Q&A: Derry Girls at the BFI & Radio Times Television Festival

WHERE? BFI IMAX, BFI & Radio Times Television Festival, London

WHEN? 14/4/19

Derry Girls writer and creator Lisa McGee had never really seen anything on television that represented her growing up in the 90s in Northern Ireland and so set about writing it.

  • Read on for reasons including the similarities between Derry Girls and Channel 4’s Father Ted

The show’s 2 series are available to watch on All4 and it has won a string of awards including Best Scripted Comedy at this year’s Royal Television Society Awards.

Its charm is that it is about a group of four female friends growing up in the 90s in Derry, Northern Ireland, who take a ‘wee English fella’ (actor Dylan Llewellyn plays James pictured far left above) under their wing, describing him as an honorary ‘Derry girl’ by the end of the 2nd series.

The script is sweary and full of colloquial language. Speaking at the BFI IMAX in London at the BFI & Radio Times Television Festival Llewellyn says: ‘At first I didn’t understand any of it. I was like: ‘Who’s Wayne? But ‘wain’ means kid and it’s kind of obvious. ‘Wee’ can mean big or small.’

Fellow Derry Girl Nicola Coughlan, who plays lesbian Clare, adds: ‘A ride can be a noun or a verb. It’s multi-purpose.’

McGee adds: ‘We didn’t have any idea there would be an international audience but for a British audience we chose sayings that were easy to grasp. Scottish people say ‘wee one’ and ‘wain’ comes from that.’

On her inspiration for writing the hit show, she says: I’d never really seen anything that really represented me and my friends. It always seemed to be that boys had all the fun while we were totally uncool, unattractive and complete messes.

‘I always said when I began writing that I would never write about the Troubles because I was so sick of it. My executive producer encouraged me to give it a go because it would be authentic. She was right. I’ve no experience outside of growing up in the Troubles.’

This naturalism extended into portraying the girls on screen as Nicola adds: ‘I want to see someone with a big double chin.’

McGee points out the similarities between the character of Orla and Dougal from Father Ted. She says: ‘Dougal and Orla are very much the character who people consider a bit strange but also has great wisdom.’

Louisa Harland, who plays Orla, says: ‘A lot of people grew up with Ardal O’Hanlon and so to have him on the show was amazing. I think my character very much springs from his part as Dougal in Father Ted.’

Every show must have its counterpoint and here it is Sister Michael, played by the brilliant Siobhan McSweeney, a London theatre regular, who keeps the girls in check at school.

McSweeney says: ‘It’s this wonderful thing that television and art does that makes you feel part of a bigger thing.’

Of her character, she observes: ‘She’s Catholic in name only. She just really likes the costume yet is annoyed by the rules and regulations. She saw a career in the church as an opportunity for free accommodation.

‘I’ve been very lucky that until recently I haven’t been recognised. However, I was at a funeral in Cork and someone wanted a selfie. I thought it must’ve been a mistake but then I was caught again buying socks in the equivalent of Primark.’

The audience asks about the music from the show which includes the Spice Girls, Shampoo and Gina G. McGee says: ‘I definitely didn’t want the music to be cool. I wanted it to be joyful and that’s why Whigfield’s Saturday Night is in there.’

She praises the natural physical comedy of the ‘girls’: ‘Nothing I’ve written is as funny as the 5 of them walking or running together.’

Nicola enjoys the close bond between her character and best friend Erin (played by Saoirse-Monica Jackson, who is also here): ‘Clare and Erin think of themselves as morally superior than other people although, when it comes down to it, they’re actually worse. The heart of the show is that these are friends who really love each other.’

It’s a sentiment best summed up by Llewellyn: ‘Being a Derry girl is a state of mind and it’s emotional when he’s finally accepted as 1.’

  • Picture via Facebook courtesy Derry Girls. Tickets to events like this
  • Enjoyed this review? Follow its author on Twitter @NeilDurham, email neildurham3@gmail.com and check us out on Instagram and Facebook

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