Derry Girls: Father Ted meets The Inbetweeners
From the critically mauled London Irish in 2013 C4 and Lisa McGee have come back with a fresh, funny, very Irish, coming of age comedy set in 1994, Troubles-era Derry
It’s often forgotten that it was Channel 4 that pioneered Father Ted – against resistance and even derision from official Ireland, including RTE – and kept faith with its producers into the second series, by which time it had caught on.
Another attempt at capturing Irish idiosyncrasies a couple of years ago, London Irish, didn’t get a chance to iron out its flaws. This may have been, in part, down to the fact it premiered in an age of Twitter and Facebook and all the amplified scorn their trolls bring.
The sheer scale of abuse from instant critics would have chastened even the most steadfast and sanguine of writers and commissioning editors.
But fast forward to this year 2018 and in the past week a much anticipated Channel 4 sit com set in Derry in the 1990s – and the dying years of The Troubles – received almost universal plaudits and good will on those same social media platforms. For good measure that programme, Derry Girls, is written by the same writer who was savaged so disproportionately for London Irish, Lisa McGee.
She’s chosen once more to draw from her own experiences but this time they seem much more universal and recognisable for a much wider range of Irish people.
The comedy strikes true for even those with even only a passing familiarity with the time and the place in question, and as such she, and C4 appear to have struck the same comic gold they did with Father Ted which, incidentally, first came out just after the year in which this is set.
Below read how Tommy Tiernan and Lisa McGee responded to the show.
“It sounds daft now, 20 years on, but there were Army checkpoints everywhere around the North. Soldiers were walking the streets, soldiers were being shot,’ recalls Tommy Tiernan as he discusses his role as the “soft Southerner”in C4’s new Troubles-set comedy Derry Girls.
Can you explain a bit about the backdrop and time of which Derry Girls is set?
It’s set during the troubles in Ireland in the 90s and what’s really interesting is, that like a lot of people that have suffered, one of the way you cope with suffering is through humour. I think that for Irish people to undermine whatever trauma they are experiencing by trying to laugh at it is part of our natural response.
What I am excited about is how people in England will see it. The strength of the comic writing in the piece means that it should transcend the situation that it is set in. I think it will go down very well in Northern Ireland and I think it will go down well in southern Ireland.
As soon as they sent me a sample episode of this I was like “Jeez! This is brilliant.” The writing is so sharp, the girls are fantastically sarcastic and funny. It was a no-brainer for me to do it.
Tell us about your character
So my character is a Southerner, married into a very strongly Northern household and I am hated by my father-in-law who transfers some of the abandonment issues on to me as a “soft Southerner” meaning that the life of the southern Irish hasn’t been as traumatic as that of the Northern Irish, therefore they are a lot tougher so I have supposedly come from this soft Southern background into this wild Northern Irish family.
How do you think writer Lisa McGee captured this time?
In any kind of troubled situation humour exists. It’s part of some people’s natural response. You can imagine parts of the East End in London were economically deprived but the sense of humour there is sharp. You could say the same thing about parts of Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Sunderland, the list goes on. The sense of humour is so strong and that transfers so obviously to Northern Ireland, where you have armies – sounds daft now as we are 20 years out of it – but there were Army checkpoints everywhere around the North. Soldiers were walking the streets, soldiers were being shot. But to be able to focus on ordinary family dynamics in a really funny way, in that situation, it’s a fantastic thing to be able to do.
Would today’s young people, school-goers, be shocked by the girls just going around being typically self-absorbed teenagers even in that kind of environment?
Yes, I mean they are flirting with the soldiers. To come from a background that is being marshalled by an army and the girls are going out flirting with them because they’re in a uniform and are all young and fit, it’s an irrepressible life force or something. It’s one of those sitcoms where the social background of it is like “Wow, if you can pull this off, well done.” With a lot of sitcoms now the social backgrounds are quite bland and ordinary a lot of it is middle-class and is all charm but this has got some real teeth to it.
Did you enjoy filming in Derry and Belfast?
I loved it. I haven’t done a sitcom or any acting for over 20 years, as I spent all my time working on stand up by myself, and I loved being on set. Michael Lennox is a fantastic director, I loved doing take after takes, I could have stayed there for months doing it. I also loved the process of being on set, and working with up to 20- 30 people – technical crew, practical crew, the producers, cast, camera people – I loved it.
How does this compare to standup comedy?
