When Lisa McGee was a kid in Derry in the 1990s, she swore she would never write about Northern Ireland, least of all about the Troubles. She wanted to write Murder She Wrote, or better still, to grow up and become its heroine, the author turned detective Jessica Fletcher. "I just thought her life was class. She lived in this beautiful place and she wrote novels really easily because she had all this time to solve murders as well."
Now McGee (40) has got the fairytale for real that Jessica Fletcher had on screen, minus the murders. “Taxi drivers and Sainsbury’s delivery men will go: ‘Are you the Lisa McGee that writes Derry Girls?’ And I’ll have come to the door in my pyjamas. Occasionally in Murder She Wrote, someone would come over and go: ‘Are you the Jessica Fletcher? And now it’s like that for me.”
In case you haven’t seen it, Derry Girls, set in the mid-1990s, is technically a sitcom, but “dramedy” feels closer. Five working-class teenage girls create a tight, effervescent ensemble, getting into scrapes. It will lose a bit in the translation when I say they set fire to things, steal things, get impossible crushes, fall foul of nuns – it sounds slapstick, because it is, but there’s a depth to the characters and a bossy, hard-bitten tenderness in the family dynamics that add layers to the comedy. It took months to cast them, since their chemistry is so important. Plus, McGee says: “I really wanted them to feel like girls from Derry, not people doing accents. There’s a punk attitude to teenage girls in Derry. They’ve got a very bold sense of humour. They’re fearless. You have to have that sort of swagger. It’s hard to pretend to have that.”
Were her own teenage years just like the Derry girls’? “I know a lot of female writers who object to this question,” McGee says, sternly.
We meet in Broadcasting House, the Beeb’s London HQ. “I feel like I’m in W1A,” she says, excited, as if she’s on a tour of the building for the first time, rather than an extremely accomplished writer who has been in and out for years. As for W1A, she watches a lot of telly and, when it’s good, will always say so.
'I've only realised this lately. If I was a different writer, Derry Girls could be quite a bleak show'
McGee with a mask on, as she is when she arrives, looks quite Hollywood, glossy chestnut hair and huge eyes; without a mask on, she has a very warm smile and, I must admit, I don’t find her stern voice very scary. What would other writers object to? “The fact that if you’re a woman and you write, it has to be a true story, basically. But I don’t mind talking about it because obviously some of it is very much my life.”
Erin in particular, played by Saoirse-Monica Jackson, is pretty much McGee; her mum and dad are not at all dissimilar to the writer's own, who left school at 14 and 15 respectively. "They met in Woolworths when my Dad was a lorry driver and my Mum worked in shops." And, oh my God, the grandad: "My grandad was even called Joe [like the patriarch in Derry Girls]. He was a big, big character, a force of nature. A lot of my family feel like he's not gone because of Derry Girls. It's really cute."
A measure of Derry Girls’s popularity is the evangelical zeal it inspires – people will still forcefully recommend it, four years after it premiered, without a thought to whether they sound slow off the mark. It’s partly down to Jackson, who has a rare, clownish quality that makes you laugh before she has said anything. “Saoirse is very physical,” McGee says thoughtfully. “I’m not someone that writes physical jokes normally, but she just looks so funny when she falls over.”
True to her younger self, McGee never set out to write something about the Troubles, but unavoidably, given the period in which the show is set, that context hovers over the capers like a shadow. "I've only realised this lately," she says. "If I was a different writer, Derry Girls could be quite a bleak show. I've always leaned towards funny." Viewers who aren't familiar with this recent history can hear the seriousness under the gags, "and not only in Britain. You read some really funny things about people in Mexico, going into Google [rabbit] holes about Northern Ireland." And for those who lived through it, "they'll start talking to you about Derry Girls and Northern Ireland, and it starts funny, and then they'll be telling you other stuff that isn't funny. Me and the cast have all found this. It's a way in, and there's still a lot about that period that isn't spoken about. There's a lot of trauma and a lot of ghosts."
Meanwhile, the teenage dialogue is, line for line, among the best, the closest, in the TV canon, and while McGee tries to wave this off with some arch self-deprecation – “I don’t think I’ll ever grow up. Fifteen is the point that I have sort of stuck at” – she has made these girls so comical by taking them seriously. “I really like teenagers, and they’re often not well written, particularly in drama. They’re either treated like mini-adults, and it’s weird and sexual, or they’re not treated with the respect they deserve.”
We are actually here to talk about Skint, a BBC Four series of mainly heartbreaking monologues from “people striving under tough circumstances”. McGee wrote one of the eight 15-minute episodes, featuring Jackson as an unhinged waiter, but is the series creative director. Tonally, the range is very wide – some of the films are really funny, some absolutely harrowing – and it took her a while, she says, to adjust to the fact that there was no single vision, no one voice holding everything together.
She is absolutely passionate about the importance of getting the lived experience of poverty on to the screen. "It gets forgotten in the mix of all these discussions, and that's the thing that affects everybody. If you're poor, you're poor, no matter what. It takes race and religion and all that stuff out of it. Everyone that's very poor is screwed, and people in that situation need to be heard." Her own trajectory – growing up working class in a grindingly poor area, getting a degree at Queen's University Belfast, then almost immediately finding paid work at the National Theatre, in London – she doesn't think would be possible for a young writer now, in a creative world where the barrier to entry is the endless unpaid internship. "You do loads of talks, and panels, people saying: 'What can we do to get these [underprivileged] voices in?' And I just say: 'Give them money. Find the people and just give them a cheque. You don't need masterclasses. You don't need 100 people in a competition.' I think it's simpler than people make out. There's going to be a lot of not very great plays soon, if it's just all the same people talking only to each other. It's really depressing."
