'This is like through the f***ing looking glass. How do things work here? This place is so mental!' No, not a day in parliament, London, 2019, but Londonderry, or Derry, in the 1990s. 'Derry Girls', written by Lisa McGee, is a recent winner of the Royal Television Society award for Best Scripted Comedy.
The accolade was for writing that is 'skilful, special and truthful'. It is all of that, but it is a great deal more than comedy, as it reveals to a wide audience not just the humour and warm-heartedness of the Irish family, but also the pain and anxiety of the Troubles at a time when, now, once again Ireland is being referred to as 'a problem'. A Channel 4 News cartoon, for instance, is called 'Why is Ireland holding up Brexit?'. Mary Lou McDonald, leader of Sinn Féin, makes the point when she mentions the English 'disregard for Ireland and Irish interests'. The Good Friday agreement, effective from 1999, resulted from multi-party negotiations and brought a precious stability, which is now being threatened because of Brexit.
The achievement of 'Derry Girls' is to illustrate how it was then, and, through its antics and dialogue, show all of us why it is so important for the Irish on both sides of the border to maintain 'the spirit of peace in normality, the gentleness in the mundanity' and the border as 'a line of imagination' (from the short film 'Hard Border', written by Clare Dwyer Hogg and narrated by Stephen Rae).
The structure of 'Derry Girls', which first aired in 2018 on Channel 4, and has just finished its second season, presents six episodes around the life of five teenagers, living in Derry and attending Our Lady Immaculate College (thinly disguised from reality): Erin, Clare, Michelle and Orla, plus Michelle's cousin James who has been sent over from England for reasons not fully explained. It is James who is quoted at the start of this piece. He's never sure what will happen next – the voice of an outsider who has gone through the looking glass and is not accustomed to bomb threats or armed patrols. Not a lot of explaining goes on in 'Derry Girls', you just have to try and keep up.
It cannot be a coincidence that one of the sponsors of the programme is Great Western Railways, showing the 'Famous Five' outwitting a nefarious criminal. The lives of these five are closely intertwined, with strong friendship bonds – and family relationships of three generations – between all of them. They support and defend each other, for the most part, while held in the embrace of families that try to protect them. They are constantly trying to escape the boundaries, as do all teenagers.
What makes 'Derry Girls' stand out is there is no deferring to male judgement nor to what one might call the 'male gaze' in artistic terms. The girls look outwards and at each other, but they do not look for validation to a male character, and James, for all he is one of their group – 'I'm a lad', he reminds them – is constantly confused. The girls are funny, sweary, confident and definitely up for anything, each one well differentiated in terms of personality and sense of humour. Erin would like life to be inspirational; Clare would like life to be a bit safer and orderly; Michelle would like a boyfriend; Orla is potentially a world explorer of the eccentric variety. James, well, James is a wonderful foil and comes with a large sense of fairness.
One episode covers an outing to join with the Londonderry Boys Academy for a weekend of building bridges ('these are metaphorical bridges, Mammy', to the mother who thinks they all need waterproof clothing), which sees them pairing up with a Protestant (a Prod) each, though there are not enough to go around, so James has to share a 'buddy' with Orla. The theme is trust-building, beginning with asking them all to list the things they have in common (they can think of plenty of differences, eg Protestants keep toasters in cupboards, and Catholics keep coal in the bath) but similarities escape them.
The challenge of the weekend is abseiling over a cliff, each trusting a 'buddy' of the different religion not to let go of the rope. Currently in the UK news there is a lot of talk about the EU 'cliff edge', and although 'Derry Girls' is not overtly political it is easy to interpret trust-building among different interest groups (of kids) as a timeless concept more needed now than ever (by grown-ups) for preventing a free-fall.
Domestic scenes in the Quinn household often depict the television news on in the background, where it is being reported that, for instance, there is the possibility of peace talks but that Ian Paisley declares he will 'never sit down' at the table with Sinn Féin. How reminiscent of today's Labour leader who refused to sit down and talk with a group that he considers traitors to the party line, or, indeed, other politicians who do not engage with each other.
Little comment is made about the news in the show; it is just always there, a reminder that Derry is living constantly on edge. It is through the eyes of the parents that this comes across. The kids take it in their stride to have the army board the bus to school (just checking). Another time, as they walk along together, the camera quietly pans across the spectre of an armed patrol (keeping the peace) but the kids pay it no serious attention. The presence of the military is part of their lives.
