"We’re The Beatles in Derry."
Talking friendship, Brexit and Blue WKDs with the cast of Derry Girls
At the end of the first series of Derry Girls, the adult cast of the show huddle around a television, watching coverage of a deadly IRA bomb.
It is not intended to be any real life incident in particular, but instead symbolic of the violence and fear of The Troubles in the early 1990s.
That’s not the real end of the episode, though. Instead it sees five teenage leads awkwardly dancing on a school stage to Madonna, Napoleon Dynamite-style. Because that is what Derry Girls is really about.
Yes, it portrays an era that suffered through tension and terrorism. But, like anywhere, people still went about their lives. People in Derry during The Troubles grew up, got old, fell in love, got drunk, had fun and did all the other things everyone does, no matter where they come from.
Debuting in 2018 to high ratings and critical acclaim, Derry Girls is a show about four teenage girls and an English cousin coming of age in the early 1990s. It is honest, funny and relatable, despite being set against decade of violence in Northern Ireland. The real genius of the show is that it feels like a gender-swapped Inbetweeners first, and a programme dealing with issues second.
And just like any ensemble comedy, Derry Girls lives or dies on the chemistry of the cast.
Straight out of the gate in the first episode, the show gave us four fully-formed characters who felt like they had spent their whole lives hanging out and arguing with each other. The arrival of Michelle’s English cousin James was an ideal audience entry-point into their world.
Meeting them in real life, they feel like a four-person human tornado. They are loud, rowdy, funny and exactly how you’d want them to be. Nicola Coughlan (Clare) instantly befriends everyone. Louisa Harland (Orla) somehow keeps up with her. Saoirse-Monica Jackson (Erin) is ever-so slightly uptight. Dylan Llewellyn (James, the token English lad), is adorable and too polite to complain about the slightly disappointing bagel he has just been given.
Missing is Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, who plays Michelle, is currently in a production of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan.
The group met during the long, six month casting phase – Jackson describes it as “gruelling” - and quickly formed genuine friendships.
“Me and Louisa made the stupid decision to start going out for pints together before we were even cast,” says Jackson. “Which would have been extremely awkward if one of us had got it, and the other one hadn’t.”
Coughlan says she bonded with Harland when she spotted her Kanye West iPhone case and they began chatting about the Kardashians.
“Whenever people see us out and about together, in a pub, they ask if we hang out in real life,” says Coughlan. “So I’ve started telling people that Channel 4 give us £50 every time we spend time together!”
As she says it she looks at the Channel 4 representative in the room. Coughland and Harland start chanting “Fifty quid! Fifty quid!”. The rep smiles sheepishly, probably hoping that they don’t actually have to put the proposal to their bosses.
The quintet lived in close proximity while filming in Belfast - the show was shot in the Northern Irish capital as well as filming on location in Derry. “We all lived in the same apartment block so there was a lot of wine drinking in each others flats,” says Coughlan.
Did they have any wild nights after shooting wrapped for the day?
“No comment, but there were a lot of antics,” answers Jackson, to which Llewllyn whispers: “Nicola damaged something.” No more information on such incident is divulged.
Being the lone boy in this girl gang, Llwellyn says he “did miss some male company," but “the girls really took me under their wing. They are like sisters”.
Coughlan has a different version of events: “We kept Dyl separate from us in a different block in our apartment, with water dripping on him to drive him slowly insane.”
However, the girls were shocked by Llewellyn’s taste in alcohol. “The first weekend we lived in Belfast, I was in the shop and rang him to ask if he wanted any drink,” Coughlan explains. “He asked for a Blue WKD, and I was mortified! I was at the check-out and I was like, I can’t pay for this! I haven’t drunk that since I was like 17! It was a very stressful moment.”
“They converted me to Guinness,” Llewellyn admits. “I’m not a big drinker, I barely drink, so I only like sweet stuff, or cocktails. I like a white Russian, I’m a bit of a dude.” His smiles as he says this is entirely unconvincing.
While the political and historical context of Derry Girls has understandably received much attention, the show is also quietly revolutionary in another way. It is a show with a mostly female ensemble, one that gets to be filthy and funny and unrepentant, and that was a big appeal for the cast.
“That’s one of its strong elements for sure,” says Harland. “We had a scene where we filmed with eleven women and they all had speaking parts. I think that’s a record in a comedy.”
“It was insane,” continue Coughlan. “I looked around the room and though, holy shit, I’ve never seen this many in a room in a comedy. It was class.”
Derry Girls was created by Northern Irish writer Lisa McGee, who made her name on big budget prestige dramas like BBC One’s The White Queen and Channel 4’s Indian Summer, as well as the cult BBC Three urban fantasy Being Human.
Derry Girls is based on her experience growing up in Northern Ireland’s second biggest city, which sits close to the Irish border, in the years before the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.
By presenting it not as a history lesson, but as a universal tale of growing up, it has managed to reach an audience naïve to Ireland’s past. “It's not the main intention behind the show, Lisa just wrote it about her childhood and that what was going on at the time,” says Coughlan. “Dylan and I are real Twitter lurkers, and we’ve seen so many people already around saying that they didn’t know anything about The Troubles and now they do.”
It has been particularly enlightening for English-born Llewellyn, she says: “They don’t teach that in UK schools, ever, and I think its mad. They’re our next door neighbours, and we should know about that stuff. It’s been a real eye-opening experience.”
“Also for us it’s a learning curve, as we grew up down south,” says Coughlan – she is from Galway, and Harland is from Dublin.
“We took it for granted that we didn’t have anything to prove, really, how much you have to fight for your identity there,” Harland adds.
It was a whole different experience for Jackson, though, who like the show’s creator is also a Derry native. “What’s most important is that it sheds a positive light on the north of Ireland, and its’s done in a medium that’s never been done before,” she says proudly. “[Growing up], It was hard to feel that there was someone who represented you on TV, to where you were from, honestly. I know Lisa felt that way as well.”
She adds that the show is breaking old perceptions about her home town:“We’re not occupied, there’s no British soldiers patrolling the streets anymore, and I remember that when I was younger. We’ve come a long way, it’s not like that anymore. It doesn’t have a tense atmosphere, but people still think it’s like that now, and that’s the biggest misconception.”
And judging by the response from the people in Derry, it has the show has gone down pretty well. "It’s been so nice, especially at home," says Jackson. "You feel like everybody wants to tell you their funny stories and their memories of the 1990s, which makes for a great night out."
"It’s incredible. We’re the Beatles in Derry," adds Harland.
At the time of writing, the future of the Irish Border post-Brexit is completely up in the air. As Theresa May and the Conservatives continue to bicker about a backstop, all the progress since the period the show is set in could potentially be undone.
“I think it’s great that it has educated people about that time, especially in the times we are going through now,” says Harland. “I hate even talking about Brexit, but I think our show is a reminder that we don’t want to go back to that time.”
“I’m really worried about it. It’s awful,” continues Coughlan. “I think it’s quite clear a lot of people that voted for Brexit didn’t know what they were voting for. It’s very depressing when you think about how unstable it could make things for people in Northern Ireland, and how good things have been the since the peace process.”
At its heart, Derry Girls is still a show about gobby teenage girls, not The Troubles. “The joke is that it is not referenced that much,” say Harland. “People did get on with their lives. [In the third episode], when we were on our way to school we were more interested in if the soldiers are good looking or not. Lisa McGee is so clever with that.”
And no matter what the political situation of a given time and place is, teenagers are always going to be distracted by attractive people.
Derry Girls is on Channel 4, Tuesdays at 9.15pm. It is also available on All4.