1990s Derry seen through the eyes of a 16-year-old girl

‘Derry Girls’ is a zippy comedy whose teen stars have bigger troubles than the Troubles

Derry Girls. When you’re a teenager living in the shadow of the Troubles, life still goes on. Photograph: Channel 4

Derry Girls. When you’re a teenager living in the shadow of the Troubles, life still goes on. Photograph: Channel 4

 

When Derry Girls (Channel 4 , Thursday, 10pm) began last week, Lisa McGee’s zippy new comedy series featured a terrorist act in its opening moments. Set in mid-1990s Northern Ireland, when bomb threats were no joke, it was a fascinating move for a coming-of-age comedy, a statement of intent.

For one brief second in the hectic home of Erin Quinn (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), family life is stilled by the morning news. But it explodes again immediately afterwards.

“Does this mean they can’t get to school?” frets Erin’s beleaguered mother, Mary (Tara Lynne O’Neill), while her aunt Sarah (the sublime Kathy Kiera Clarke), a wide-eyed ditz, worries about missing her tanning session: “They want ordinary people to suffer.”

It’s a sly joke about growing up at a time of armed conflict, and it becomes sharper when Erin’s school friends assess the talent of the British soldier inspecting their school bus. “Some of them are rides,” reasons Erin’s brassy friend Michelle (Jamie Lee O’Donnell).

When you’re a teenager living in the shadow of the Troubles, life still goes on.

Besides, McGee can find enough conflict in the classroom, the music charts, or the struggle to be an individual without needing to over-amplify any political context. The pleasure of the series so far, directed with vim by Michael Lennox, is too see the world through the eyes of a 16-year-old girl, where finding some privacy, impressing her crush, or rising in popularity stakes are more immediate troubles than possessing a broader sense of the world.

Told to raid their trust funds for a school trip to Paris by a fellow pupil at Our Lady Immaculate College, they get a rude awakening. “According to my ma, we’re actually quite poor,” reports a perturbed Clare (the excellent Nicola Coughlan).

Like her, the show’s relationship with reality can be hard to determine, given to episodic adventures – getting out of detention to go to a gig, scraping together cash for Paris – and screwball twists that feel like nostalgia for a time of simpler formats.

That brings a performance style so cartoonishly exaggerated that Tommy Tiernan stands out, as Erin’s dad, by doing very little, while a guest appearance from Kevin McAleer, master of surreal deadpan, steals the show. 

But his involvement feels like McGee’s witty tribute: while keeping a diary, listening to The Cranberries and Cypress Hill, or watching Murder, She Wrote, Erin might have also seen McAleer on TV in the 1990s, lancing the tedium of the Troubles by simply floating free from them.

Derry Girls has a necessarily different spin. But it’s part of that grand tradition.