'It's bleak, that's why you laugh': Derry Girls' Siobhán McSweeney puts on a happy face

Siobhán McSweeney tells Ed Power how months spent cocooning in London made her fall in love with Samuel Beckett again, the challenges of her new role as a television presenter and how a trip home to Cork at Christmas gave her a much-needed boost

Siobhán McSweeney. Picture: Moya Nolan

On Saturday, January 30, Siobhán McSweeney will stand all alone in front of the world. The Cork actor is to appear in a special, audience-free performance of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, to be live-streamed from the Olympia Theatre in Dublin. The Derry Girls and Great Pottery Throw Down star is nervous and excited – all the emotions at once, really.

“How in God’s name did I end up doing a play about a woman stuck up to her waist in a mound and forced to go through the same day over and over,” she says of the production, in which she will play Winnie opposite Marty Rea’s taciturn (and largely off-stage) Willie. “I don’t know what popped in my head at all – no external circumstances.” Beckett is the perfect artist to help us negotiate the pandemic, she feels. His work is concerned with the passage of time, the nature of existence, the inner workings of the human mind. All themes with which we are presently wrestling in our day to day lives.

“Just because there’s a huge intellect doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of fart jokes,” is her take on Beckett. “I think his legacy has been commandeered by humourless people who equate seriousness with joyousness and who hide behind ignorance, really. You can’t be solemn when you’re doing a fart joke. The themes in Beckett are extraordinarily bleak. That’s why you laugh.” She fell in love all over again with Beckett and Happy Days while cocooning in London during the first lockdown last March. McSweeney suffers from asthma and was designated as at risk as the pandemic struck.

And so she locked herself away from the world. One of her few contacts was director Caitríona McLaughlin (with whom she collaborates on the upcoming Olympia performance).

‘We started once a week taking out Happy Days and reading it,” says McSweeney. “We would do it together. Beckett is great art. It gets you out of yourself into that communal space. Once a week myself and Caitríona would “Zoom” and go through it.” In another place and time, McSweeney would have been preparing to shoot season three of Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls. The series was an immediate sensation when it debuted in 2018 and, as deadpan Sister Michael, McSweeney was a break-out star.

“It’s great fun– such a joy to do,” she says. “When you’re filming, you’re getting up to the same mischief that you get to in the script. We’re all sort of old hands at it now. The first series, I was a bit nervous about it. The second one consolidated what we were doing and was a big richer.” McSweeney was obviously thrilled Derry Girls proved such hit. But she hadn’t taken it for granted that it would find an audience. She’d work with McGee previously on London Irish – a 2013 sitcom about Irish immigrants in London described by one reviewer as “the sick-com that’s too try-hard to genuinely shock”.

“There’s no rhyme or reason,” says McSweeney. “You hope something will connect with the audience. London Irish didn’t. Derry Girls did. It’s a stupid industry really. Perhaps it’s to do with timing – who knows?” Derry Girls turned McSweeney into the classic overnight success after more than a decade and a half appearing on stage and screen (one of her early roles was in Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley).

And it has opened doors she would previously have never imagined knocking on. Early last year, the Derry Girls cast were invited to participate in a seasonal special episode of the Great British Bake Off. McSweeney’s cake was a bit of a disaster but Love Productions, which makes the show for Channel 4, were impressed by her empathy and likability. Which is how she came to be unveiled as the presenter of its other big C4 reality romp, the Great Pottery Throw Down (think Bake Off only with clay).

McSweeney made her debut presenting the show on January 10. The reviews have been ecstatic. “A fabulous new presenter,” said the Daily Telegraph. “She blends the wit and warmth of the pairing in one handy package,” agreed the Guardian.

“I may be wrong but I think Bake Off was one of the first productions to film in the pandemic. They drew up covid protocols which I would imagine will become the industry standard now. They developed this incredibly failsafe structure to help the crew go out and work. We have to adapt to these circumstances. I was made feel really secure.” Filming at Stoke-on-Trent’s Gladstone Pottery Museum over the summer, meant she could finally leave her flat too. “It got me out of London,” she nods. “I love London. But I’m a country girl. I love London because I can escape to Cork every month.

“You’d be mad in the head to spend all your time indoors. To get to go to the Staffordshire countryside which is very beautiful and near the Peak District – and an idyll. It was perfect. The perfect antidote to that very tough lockdown. The whole gig was a joy from start to finish.

She’d never presented TV before. “It found it quite hard,” she nods. “I’m still not sure… it IS hard. A different skill set. It was nerve-wracking because I hadn’t done it previously. At the same time, they set it up so as to allow me to muck around and have a bit of craic.” During the shoot over the summer the entire production had to form a bubble. This fostered a togetherness that she appreciated after so many months on her own. “It was genuinely very warm. Obviously I’ve nothing to compare it to. But the pandemic and the circumstances forced upon us by the pandemic created a real sense of family.” Landing the gig was, she says, “absolutely bonkers”. 

