Derry Girls is back for another lighthearted look at life during the conflict in the North, writes Georgia Humphreys.
YOU know a TV programme has been a hit when a huge mural of its cast is unveiled in the city it’s set in. And that’s not the only measure of Derry Girls’ mighty success.
Following its launch at the start of 2018, it became Channel 4’s highest-rated comedy for over a decade.
Inspired by the experiences of Derry-born creator Lisa McGee — who has also penned dramas Jump and Raw — the candid family-centred show follows 16-year-old wannabe writer Erin, played by Saoirse-Monica Jackson, and her friends as they grow up in the 1990s during the Troubles.
We caught up with Jackson and some of her co-stars — Louisa Harland, Nicola Coughlan and Dylan Llewellyn — about returning for series two. With the show becoming a phenomenon not just at home but also worldwide since landing on Netflix, it is fair to say there were some nerves ahead of reading the new scripts.
“I was petrified we were going to come back completely different,” says Derry native Jackson.
But there was no reason to be worried.
“We got into the swing of it straightaway,” says Llewellyn, the actor behind James, the English cousin of party-loving Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), who has the misfortune of being the only boy at an all-girls convent school.
“We are so comfortable, we know each other so well now.”
Other than more mad antics, what can we expect from the new episodes?
“Derry at that time, there’s a lot of stories to tell,” says Jackson, “and Lisa has definitely got braver with her writing.”
“Siobhan McSweeney (who plays Sister Michael) said it’s like series one was amazing, but series two is like everything in Technicolor,” says Galway-born Coughlan, who portrays Clare — arguably the most sensible member of the gang.
When it comes to the impact these roles have had on the lives of the down-to-earth stars, who were all relatively unknown before Derry Girls, Llewellyn says it hasn’t really sunk in yet.
“The weirdest was Louisa and I went to New York two to three weeks ago and we walked into a pub and the girl behind the bar went, ‘My girl Orla!’ and came over and hugged us both and sent us shots,” recalls a giggly Coughlan.
There are many memorable lines from the first series and the cast have all experienced people shouting out quotes to them.
“I’d say for Jamie-Lee it’s definitely the weirdest because it’s: ‘Slainte motherf***ker’ being shouted at nine o’clock in the morning, walking back from the gym,” shares Jackson with a chuckle.
“I get grannies and mums wanting to give me a hug because Clare is like the kid you wish you had,” says Coughlan. “She’s very studious and dresses like a giant baby, and something resonates with the mums and the grannies.”
“People call me a dick,” quips Llewellyn, whose character often gets picked on by his female friends. “But I embrace it.”
The characters are shown living through the Northern Ireland conflict, and seeing armed police roaming the streets, and British Army checkpoints on the way to school is, for many, an unimaginable situation.
It’s also a period of history not particularly touched on in British schools. “The Troubles was all we learned in history, it was shoved down our throats, we learned all about it,” says Dubliner Harland when asked if they’re shocked to hear some viewers weren’t educated on the conflict. “I was so surprised that wasn’t touched on majorly in the rest of the UK’s schools.”
Coughlan agrees: “Dylan and I will go on Twitter and check the responses and see what people are saying, and people are being like, ‘I knew nothing about the Troubles and now I’ve fallen down a Wikipedia hole’. It’s amazing the show has opened that up. It’s a real pity that it’s not taught [across Britain].”
Jackson says the Troubles isn’t widely part of the Northern Irish education system either.
“Obviously, you’re taught it from living there and your surroundings,” she says. “So it’s great to have a voice of the North on the TV. There’s not many shows from the North, and never mind for this story to be told in a humorous light.”
Not only is the show pioneering in the way it shines a light on such a turbulent period of recent history, it’s also been applauded for being a female-led show.
The fact they are representing just how funny women can be is something the cast is clearly proud of.
“Filming this season we shot a scene that had 11 women-speaking parts in one scene, which has never been done before in a comedy,” says Harland.
The kinds of characters they play are refreshing to see on screen, too, and there are elements they recognise in their younger selves.
“Like not caring so much about what you look like, and not caring so much about what you say or caring about what other people think,” says Harland.
“That want, as well, to be heard, and that want to be individual,” says Jackson.
Derry Girls returns to Channel 4 next Tuesday, March 5