Just as building bridges was a metaphor, the episode called 'The Concert' can be read almost in its entirety as a metaphor for life in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Take That is giving a concert in Belfast (two hours away by coach and considered by all parents as virtually another country, unknown and dangerous) and the five are absolutely dying to go. It is a huge event in their lives. 'Nobody good ever comes here because we keep killing each other.'
The moment when their parents are reluctantly giving consent, the newsreader announces that a polar bear has escaped from Belfast Zoo. Despite all pleas, the parents cancel the trip (though they have tickets). Because of a polar bear? These are parents who on a daily basis face anxiety every time their children leave the house; this marauding monster is at least something tangible from which they can protect their children. All the pent-up fears can be focused on something which, if not real or present danger, is at least 'out there'. It presents an opportunity to pretend to themselves that there is something they can do, while the rest of the time feeling helpless. Not that they ever say this. It is just there in an edginess, a feeling that things could at any moment go wrong, if, for instance, you don't do a full load of wash on laundry day.
Of course they go, lying through their teeth in the usual fashion by saying they are spending the night at each other's houses. On the coach to Belfast with them is a red suitcase of bottles of vodka (Michelle's contribution, with mixers: 'we're not savages'). Also with them, from the next stop, however, is their head teacher, Sister Michael (she of the wry remarks, reading 'The Exorcist'), who doubts very much that this trip is about research for a history project and asks who owns the suitcase. They have to deny it is theirs, and as it is unclaimed Sister Michael calls in a 'code red alert'. The next frame is of the red suitcase – with its promise of a wild night out for teens – lying in the road being approached by a small army robot, with spoken commands (English accent) off camera.
One really feels for this innocent suitcase. But destroy it they do, to the consternation of the girls (and James) resulting in a strong smell of vodka, commented on by the voices off camera on army walkie-talkies. Michelle, who is furious, places the blame for it all – everything – on the nearby soldier, or 'Milk Tray Man', as she refers to him. This is a clever reference to the James Bond type character in the Cadbury's adverts of the 1990s, who risks his life, leaps on to moving trains, scales buildings, all to deliver… chocolates. Here, instead, we have the machismo (the stance, the outfit, the beret), the equipment (guns and robots) to… blow up a suitcase of vodka for a Take That concert. It's almost a send up.
Back at home, anxious mothers discover the deceit, but not until the five reach the concert in Belfast. Erin's da sees them all on the television, hysterically happy teens at the front of the stage, but he is telling no one, as he smiles to himself. At the heart of 'Derry Girls' is the strong sense of the Irish family. 'It represents a typical Irish household, with the extended family living together, with the mother at the heart of the home, the home-maker. There is the humour and the generous spirit, where nothing was too much trouble', says my friend in Northern Ireland.
The way it's been written is exceptional, because it highlights and explains just how people got on with their everyday lives, even with the mayhem which was occurring on the streets. The humour and how people used this to counter-balance the hardships of those times is exactly how I remember it. Things that in a normal society would not have been tolerated were just treated as ordinary occurrences. The beauty of the story is that it portrays how Derry people have a resilience and ability to see the humour in the worst of situations.
'Derry Girls' references the music of the times, the cinema, current events, and weaves them into a story that is both funny and affecting, sometimes at the same time. While the five are dancing their hearts out at a school performance, their parents are at home standing silently together watching the news of a lethal bomb explosion. The kids write essays on 'finding myself'; they experiment with poetry; they attempt to understand their sexual identities; they explore life with enthusiasm. Equally as important to the story are the parents, each one of whom is individually drawn, they also have stories to tell, and it is against the security provided by this family life that the risks are taken by the kids. There may be a whirlwind out there, but home is secure.
Under the direction of Michael Lennox, and with extraordinary camera work, these four 'girls' (and a bloke) – and the others who play their families, teachers, schoolmates and all the rest – are amazing actors who together create an ensemble, telling a story that reaches well beyond Derry. It makes it clear, by contrast of then and now, that since 1999 the Irish have reached across the invisible border – long grassed over, checkpoints closed, roadblocks discarded – and created an identity that is critical to a way of life and essential to the future of Ireland.