'People need joy, they need to laugh, I definitely don't want to be spending all my time doing something depressing'
Owing to the colossus presence of Sally Rooney, I now think all Irish universities are exactly like Trinity College Dublin. In her novel Normal People, she sort of does a Brideshead on the university, making it seem impossibly glamorous, full of beautiful people awash with money and boho sensibility. But Queen's wasn't like that at all. "Northern Irish people can never take themselves that seriously. We wouldn't get away with it. That can be a problem when you're at university, where you're supposed to be engaging with ideas that are a bit wanky." She says she still feels guilty that she didn't do any work: "It was such an opportunity compared to what my parents were faced with. And I just had a lot of craic."
In fact, the craic was quite a useful apprenticeship, since she says she’s still using jokes now that she heard in pubs in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, her mum did get a degree, as a mature student, and trained as a social worker, “around the same time as I was doing my GCSEs”, she says. “I remember being quite pissed off that she was stealing my thunder.”
She got the attachment at the National by sending them a play. “The great thing about writing is you have a physical thing – you can do it or you can’t. I didn’t have to go and do the interviews.” It’s much harder to get into directing and producing TV if you’re not really well connected. “When I meet a director who is working class, who has an accent, basically, I think they must be brilliant.”
The National gave her a little space to work in, access to all the shows, a salary – it sounds like a dream, and, she says, “thank God I had no idea. I just walked into the writers’ room like an eejit. If I’d known it was a big deal, I probably would have ruined it by thinking I shouldn’t be there.” That was 2006, when she was pretty fresh out of university, putting on plays that never made any money. When she got the call from the National, she had to borrow the flight money from her mum.
By her mid-20s, she had been commissioned to write her own show for RTÉ. Raw was a playful, anarchic drama set in a restaurant in Dublin. It was such a success that it was moved to a primetime slot, but that took the fun out of it a bit for McGee. "It was a very young show, and very rude. As soon as it got big figures, it became more mainstream. I was 27 and I wanted to do cheekier work."
Amid all this, she had moved to rural Donegal, thinking that was the kind of thing a writer would do. "Then I realised: 'There's nobody about and I can't drive.' I was in the middle of Donegal for no good reason."
So she moved back to London and the commissions kept coming. She was one of the writers for three seasons of Being Human, Toby Whithouse’s genre-fusing series about flatmates who are, some of them, also vampires (others are werewolves). “I really connected to that. The ordinariness, the everlasting life, the drinking blood, it has a lot in common, vampire life, with the Catholic church.” She then had another show commissioned, London Irish, about Belfast expats, but it only did one series. “Not that I wasn’t grateful but it was really disappointing.”
Overall, though, it was a more or less unbroken streak of green lights, which had its pros and cons. “I don’t regret any of it because it’s where I learned my craft. But I always had to work – there was this fear of stopping, I had no safety net. I actually wrote Derry Girls when I was pregnant, because I stopped for the first time. I really don’t know if my way was better, or if you should have this pure vision and only do your own stuff. I don’t know what plays I would have written if TV hadn’t been paying me real TV money. But my husband says: ‘You could write a play now’ and, yeah, I suppose I could.”
She has two sons (6 and 2) and the family (she is married to the actor and screenwriter Tobias Beer) moved to Belfast after lockdown. “London became somewhere that didn’t make sense with young kids when you can’t go anywhere.” The city is going through its own creative boom; every cafe you walk into, apparently, has someone talking into their AirPods about a film they’re making. She manages to convey that this is very handy, while at the same time not the Belfast she knew and loved.
The Deceived, for Channel 5, came out in 2020 and McGee co-wrote it with Beer. “The first thing for me was that he had to be good,” she says. “Because what would you do?” She breaks off to imagine that perfect horror, of having to tell your husband that he can’t write. Anyway, he could, so that was fine, and “the writing totally saved our sanity. We are so boring. We only talk about TV shows anyway. So we might as well be writing one, and arguing about what things should be where, rather than anything else.” They’re working together on a new project, though Beer is doing most of it while McGee is taken up with Derry Girls, for its third and final season. “I think once it goes out, people will know that’s the right place to end. Hopefully. It’s always been a three-season plan.”
Skint, meanwhile, with its tight, gritty, sparse dramas, is a departure for McGee, given her sensibility. “You wake up every day and everyone’s depressed and lonely. People need joy, they need to laugh, I definitely don’t want to be spending all my time doing something depressing.” But looked at from another angle, it’s weirdly on-brand. “This sounds mad, considering what they are, but I think of them like a joke. You have your setup, and then you have a trick in the middle – this is what it’s going to be about, a red herring – and then you have a reveal.” She’s not always prospecting for the lolz, but she brings a fascinated seriousness to the magic and mechanics of humour. – Guardian
Skint airs on BBC Four from March 20th. Series three of Derry Girls is coming soon to Channel 4 and All 4