Watching the hit sitcom Derry Girls has taught me more about Northern Ireland in the 90s than years of history lessons in school, or since. A couple of years ago, I waited up til the small hours to discover with surprise that the Northern Irish election results weren’t to be fully televised. Through Brexit it has become apparent – to the rest of us, although unlikely to anyone from there – how poorly equipped many parliamentarians are to discuss the whole of the United Kingdom they cast votes on governing.
In too many debates and discussions of the proposed backstop, what’s revealed is a deeply superficial grasp. Not only in terms of hard facts and feasible stratigising, but in understanding the social and political factors that make avoiding a hard border with Ireland so crucial, instead of viewing it primarily as a thought exercise or inconvenient afterthought, discussed in a tone of abstraction like other Brexit-borne terminology. Although many discussions about Brexit, or complicated situations generally, can feel frustratingly shallow at the moment – we seem stuck in an era of discursive both sides-ism, and amidst the rolling coverage of Brexit, politicians battle to give the least mad soundbite of the day – the general ignorance around Northern Ireland is striking.
Having grown up in central Scotland, the everyday antics of the four girls of the show (and their tagalong ‘wee English fellow’ friend) don’t feel a million miles away. I recognise myself, and schoolfriends, in what they get up to in a way I rarely have on television. In books, the last time I felt that way was reading Alan Warner’s Sopranos, published before the millennium and which I picked up a few years afterwards, roaringly accurate in its depiction of wild choir girls visiting Glasgow for a big show. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the singers I shared lyrics sheets with are still banned from various concert halls of Scotland.
Derry Girls has smashed rating records in its setting of Northern Ireland and was Channel 4’s biggest comedy launch in over a decade, a staggering achievement particularly when straddling the shift to digital streaming. Its success is reminiscent of Wonder Woman becoming the highest grossing superhero film. Broadcasters as well as film studios seem to be waking up to an astronomical viewer appetite for shows fronted and created by women, and it’s worth noting the first time that a Northern Irish writer has ever won the Man Booker Prize was last year with Milkman by Anna Burns. It’s also about a teenager at odds with her curtain-twitching, pressure-cooker-tense Northern Irish town at the time of the Troubles, finding survival strategies to preserve her individuality amidst intense domestic paranoia. With slow progress and ongoing resistance to women in art and media, it’s satisfying to think about record-breakers and prize-winners, but more so, that these stories are getting out there more visibly. Like Milkman, Derry Girls opens up our understanding of recent history through focusing on an under-appreciated perspective. We need all the understanding we can get.
Last year writer Lisa McGee said in an interview with The Pool, “You can write about young women and you can write about Derry and these places that maybe 10 years ago you couldn’t have. There seems to be a lot more possibility for telling those stories now about places that people haven’t heard much about.” Here is the young working class girl, trying to live life under myriad pressures, including the patriarchy as well as warfare. The audience have a taste for it now. There are so many untapped stories in women, and more will come.
For all the serious impact it makes, Derry Girls is in itself hilarious. McGee is skilled at picking out the subtlest inflections in household speech, with all its everyday pettiness and established family grudges and a localised, in-the-know nuance in the way her characters interact. Like the Royle Family before it, watching the ridiculousness of family idiosyncrasies on screen feels a bit like laughing with a cousin about what your grandparents are up to. The script’s quality is ably matched by an expressive cast, which includes star performances from Saoirse Monica Jackson as trying-her-best Erin, Jamie-Lee O’Donnell’s gallus, gum-chewing Michelle, and Nicola Coughlan’s perpetually flustered Clare. The girls navigate Protestants vs Catholics (“Protestants keep toasters in the cupboard,” urban legend has led them to believe), being stood up for prom, and pulling the classic “I’ll tell my mum I’m staying at yours, and vice versa” stunt to sneak out overnight. Many of us have been there.
It’s all the more moving when their world, so joyful, well-drawn and vibrant, and so realistically teenage, comes into conflict with real events of the period, cut to as segments on grainy terrestrial TV. At the end of the first season, the girls danced and sang on stage at their school assembly, giving into a moment of pure, bittersweet nostalgia-in-the-making we only really have at a certain age when our hearts are full with friendship and we don’t yet quite understand how soon our childhood years will be behind us, while their worried parents watched reports of a fatal bombing unfold on the small screen in their living rooms. The double gut punch was soundtracked by Dreams by the Cranberries, which re-appeared in season two to remind viewers how fond we’ve grown of this little group, and the emotional stakes underpinning their community. Closing season two, and set against archive footage of then US President Bill Clinton’s visit to Derry post-ceasefire, an opportunity to reflect on what had been achieved, “Being a Derry Girl, it’s a f****** state of mind,” says Michelle. “You’re one of us.”
It’s TV that really means something, which, like all special things, can come around only so often. And it makes me wonder all the more how this place, and these people, can be so close in many ways and yet I know so little about the underlying story? Derry Girls is a sitcom that has made viewers more aware of what our politicians and textbooks have failed to.
When it is said that fictional worlds have the potential to shine a light on unspoken truths and evoke empathy, Derry Girls is a fantastic example of what that means. Half an hour of excellent television every week has served as a troubling reminder of the realities of recent history, a history little understood by politicians and public on this side of the UK. Amidst talk of deals, so seldom are we truly thinking of hard-worn community, and how near it is to us.