Have you been watching Derry Girls? It’s almost worth having on every Thursday night just for the nostalgic soundtrack. If you grew up in the ‘90s, you’ll recognise it all. And, of course, the standard experiences of a teenage girl: squabbles with your ma, drama on the school bus, run-ins with teachers, devastating crushes and the all-important friendship of girls around you. Yep, Derry Girls is at once deeply Irish and completely universal. If you don’t glimpse something of yourself in the wild, incorrigible youth of the main characters, you’re lying to yourself.
The finale of this sweet, raucous new sitcom is tonight on Channel 4. Three million people tuned into the first episode and by the time that had ended, in less than half an hour, Derry Girls had already been commissioned for a second season. People went mad for it on Twitter and the reviews have been glowing. It’s been delightfully popular, but in that sort of way that means there’s still a chance you’ve missed the whole thing because you’ve been bingeing The End of The F***king World on Netflix.
If you’re not up to speed, it’s set in Derry, Northern Ireland. The protagonist is a typically stroppy 16-year-old girl called Erin, played with unimaginably malleable facial expressions and just the right shrill tone by Saoirse-Monica Jackson. She literally cannot believe her ma won’t let her wear a denim jacket over her school uniform or pay for her school trip to Paris; some of the many little travesties she must endure as an almost-adult. She and her best mates Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) and Clare (Nicola Coughlan), her intrusive cousin Orla (Louisa Harland) and Michelle’s tag-along cousin James (Dylan Llewellyn), the first boy to attend their all-girls school because his family feared for his safety as an English boy in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, get up to mischief, adore one another, rile each other up and grow up alongside one another. They party, they drink, they gossip, they fight, they set things on fire, they rebel, they inhale fish and chips and they navigate that tender, tense time when you’re not quite a girl, not quite a woman.
It’s a tricky thing, setting a comedy in 1990s Northern Ireland. It was a violent, disturbing time – one where bomb scares and armed soldiers boarding the school bus were fairly standard experiences. How, exactly, do you get laughs out of sectarian violence? The creator of Derry Girls, 36-year-old Lisa McGee, knew the challenges of all of this when she set out to write the show. She grew up in Derry around the same time, so she knew the frightening yet everyday nuisance of traffic delays caused by a bomb. In the show, she depicts that experience as more of an inconvenience than a genuinely scary thing – something Erin’s ma and auntie complain about because it means they can’t drive over the bridge to get to their appointments.
Speaking of Erin’s ma and auntie, it is worth mentioning how fabulous the older generations of characters in this show are. It is mostly about the intense friendship between a group of teenage girls and one tag-along guy, but there are some stunning appearances from their parents. Erin and Orla have been given particularly eccentric, charming mothers, both of whom may just be the real heroes of the show (their commitment to Friday night chips, for example, is a real highlight). Erin’s dad and grandfather, and the constant squabbling between them, is also completely lovely. The exasperated head nun at their school is another great character, as is the hot young priest who believes the family dog may have been resurrected. Thrown in together, they’re a mad, fabulous, riotous bunch and it’s quite hard not to be fond of them all.
In Derry Girls, we have a set of stories mainly about young women, written by a young woman. The way Lisa McGee has captured the teenage experience is profoundly relatable, down to The Cranberries posters on the wall and the after-school trips to the pick-n-mix section of the local store. It must be so beautifully familiar to anyone who grew up in Derry, and revelatory for anyone who didn’t. This is proper, charming, original telly that manages to get the experience of being a teenage girl right as well as give us a glimpse into a fraught, dangerous period of history. It’s very clever, rather lovely, and probably worth three hours of our time.
Derry Girls episode 6 is on Channel 4 at 10pm on Thursday, 8th February 2018.