaks with us about Derry Girls, how her writing developed over the course of running the show, and the impact the series has had on audiences at home and abroad.

The final 45-minute special episode of Derry Girls titled The Agreement, set in 1998 during the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, aired in May of last year concluding the third and final series of the Channel 4 sitcom. Since then the series has been nominated for an array of awards. These include an IFTA Script - Drama nomination for Lisa McGee for her writing on the final episode, and a BAFTA TV nomination for McGee in the category of Writer: Comedy. This interview was conducted in the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, during which time McGee received a number of invitations to speak on the topic, much to her surprise.

“It's very strange, but I suppose it's just a simplified way of talking about something that's not very simple. Maybe that's what they're looking for?”

Derry Girls follows the personal exploits of a 16-year-old girl and her family and friends during the Troubles in early 1990s Northern Ireland, taking inspiration from McGee’s own experiences growing up during this time. McGee explains it was never her intention to be at the centre of conversations about The Troubles and the Good Friday Agreement. Speaking on how the levity of the show has made these difficult topics more approachable for audiences, McGee says:

“People don't feel lectured. I think that’s a big thing. I think particularly now we're just being lectured all the time everywhere and being told we're wrong, and [Derry Girls] is just a bunch of silly people having a conversation.”

“There’s a power to comedy characters. You feel like you know them. They’re your aunt, your uncle, your mom, your best friend, and you're willing to listen to them in a way that maybe you wouldn't with a politician or someone shouting at you on Twitter. You're willing to give them a chance.”

A key ingredient in the show’s success has been its balance of sitcom humour and genuine emotional weight, however, when McGee first began writing she wanted to be “purely funny” in her comedy writing, citing Seinfeld and the work of Larry David which avoid any possible sentimentality. 

“But with the subject of Derry Girls, I couldn’t write a sitcom about The Troubles without looking it in the eye. That sort of forced my hand and now I’ve completely changed my mind. I've loved learning about that balance as I’ve written Derry Girls. That’ll be how I continue writing, that mix of heart and humour.”

The Derry Girls mural in Derry perhaps best exemplifies how much the show has resonated with Irish audiences, but it’s also had huge success abroad, which McGee has seen firsthand.

“I was on a plane back from Vegas, which was going from Vegas to Seattle, so it was an American flight. The person two seats down from me was watching Derry Girls which was absolutely nuts, or you’ll sometimes hear people in London quoting a line from the show when you’re queuing for coffee.”

“And obviously in Derry now it’s just part of Derry. It’s just part of the Derry experience.”

McGee is quick to point out that this level of success wasn’t something she could’ve planned for, as the original Derry Girls script was the result of Channel 4 commissioning new writing from her after her previous sitcom London Irish wasn’t renewed for a second season. 

“Everyone at Channel 4 comedy loved that sitcom, but it just didn’t do the numbers. They couldn’t justify the money. So they were like ‘We’re really sorry about this, but here’s a script commission, write whatever you want, and show it to us when you’re done’.”

The result of this became the shooting script of the Derry Girls pilot, which thankfully wasn’t “treatmented to death”. McGee explains that if she had been thinking ‘How do I make this big in America?’, she would’ve been paralysed as a writer. Ultimately it was embracing authenticity and specificity that allowed the show to connect with such a wide variety of audiences.

“I think truth shines through. Viewers can recognise when it’s real. A lot of the Derry Girls storylines are cartoon storylines, they could be in The Simpsons, but there’s truth, those people are based on real people.”

“Most good writing is coming from someone’s truth, someone’s soul, and then the specific can become universal. We connect with stories about zombies and vampires, why not Catholic schoolgirls from Northern Ireland, you know?”

Looking back on the show’s journey, McGee appreciates Channel 4 for “backing talent” when she wasn't as well-known as she is now.

In 2019 Channel 4 announced a third series had been commissioned, however, because of the pandemic, filming was postponed twice during 2020. In February 2021, it was confirmed that filming would begin later that year, with the first episode finally premiering in April 2022.

“It was a very hard series to get off, that third series, it was probably one of the toughest things I’ll ever do. I had a baby while I was writing the series, and then COVID hit. Filming through COVID, that first wave, was just horrific. It was all I could focus on. I’ve never been as focused on anything in my life as finishing this story. I didn’t care about awards, I didn’t care about anything. I didn’t even care if it was the best, as long as it was decent.”

All 19 episodes of Derry Girls were directed by Michael Lennox, and series 3 was produced by Brian J. Falconer. The show was exec produced by Caroline Leddy, Liz Lewin, Lisa McGee, and Jimmy Mulville.

“I worked with such a brilliant team. The director’s a genius and Brian’s a genius, they never gave up. It was just the best kind of team spirit getting it over the line. And then honestly we were all in a daze. We woke up and it was on TV, and then it starts getting nominated for things. It makes it worth the pain of all of those months.”

One of the final series’ most talked-about moments was Liam Neeson’s cameo, which was just as exciting for the cast and crew as it was for the audience.

“So we had heard he wanted to do it, and obviously if he wants to do it he can do it! So we thought of that policeman bit and bumped it up a bit when we knew he’d be reading it. He told us that Helen Mirren told him about the show, that’s how he got into it.”

“He was just incredible. Derry Girls is a very very noisy set, it’s very high energy and a lot is going on, but for once I could hear myself think because a star had landed. Everyone was shitting themselves. It was so silent I was afraid to even say anything.”

“Thank god for our AD, Daire Glynn, who’s brilliant. Very experienced and has worked with lots of movie stars. He was the one who was like ‘Okay it’s Liam Neeson but we still need to get on with it’.”

It would seem that this third series definitively marks the end for the characters of the show. McGee has previously dispelled rumours about a Derry Girls film, and her answer hasn't wavered. At least for the time being.

“I don't think so. No, no, unless, like, in 20 years, you never know.”

“Well, I kind of hope not to be honest. Because I was gonna wait and see when that last episode landed. And it landed perfectly for us. And I think that that's our goodbye.”

“I’ll definitely be working with some of the same actors and I’m hoping to write things people will enjoy, but I don’t want to mess Derry Girls up.”

With Derry Girls finished McGee is wasting no time, beginning work on two new projects: a comedy thriller that she can tell us a little about, and a mockumentary she can’t tell us anything about.

“So I'm back at the start with two projects. And one will happen unless something goes bad. I've been describing it as if the Derry Girls were in their late 30s and had to solve a crime. It's like the Coen brothers, only they’re Northern Irish women. It's something I've wanted to do for a long time.”

McGee says the idea for this new show came about around the time that series 3 of Derry Girls premiered, when she was catching up with her friends from school.

“We were saying what would our younger selves think of what we're doing now? That was sort of the springboard, these women, one of them's very successful, but isn't really who she wants to be, one of them maybe hasn't achieved career-wise what she wanted to achieve, so it’s that kind of thing. These three dissatisfied women go on this adventure like they're schoolgirls again.”

“And then I'm hopefully doing, if it works out, a mockumentary style thing which I'm not allowed to say anything about yet. I've always wanted to have a crack at the mockumentary thing, just because I love them. We'll see how that pans out.”

Derry Girls is available to stream in its entirety on All4 player online, and the first two seasons are available on Netflix Uk & Ireland.

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