It’s different because it’s a shared experience, just the camaraderie of it is huge. The hours as well, you might be told your car is getting you at 6.30 am in the morning, I mean usually I am only just getting home from a stand up gig at 4 am. It’s a complete change of pace, but also you get that feeling of satisfaction at the end of the day’s work, going back to the hotel and collapsing on to your bed and just watching a bit of telly.
Did you have advice for these young rising stars?
They would know automatically not to seek any advice from me. They looked at me and thought “Let’s avoid him, he’s troubled enough.” A good few of them come from a drama school background so they have technique down already. But it was fantastic to be beside their energy. I got just as much of a kick out of working with Ian McElhinney, who played my father-inlaw, he is one of the best screen actors around at the moment. And then Tara [Lynne O’Neill] and Kathy [Kiera Clarke] who played my wife and my sister-in-law. I had real difficulty with laughing during the scenes, myself and Kathy had to come to an arrangement after the first week that we were no longer able to make eye contact with each other, her character is so ridiculous and she pulls it off so realistically that I just wasn’t able to look at her without giggling. I swear to God, I had awful problems with laughing, cold sweat of anticipation. They are all phenomenally talented people; it was a real education for me.
How do the school days in the series compare to your own?
I guess the school that I went to wouldn’t have been as ferociously religious as the school that the girls went to. At that time in Ireland, when I was at school in the 80s, the Catholic Church was beginning to loosen its grip on things so these scenes that I was in based on the school the girls seemed to be under a heavier thumb than I was.
Are you still in touch with your school friends?
Oh God, yeah. My school friends now live all around the country so when I am gigging I often get a text from one of them and we hook up for a drink afterwards, and you never laugh as much as you do when you’re in school. And the stricter the school the more you laugh, our headmaster was strict, not religious, but strict and so I laughed a lot. I still have those strong relationships with the fellas that I went to school with.
Has it made you nostalgic?
Not really, but I am very proud of it as an Irish story and for the first time for people to see the Troubles on screen in a way that shows the spirit of the people was bigger than the situation that they were in. I don’t think that you have to belong to any particular tradition to understand that it’s just the human resources of just laughing, at the end of the day that’s what keeps us together is laughing really.
The retro soundtrack is brilliant, has it made you dig up your old record collection?
In terms of music appreciation I have tragic taste. I missed all the craic in the ‘90s – I missed The Stone Roses, The Happy Mondays, Blur – I just missed everything. I was into Folk music, I am only getting into The Smiths now. During the 90s I was listening to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, if something is culturally popular I tend to avoid it until it’s passed its sell by date and then can explore it at my own pace. My musical taste is backwards.
“There’s enough distance now, it’s 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement, the ceasefire was ’94, there’s enough time passed that you can look back on those things with a bit of distance. That’s a good thing, I think.”
Explain a little bit about your new series Derry Girls?
“I suppose it’s my experience of growing up in the ‘90s in Derry, pre-ceasefire. When I moved to London, it only slowly dawned on me that those circumstances were unusual. Then it occurred to me that that’s because teenagers everywhere are the same – no matter what is going on around them, there is a selfishness to being a teenager, I think.
“There are things they all have in common – their families frustrate them, their friends embarrass them, the boy they like doesn’t know they exist – and I thought there was something nice about how universal that is.
“As well as the idea that that was all going on while there was an army still patrolling, and there were still bombs going off, I thought that could be interesting, and comical, with the mundane day-to-day stuff of normality going on in the midst of it all. And then, in a simpler way, it’s about a working class family, and about a group of friends and the scrapes they get themselves into.
Why did you want to write this series, and why now, at this stage in your career?
I didn’t have the opportunity before. To write something like this, you need to be supported, and [Executive Producers] Liz Lewin and Caroline Leddy really gave me the confidence that other people might be interested in a show like this.
Channel 4 were brave enough to make it. But also there’s enough distance now – it’s 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement, the ceasefire was ’94 – there’s enough time passed that you can look back on those things with a bit of distance. That’s a good thing, I think.
Does it feel different, when you’re writing something this personal? Is it easier, or harder, because you’ve lived through it?
“I find the characters and the jokes and the dialogue easier, because it’s so rich, that Northern Irish dialogue, and the words we have for things – it lends itself to comedy really well. What’s hard is the half-hour structure, because I love plot-driven comedy.
“It’s also a big cast, so to get everyone having a story, and for all of those stories to work structurally can be quite challenging even though it should be simpler than writing something like a big thriller. But in terms of the people, it comes to me very naturally, and I sort of know versions of them all.