“I’m an actor. This isn’t something I have angled for at all. I’m incredibly grateful for it. I enjoyed it as well. It’s telly. It’s not Beckett. And also it’s NOT Beckett.” During filming, she tried to put herself in the shoes of the contestants and to be on their side. “They were nervous enough. So I had to hide how scared I was,” she says. “Fake it ’til you make it, as they say.” 

McSweeney grew up in Aherla, a village half way between Cork and Macroom (it’s 20 KM from each). Aherla is a substantial commuting centre today. But in the Eighties, when she was a kid, it was tiny – she was of only eight in her primary school class. “It was a very small village when I was growing up. So many more people live there now than when I was child.” Show business wasn’t in her family. Her father was a civil servant working in customs and excise her mother (who has since passed) worked in social welfare and later in marketing.

“I always wanted to do acting. However, I didn’t think I could do it. It was only when I moved to London that I met people whose parents had encouraged them to go into acting. Whose parents supported when they said they wanted to act. I was naturally ignored [when telling her family of her ambitions] and told to continue my studies.” She went on to UCC where she studied biological and chemical sciences. But by then she had accepted that a steady career in industry wasn’t for her.

“I did speech and drama when I was very young, which I adored,” she says. “And then I did Activate Youth Theatre [based at that time out of Pope’s Quay in the City Centre]. It was great. Quite a few Irish actors did it: Orla Fitzgerald and Eileen Walsh, too. It was brilliant brilliant training – stuff that I’m using now for a lot of presenting stuff, funnily enough. The idea of play, of improvisation and group work.” At UCC she threw herself into the drama society: the “Dramat”. 

“You couldn’t get me out of the Granary [Theatre],” she says. “If my family wondered where I was, I certainly wasn’t in lectures. They would call into the Granary. That’s where I would be.” There was no drama course in UCC at the time. And so performers with the “Dramat” were on stage purely for the love of it. This wasn’t course work – it was young people expressing themselves at any cost.

“It was sort of a golden era. I was finishing off essays back stage and asking someone to run over to the Zoology Department to hand them in. We had to make sacrifices because it meant [so much] to us. We were putting our grades in jeopardy. You had a lot of very passionate people who knew what they were sacrificing.” She missed Cork terribly during 2020. And so, after self-isolating for the required length of time, she was delighted to be able to visit home for Christmas.

“This pandemic is the longest I’ve been away,” she says. “I was incredibly lucky. Because myself and Caitríona started work on this project in December it meant I was on the island and, between the jigs and the reels, was able to go down to Cork for Christmas. And to spend Christmas Day and Stephen’s Day with my family, which was extraordinary. Really, really extraordinary. And which really gave me the bolster I needed to get through this January.” 

With its largely female cast, Derry Girls is often produced as evidence of how far small screen comedy has come from the bad old days when only men were allowed to tell jokes. McSweeney is however slightly fed up with hearing how the show “breaks all the rules” by putting the female experience front and centre. She mentions Sharon Horgan’s Pulling as another example. And also, slightly surprisingly, Angela Lansbury in Murder She Wrote (this may have something to do with all the box sets she’s binged during lockdown).

“Hold onto your hat – but look at Murder She Wrote,” she says. “It was the most extraordinary, female-led… look at the age of the woman. Look at her, she has women of a certain age being femme fatales, being seductresses, being murders. Being every sort of leading cliche that you can possibly imagine.

“Not every story holds up. But when you consider this was mainstream, prime time viewing. So it [female representation] has been there all along. It’s not that it’s not out there. It’s that companies don’t build on the success. Hopefully, when we have yet again proven that female-driven stories can do it, can tick all the boxes. So TV productions companies need to build on that. Rather than say, ‘well we’ve done that now – that’s our one for the year. Let’s go back to the old formula’.” 

“Every generation thinks they have discovered feminism,” she says. “Sharon Horgan’s first sitcom with Dennis Kelly was Pulling. It’s not as if the scripts aren’t out there. It’s not as if people haven’t been doing it. It’s either that the audience haven’t been ready perhaps. Or perhaps that the infrastructure of production companies hasn’t been.

“It’s exhausting – this argument that female-led productions don’t generate money. Which of course is the most important thing to the big man in the top office. We’ve proven repeatedly that they make loads of money. The issue is the culture within production companies which have their own problems – and which do not trust their own audiences.” 

  • Happy Days is presented by Olympia Theatre and Landmark Productions and it is supported by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media as part of the Pilot Live Performance Support Scheme which was awarded to the Olympia. Happy Days will be broadcast LIVE from the Olympia Theatre on 30 January Tickets on sale now from www.olympia.ie and Ticketco The Great Pottery Throw Down continues to Channel 4 Sundays at 7.45pm.

Photography by Moya Nolan at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin. 

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