Siobhan McSweeney as Sister Michael in Derry Girls. Photo: Channel 4
This week’s round-up of the best new television features a winning blend of drama, fast-talking comedy and politics – whether it’s the Derry Girls dancing through the Troubles in Northern Ireland for the final series or Muhammad Ali floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee in a definitive documentary series.
Derry Girls – C4, Tuesday 12 April
“I’m so fucking sick of peace – it’s all anyone ever bangs on about.”
You have to earn the right to write lines like this. Delivered with maximum teenage angst by Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), it’s classic Derry Girls. This series, a comedy set in 1990s Northern Ireland, works because its creator Lisa McGee brings so much knowledge and understanding to the show. Knowledge and understanding of the era, the people, the city, the times and the politics.
After Covid-related delays, Derry Girls is back for a third and final series. This is one of the greatest and most important television series of modern times. In any genre, on any channel, from any country.
McGee has committed TV alchemy. How is it possible that the funniest show on television also features the best depiction of the intensity of teenage friendships? More than that, it rewrites the rulebook on depictions of life during The Troubles. As McGee told us recently, “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.”
This is comedy with moments of such dramatic intensity they stay with you for years. Anyone who has heard Dreams by The Cranberries since watching the end of series one of Derry Girls will understand. A great song instilled with new meaning by a scene of devastating power as Orla, Erin, Clare, Michelle and James dance to Madonna in the school talent show while, at home, their families watch coverage of a bomb attack in silent horror… before Dreams kicks in.
We see two parallel existences in one place at one time. There’s such power in watching troubled times play out through teenage eyes, reminding us that joy and innocence are so persistent.
For the final series, the show is edging towards the Good Friday Agreement. There is a change in UK government, with Tony Blair coming to power – and, importantly, Mo Mowlam taking over as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Hope is coming into the picture for the adults. And the Derry Girls are very slowly becoming aware of the politically charged backdrop to their childhoods.
Happily, some things never change. Like Siobhan McSweeney’s genius, world-weary delivery of every word uttered by Sister Michael. But for the youngsters, it’s GCSE results time. A moment of rupture in so many lives. A time when teenage friendships can end abruptly as futures are built in different directions.
“Our lives are over… We’re girls, we’re poor, we’re Catholic and we’re in Northern Ireland, for God’s sake,” says Clare (Nicola Coughlan) in the brilliant series opener, demonstrating that hard-won enlightenment.
We can see that the fab five are going in different directions in life. So the decision to go out on a high, before the inevitable decline or stasis that sets in as TV series go on far too long, requiring plot contortions to keep the key players together, is the latest smart choice from McGee and the team.
Before that, we have love, life, exams, a jaw-dropping guest appearance or two, and even a flashback to the 1970s – where we see the Derry Mums. Lisa McGee told us recently that she hopes the show offers viewers a window of joy. Derry Girls offers that and so much more. An all-time classic.
Doctor Who: Legend of the Sea Devils – BBC1, Sunday 17 April
Jodie Whittaker’s time in the Tardis is running out. Which means time is running out for Yaz and the Doctor to talk about their feelings (every Time Lord’s least favourite thing). But first, Whittaker’s Doctor takes on the Sea Devils – becoming only the third Doctor to encounter this iconic monster, following Jon Pertwee (in 1972) and Peter Davison (in 1984).
So buckle up. Chris Chibnall and Ella Road have written a swashbuckling, piratical romp as the end of their era edges closer. One day soon, the next Doctor will be announced. It could even be after this second of three specials airing in 2022. So don’t rush off when the credits start to roll…
Muhammad Ali – iPlayer
Ken Burns hold a strong claim to be the greatest documentary maker in the history of television and film. And Muhammad Ali was not a bad boxer. So the only surprise about Burns – whose previous series and films have provided definitive takes on everything from The Vietnam War to Baseball to Country Music – taking on Ali over eight high octane rounds is that it has taken him so long to make.
What he delivers is a knock out. An in-depth, illuminating look at Ali as boxing pioneer, political revolutionary and activist for peace – placing him in the context of the times he lived through and changed. Available now on iPlayer
Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? – Britbox 14 April
Anyone who has seen Kenneth Branagh’s latest star-studded Agatha Christie adaptation – Netflix’s Death On The Nile – may well decide that the last thing we need is another one. Yet Hugh Laurie has gone back to the classic crime novels for a new three-part series. Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? stars Will Poulter and Lucy Boynton as amateur sleuths Bobby Jones and Lady Frankie Derwent, while writer-director Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and Jim Broadbent add the big-character cameos.
The central duo investigate the death of a man found dead at the foot of a cliff on the Welsh coast. A man whose enigmatic final words give this whodunit its title. A gentle, witty, murder mystery that – for better or worse – would not look out of place on BBC One or ITV in prime position on a Sunday night. In 1985. Available from 14 April on Britbox
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