Did you film it in Derry?
“We filmed some of it in Derry but lots in Belfast, some of those exteriors just couldn’t be anywhere else but Derry so to get the feel of Derry we felt it was important to film some of it there. So any of the walk-and-talk scenes we went to Derry to do.
You’ve touched on this already, but everyone has this idea of how grim life must have been pre-ceasefire, in places like Derry. What was the reality like for you?
“Terrible things did happen, but there have been a lot of TV programmes and movies made about those things. It was brilliant – it sounds weird to say it, but I didn’t really realise that it was this terrible place. I knew these things happened, and I knew there were some places you couldn’t go, so there was awareness on that level that this was going on, but there was just an innocence about it as well, and a real sense of community.
“For me it was a brilliant place to live and grow up, and that’s what I wanted to show. And that’s something that’s never been shown, I don’t think. I used to say, when I started writing, that I’d never write anything set during The Troubles, because I’d had enough of how where I’m from was presented. And then I just thought “someone needs to show the other side of it – that these people are funny. You never got to see that side of Northern Ireland.”
Do you think the nature of The Troubles played a role in bringing your community closer together?
“I think people definitely looked out for each other as people wanted to protect you. And also, this isn’t necessarily to do with The Troubles, I think in poorer communities people look out for each other and people rely on each other a bit more, because they have to. Derry’s not a wealthy place, even still, and a lot of people have it very tough. But there was a real sense of people pulling together, and that was good.
What sort of a teenager were you?
“I was sort of like Erin, the main character in the show. I was involved in a lot of drama clubs and thought I was better than I actually was. So of all the characters, I was probably the most like her. Probably a bit annoying.
Presumably the ‘teenage you’ would be pretty thrilled to discover the ‘grown up you’ writes your own TV shows?
“Yeah. That’s the thing, in the show she wants to be a writer as well. I was always writing stupid plays and forcing my friends to be in them.
Did you go to a school run by nuns?
“Yes I went to a convent school. It was called Thornhill Sisters of Mercy. Some things were very similar to my school in the show, for example the yellow bus, it’s really cool how close they got it. No-one would have known, but all of these brilliant people made it happen, and I think it looks great. It’s so close to reality.
The series is really dominated by strong women – was there a matriarchal element to life in Derry?
“Yes it’s a place run completely by women, it always has been. There are various theories why that might have been the case. There were high levels of unemployment, and it was a shirt factory town, so women were working and men would have watched children – a bit of role reversal – some people think it’s a hangover from that.
“But any sort of authority figure in my life tended to be a woman. It never occurred to me that a woman couldn’t be anything she wanted until I got older and moved away. I went to a school that was run by women, and it was an all-girls school.
“The sports stars were girls, the funniest person in class was a girl, all those roles that often go to boys were filled by girls, so it never occurs to you that you shouldn’t speak out or do what you want. There were positive things about going to convent school.
Has making this series made you feel nostalgic for your life back then?
“Oh God, hugely so. I think everyone gets a bit like that sometimes – it’s life before it got complicated. The innocence of it all, the excitement of not knowing what you were going to do or who you’re going to be when you grow up. And then, just on a really stupid level, the music.
Have you been digging out all your old albums and listening to them?
“Yes! All the music I listen to now, on my phone, is from the 90s. I was actually at a Steps concert the other day.
You might want to watch what you admit to in interviews
“I know. To be fair I only went – this isn’t making it any better, it’s making it worse if anything – because The Venga Boys were supporting them.
“In fairness to me, it was quite nice… well, no, I’m just making excuses. I think a lot of people are getting nostalgic about the 90s now. There are a lot of these old bands getting back together as well.
That’s because people like you keep going to see them
“I know, yeah. It’s my fault.
Are you still in touch with any of your old school friends from back then?
“All of them! They’re all still my friends and were all at my wedding and I see them all regularly when I go home. We are a close group.
What’s Derry like now?
“It’s great. There’s a lot more to do there than when I grew up. But the spirit of it is exactly the same, everyone knowing everything about everybody. One thing my husband finds funny is if you go into any shop he just thought they all knew me. It’s just the way they speak to you.
“We were doing Christmas shopping, and the woman at the till said to me “Have you got everything in?” And I said no. And then she told me what she still had to get, and used first names for everyone she had to buy for, and he assumed I knew her, but I explained that I’d just met her and that’s how people talk in Derry. And everybody asks how you are, and then how your mum is. Everybody has to know about your mum. So shopping can take a long time.