How the Creator of “Derry Girls” Found Humor in a Troubled Time

The house where Lisa McGee grew up, in Derry, in Northern Ireland, sits on the bank of the River Foyle, near a largely Catholic neighborhood known as the Bogside. In 1969, the Bogside was the site of a three-day conflict. Residents hurled projectiles and petrol bombs; they were met with tear gas and batons. The violence spread to other cities and towns, and ultimately resulted in hundreds of injuries and a number of deaths. British troops were called in to Derry—the beginning of a long-term military operation. The conflict, known as the Battle of the Bogside, marked what many would call the start of the Troubles, which dominated Northern Irish politics for roughly three decades. In 1972, violence flared in the Bogside again. More than a dozen civilians were killed by soldiers in a massacre known as Bloody Sunday.

By the time McGee was growing up in Derry, in the eighties and nineties, it was not unusual to find a British soldier patrolling her street. Bomb threats were a commonplace disruption of daily life. “You remember the things that are sort of funny,” McGee told me recently. Once, there was a bomb scare in a shopping center, and her mother pushed to the front of the queue, exasperated. Sometimes, McGee recalled, the radio equipment carried by the troops interfered with her family’s television set. When “Coronation Street,” the longtime British soap opera, was on, McGee would be sent outside to ask if the soldier couldn’t move down a wee bit to improve the transmission. “Most of the time, they’d say, ‘Yeah, fine,’ ” she said. “They were around so much that you had to just get on with it, and sort of think, Probably nothing’s going to happen today, like most days.”

The stuff that happens most days—the hijinks, the stupid jokes—is at the heart of McGee’s show “Derry Girls,” which just completed its third and final season on Channel 4 in the U.K., and will be returning later this year to Netflix in the U.S. Rambunctious and high-spirited, the series draws heavily on McGee’s formative years, following a group of teen-agers at an all-girls Catholic school in Derry at the tail end of the Troubles. It has been a surprising smash hit for Channel 4; Season 1 became Northern Ireland’s most popular show on modern record. In Derry, where it has been a tourism boon, there are “Derry Girls”-themed teas and cocktails, and there’s a thirty-foot mural of the show’s stars. The Guardian called it a “cultural juggernaut.”

Part rapid-fire sitcom, part giddy teen drama, the show manages to be both irreverent and feel-good against a backdrop of violence. It features a nostalgic soundtrack heavy on the Cranberries, and plotlines about exams, the school talent show, and a priest with exceptionally good hair. The main character, Erin, is McGee’s stand-in: Her father is a truck driver, like McGee’s was, and her mother works in a shop. She has a tight-knight group of friends, including the boisterous Michelle, the neurotic Clare, and the spacey Orla. Michelle’s cousin, “the wee English lad” James, joins the crew for fear of being bullied at the boys’ school. Erin wants to be a writer, like McGee did as a teen-ager; she keeps notes in a diary, but has no idea how to get there. She’s going to blow out of this town one day, but she’s also quite happy at home, cracking jokes with her friends. “I always felt that,” McGee told me.

Unusually for a comedy in which every other line is a gag, there is no writers’ room on “Derry Girls.” There is no improvisation. McGee is the show’s creator and its only writer, as well as an executive producer, and she transmits the slight surreality of Derry with ease. In the pilot episode, Erin’s aunt, Sarah, worries about not being able to get to her tanning appointment because of a bomb threat on the bridge. (“It’s gonna play havoc on my buildup,” she says, alarmed.) Pauline Moore, who grew up in Derry and co-hosts the “Talking Derry Girls” podcast, told me, “It was just the kind of thing people would have said at home.” The actor Liam Neeson, who grew up Catholic in Northern Ireland, and was turned on to the show by Helen Mirren, makes a cameo in the third season. In an e-mail, he called the show “addictive viewing: hilariously funny and at times deeply touching.” “The originality of the subject matter could really only come from an extraordinary mind,” he wrote.

There’s an unspoken rule in Derry that, if something didn’t happen to you personally, you’ve got no business complaining about it. “I think there’s sort of layers of trauma that we haven’t even looked in the eye at home,” McGee told me. Old tensions still threaten to break through. Last month, Sinn Féin, the historically nationalist party in favor of a united Ireland, won the largest share of votes for the first time since Northern Ireland’s formation. In response, the Democratic Unionist Party, or D.U.P., which backs remaining in the U.K., declined to vote for a speaker, effectively leaving Northern Ireland without a functional government. The Northern Ireland Protocol, the result of contentious Brexit negotiations by Boris Johnson’s government, has proved difficult and divisive.

McGee told me she often thinks that, if someone else had written “Derry Girls,” it might have been a very different show. “If you were, like, a serious filmmaker, or whatever, you could have had the same experience as me exactly, and it could be really, like, dark, bleak.” She lowered her voice for dramatic effect. “ ‘These girls at this school and everything was, you know, shit.’ Which might also have been really good,” she conceded. “It’s just how you look at the world, isn’t it? I always find stuff funny, and I always lean towards that.”

