What a ride it has been. More than six years have passed since we first encountered the Derry Girls. And now Erin, Orla, Clare, Michelle and James return for one final series. The show is a work of supreme skill. Lisa McGee has created one of the funniest programmes on television, exploring the intensity of teenage friendship while rewriting the rulebook on depictions of life during The Troubles and educating the rest of the UK about life in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. That’s some achievement.
This is a series that stays with you. Watching troubled times through teenage eyes, reminding us that joy and innocence are nothing if not persistent. Scenes replay in the mind. Particularly the girls dancing to Madonna in the school talent show at the end of series one, while, at home, their families watch coverage of a devastating bomb attack in horror. Two parallel existences in one place at one time, as Dreams by The Cranberries fades in.
The final series is set in the months before the Good Friday Agreement. These are monumental times. The Derry Girls are getting their GCSE results. And there has been a change in government, with Tony Blair coming to power – and, importantly, Mo Mowlam taking over as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Not only is hope coming into the picture for the adults, but the Derry Girls are – slowly, very slowly – becoming more politically aware.
“Mainly it’s just very stupid,” says McGee, who is keen to stress the show’s daft comedy as well as its socio-political impact.
“But in series one and two, politically, there was all this stuff going on in the background that the adults knew about and the Derry Girls were very protected. In season three, they’re going to have to grow up. They’re getting older and they’re going to have to have some political awareness and social responsibility.
“It’s about them realising they’re going to need a view on things. Because a lot of being a teenager is that you don’t really know who you are and what you really think. I don’t think this is a spoiler, but it’s about them coming face to face with something that’s difficult and they don’t all agree on. We don’t leave them these enlightened people by any means – but they have a little bit of growth.”
Because of pandemic-related delays, the series will end around the time of the 25th anniversary of the 1997 UK election. It seems prescient, just as the last series dropped while Brexit was straining the Good Friday Agreement.
“We’ve always been quite flukey that we’ve landed at times, politically, when there was stuff going on that related to the show,” says McGee. “Also, what that gap allowed is it was a kind of cult show around the world and in America. So many people have discovered it that the global audiences are waiting for it as well now.”
I would describe it as like ghosts disappearing. There were less soldiers. And then there were less. And then they were gone
McGee remembers this time well. Like the characters she created, she was more aware that everything around her was politically charged by the time of the 1997 ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement the following year.
“It was in everything you talked about and so there and so present all the time,” she says. “There were literally soldiers outside on your street – on the street I grew up in anyway. They would be kneeling down outside houses.
“And there was a paramilitary presence. A lot of complicated stuff was going on, but you just went, ‘this is life’. When you think about it now, it is so nuts. Like the Catholics’ relationship with the police and the fact that most of them wouldn’t have been comfortable phoning the police if something happened. You certainly couldn’t have had them come into your house.
“There’s layers and layers of this stuff. I remember the ceasefire being a massive deal. And then the Good Friday Agreement being a massive deal.”
And after the Good Friday Agreement? The realisation of exactly what she had been living through, largely carefree, as teenagers are wont to do.
“I would describe it as like ghosts disappearing. There were less soldiers. And then there were less. And then they were gone,” she says. “But there was no great, ‘this is the day they’re going’. Then the police uniform started changing and they had a different name. It was all done so slowly. Then suddenly, it was very different.”
Only then did she realise what was at stake, and why we must never go back.
“I was never really scared growing up. Which is weird. But then I got scared about it going back to that. Because after the Good Friday Agreement, I obviously knew it was a lot better,” she says, a quick laugh at the memory.
Mo Mowlam makes a fleeting appearance in episode one, via the television, like so much of the archive footage and political background does in the series. I wonder, who are McGee’s personal heroes of the peace process?
“Definitely John Hume is the big one. And Mo,” she says. “Then there was a political party that doesn’t exist any more but was very important at the time, called The Women’s Coalition.
“It sounds cheesy, but anyone who was trying to find the middle ground, for me, and put themselves in the firing line. Which John Hume did time and time again. And Mo. They were heroes.
“I don’t know if it is just rose-tinted glasses, but I think we had real heroes in those times. It was tough times. It was crap. But we had these amazing people that you could look up to, who made you think about what you were doing and how you could contribute. I don’t know if they exist now. They were one in a million. We were lucky to have them.”
McGee has always known how she wants the series to end. The miracle is that they have been able to finish the show on their own terms – a rarity in television, where shows are cancelled or go on past their sell-by date, victims of their own success.
“I’m really thrilled we’ve ended it that way,” she says. “The main feeling is relief, because we got to finish the show the way we wanted to against all the odds. We’re a small show that’s just punching, do you know what I mean? We wanted to have this scale and ambition and really go for it. And then Covid happened. It was a nightmare at times. But I’m very proud of it.”
When I watched depictions of The Troubles… it didn’t look to me like where I came from. There was no colour. Or humour. Or women
During lockdown, McGee returned to live in Belfast after 12 years in London. “Because it was the pandemic, it was just not going out in Belfast as opposed to not going out in London,” she says, adding that her kids love it. These are exciting times for the city.
“It’s exciting to have a film called Belfast nominated for Oscars. It’s an amazing thing,” says McGee, though she admits she has not yet found time to watch Kenneth Branagh’s film. “I love Jamie Dornan and I love Caitriona Balfe so I just feel like I love it, even though I have yet to sit down and watch it.”
McGee is deep in the edit for the final episodes. But she is starting to consider the impact of the series, on her, on her community, on the wider television landscape. She was, she says, able to find the funny and explore the lives of the Derry Girls because of her deep knowledge of the time, the place, the people.
“Comedy is a different beast. You have to have the right, sometimes in order to take the joke where you need to take it,” she says. “Because you are maybe going to push it somewhere that is uncomfortable. Only you can maybe judge how far you can take that joke.
“I say this a lot, but the one thing I knew early in my writing career is that I was never going to write about The Troubles. Never. I was so over it. But when I watched depictions of it, I felt they were writing about somewhere else. It didn’t look to me like where I came from. There was no colour. Or humour. Or women a lot of the time.
“I used to always say that there are other stories to tell. But you can’t get away from that backdrop. I tried for a long time, as a writer, to kind of erase it. But it doesn’t make sense to do that, so it is about it being part of the story but not the story all the time.”
So it is that this story, celebrating teenage friendship and mischief and misadventure and passion, came to be. It feels, again, timely, to be celebrating the resilience of young people at a time when they have been enduring such a rough time, kept apart from their friends and away from their schools for long periods.
“Writing Derry Girls, I’ve realised I really like teenagers. I love their hope,” says McGee.
“They get a bad press, but they do make the best of everything. You could see that through the pandemic. I started following a lot of young comedians who were doing TikToks. I found them very inspiring.
“They got, in many ways, the roughest hand. But they just cracked on, didn’t they? I love that energy of young people. We get so tired and over everything and negative, you know? They haven’t had the joy stamped out of them yet, I guess.”
Derry Girls returns in the wake of another project close to McGee’s heart. She worked with actor Peter Mullan on Skint – a series of BBC Four monologues about poverty, written by people with lived experience of being poor. Is that, I wonder, the direction she is heading in next? Nope.
“My next idea is one of the silliest things ever,” she grins. “But one of my favourite elements of Derry Girls that is from personal experience is when they discovered they’re poor. Because that happened to me. It was a discovery. Because everyone was poor. That was my friends.
“So I loved that idea that they went, hold on a minute, we’ve been dealt a shit hand. And even that they don’t take lying down. They’re like, ‘OK, well, we’re just gonna get money’. I love that naive attitude.”
But now it is time to say farewell to them. This will be tough for McGee, who worries for her creations.
“I have a very weird relationship with this show. I have sleepless nights about what Orla is going to do for a living – how she is going to make money. She’s not real! But I get very stressed about whether they have a plan.”
McGee does allow herself a moment of reflection. Knowing, perhaps, that this will be the show that she will forever be associated with. This is the one. Derry Girls forever.
“I’ll never have an experience like this again. Being able to put the place I come from on the TV in a way that feels honest and in a way that people have responded to – in a way that people feel represents them, it’s been incredible,” she says.
“I hope this last series ends in a way that is a real air punch for people, makes them laugh, and distracts people for half an hour whatever night it goes out. I hope it makes people remember their own family and friends. I just want to be that wee window of joy for people.”
Derry Girls returns to Channel 4 on April 12. Watch series one and two on All4 now
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