The very first episode of “Derry Girls” begins with an invasion of privacy. Erin’s cousin Orla has found Erin’s diary, and she’s reading it aloud in Erin’s bedroom while Erin sleeps. “My name is Erin Quinn,” Orla reads, blithely. “I’m sixteen years old, and I come from a place called Derry, or Londonderry, depending on your persuasion, a troubled little corner in the northwest of Ireland.” There are shots of Derry’s historic city walls, armed soldiers on patrol, and a line of little girls in white following a nun. “It’s fair to say I have a somewhat complicated relationship with my home town,” Orla continues. “The thing about living in Derry is, there’s nowhere to hide. Everybody knows everybody, knows everything about everybody, and sometimes all I really want is to be simply left alone.” Then Erin wakes up. “Is that my diary?” she says.

When McGee goes to Derry now, she runs into someone she knows—or the sister of someone she knows, or the aunt, or the cousin, or the brother—at every stop. Not long ago, I spent the day walking the city with McGee, and word of her presence in town travelled fast. At the corner store that was the inspiration for Dennis’s Wee Shop in the show, she ran into someone who grew up on her block. At the pub, we received word that, apparently, the mayor wanted to invite us over for a private drink. (She made her apologies.) At the “Derry Girls” mural, several people asked for a photo. (She obliged). One young woman had been a student at Thornhill College, McGee’s alma mater, and the basis for the school the characters attend in the show.

McGee is forty-one and tall, with shoulder-length auburn hair. She speaks with a strong Derry accent, frequently swapping “yes” for “aye,” and loves an anecdote. For the past few years, she has lived in Belfast with her husband, the English actor Tobias Beer, and their two young sons. When she returned to Northern Ireland from London, where she had been living for more than a decade, she chose Belfast in part for the anonymity it offered her. Derry has a population of more than a hundred thousand people, but it can feel much smaller. It’s the kind of place where family members are always picking each other up or dropping each other off somewhere in town. When I visited, McGee’s father popped up at intervals to give her a lift, claiming that it was no bother at all.

At the Everglades Hotel, where McGee often stays when filming the show, we sat down for a “Derry Girls”-themed tea with McGee’s mother, Ann. McGee was wearing a black sweater and had fluorescent orange nails; Ann wore a floral dress and a gold necklace that read, faintly, “DerryGirl.” The tea came with sandwiches filled with potato chips and butter—a Derry specialty—and a platter of cream horns, a cone-shaped pastry that Erin’s grandfather uses in one episode to court a woman. (“What were you doing heading up Pump Street with a cream horn, Da?” Erin’s mother asks, suspiciously.) Ann told me that, as a child, McGee was obsessed with “The Wizard of Oz.” She ran around with a gang of cousins, pretending to be part of a detective agency. They had badges laminated with tape and snooped around people’s gardens solving “crimes.” “She was making wee stories up from no age at all,” Ann said.

When McGee was around five or six, a group of men hijacked her father’s truck, and held him up at gunpoint. They released him unharmed. Another time, Ann’s mother ended up in the hospital after a bomb blast. “Stuff was happening, and I had no idea,” McGee said. Ann told me that the I.R.A. once commandeered a nearby house and used it as a lookout for British soldiers. McGee, looking for a friend who lived there, knocked at the house’s door, and her friend’s mother told her to go away. Ann then went to the house demanding an explanation, and was also told to leave. Then Ann’s father, also offended, threatened to go to the house as well. They only found out what was happening later. McGee laughed, thinking about it: “These gunmen just watching these mad people coming to the door!”

She developed an eye for Derry’s quirks. “I remember people having conversations, even really young, and thinking, This is weird,” she said. She recalled going to an Irish wake with an open coffin. “The body’s just there, and people are saying things like, ‘Oh, she’s looking well. She looks lovely,’ ” she said. “And you’re, like, She’s dead. She’s looking dead. Even as a tiny kid, going that’s funny.” She found the nuns at her all-girls Catholic school fascinating. “What I loved about it was they were really strict, so you didn’t have to do that much to rebel,” she said. She had a close group of friends who were always in trouble. At mass, if someone’s chair squeaked, there would be a “sort of wave effect of that setting hundreds of girls off,” she said. “I find it really funny when you absolutely can’t laugh at something,” she told me. “And I’ve always found women funnier, I think because that’s who I knew.”

McGee began writing plays as a teen-ager, casting her friends and borrowing space from a local arts center. She wrote one about a group of girls who botched a robbery, and another about two friends obsessed with Marilyn Monroe. “We were quite young and ballsy,” Shauna Bray, a friend of McGee’s, and an inspiration for Michelle on the show, told me. At eighteen, McGee and Bray left home to study drama at Queen’s University Belfast, where they partied hard. “First year was, like, ‘Oh, we’re in Belfast! We don’t have any parents? We’re gonna go mad!’ And we did,” Bray said. “Literally, all of our student loan—we just drank it. We drank the whole thing. And we used to be sitting, counting out the pennies for food.”

McGee discovered that she was a terrible actor but a good playwright. At Queen’s, she wrote “Jump,” a dark comedy set in Derry, and put it on above a pub. “That was the best thing I ever did,” she told me. After “Jump,” which was turned into a film in 2012, she gained an agent, and an attachment at the National Theatre in London. She moved to the city at twenty-four, hung out with a group of Northern Irish writers and actors, and wrote a show based on the experience, “London Irish.” “It was about a group of twentysomethings that come to London and they’re just terrible,” she told me. “I feel like there was a time in, certainly, my life, and my friends’ lives, when we were just running around London getting in trouble.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *