Derry Girls’ Lisa McGee: ‘A lot of stuff about Northern Ireland is very male’
With her play ‘Girls and Dolls’ set to be revived, the writer explains what makes for good storytelling
Lisa McGee: “There can’t only be male Irish writers or playwrights because women are shit at it – there’s something else at work”
Lisa McGee remembers the first time she knew stories from her homeplace could reach further afield.
“I was on attachment at the National Theatre,” she says, recalling a youthful stint she spent in London. “I was about 24. It’s set in Donegal, not Derry, but Brian Friel’s Aristocrats was on, and the crowd loved it. Here was this oh-so-sophisticated audience in London laughing about the goings-on in a post office in Letterkenny, and I just thought, This can work, people can get it.”
A decade before she immortalised her own hometown with Derry Girls she had been hired by the British National Theatre in a role that seems like a dream for any young writer. “They just give you money, sit you in an office and let you write,” she says, with a laugh that suggests she still can’t believe how idyllic it was. “And,” she adds, “all the plays were dirt cheap, so you could go into the bookshop and buy anything, and it was 25 per cent of what it would cost. It was amazing.”
Girls and Dolls is a two-hander resting on two great Irish comedy discoveries: Derry Girls’ Jamie-Lee O’Donnell and The Young Offenders’ Jennifer Barry
We’re speaking as one of her plays, Girls and Dolls, is set for a revival, taking in dates across Ireland in September. Set in Derry, and featuring two female protagonists, it differs greatly from her sitcom megahit, McGee says, not least in terms of tone.
“It’s darker,” she says, “a much more serious story. It’s not Troubles-related, it’s more the stuff that’s going on when we’re all looking at the Troubles.”
It is, however set in the same universe. “These girls are 10, so it’s the same world, just set earlier. If you just went back a bit it would be the same people in the same place; in fact the shopkeeper from Derry Girls is actually in it.”
Girls and Dolls is a two-hander, resting entirely on two great recent Irish comedy discoveries: Derry Girls’ Jamie-Lee O’Donnell and The Young Offenders’ Jennifer Barry. Over the course of the play they wrestle not just with difficult subject matter but with the logistics of playing a truly dizzying array of roles.
“It’s two actresses playing upwards of 30 characters,” McGee says, “the two main girls, and their older selves, and their own mums and dads.
“Of the two main characters, one is very damaged and the other is just a normal girl that’s made friends with her. It’s mostly light moments until you realise something else is going on for one of those kids.”
Having written the play in 2006, McGee gravitated to TV writing, eventually creating the RTÉ drama Raw and, later, moving to London to work on the acclaimed BBC vampire drama Being Human, followed by her own show, London Irish, for Channel 4, as well as detours into period pieces on The White Queen and Indian Summers.
Moving to London, in the well-worn tradition of Irish writers abroad, still left her drawn to writing about home.
“Being outside it, looking at it from a distance, you can maybe spot things you wouldn’t if you were there, things that are funnier than you realise. I know everyone says it’s not the same in London, but that’s just because it isn’t; the way we speak, the sense of humour, the storytelling.”
It was this dynamic that drove McGee to start writing the phenomenally successful Derry Girls, which, on its launch, became Channel 4’s most-watched comedy since 2004. It’s also the single most-watched TV programme in Northern Irish history, and near universally beloved in its titular locale.
As a Derry man myself, I note how impressive this is for a city that might have a reputation for being, shall we say, somewhat prickly about its representation to the wider world.
“Well,” she counters, as if to prove the point, “Eamonn McCann did overhear someone back home say, ‘If Derry Girls gets any more praise, I’m gonna go off it.’”
Its appeal looks to be growing with time, as the show was recently voted Radio Times Comedy Champion, accumulating an eye-watering final tally of 462,946 votes.
Pretty good going for a female-fronted show set in Troubles-era Derry – not perhaps the most bankable pitch on paper.
“It wasn’t even going to be set during the Troubles, really,” she says. “I just wanted to write about me and my friends, and the way we behaved in school, leave the Troubles out of it. But that didn’t feel truthful either, because I don’t have an experience without it.”
I remember people regularly saying women weren’t funny. For a long time, women in comedies were the girlfriends telling men off
Channel 4 was supportive of her decision to include more difficult subject matter, but with the freedom to use it came a host of other considerations.
“This sounds really presumptuous,” she says, “but I thought I could put right all that stuff I hated. The army, for example, don’t do any jokes in the show. If they were cracking gags it would diminish things; it would feel unreal. To ground the world, you have to make its threats really real”.
“Of course” she concedes, “that doesn’t mean the girls themselves have to take them seriously.”
The show’s angle, viewed from the perspective of four teenage girls – and one summarily antagonised poor wee English boy – also made it stand out, not just in the landscape of TV comedy but also in stories about the North itself.
“A lot of stuff about Northern Ireland is very male,” she says.
Very moustached, too, I say.
“Yes, and very leather-jacketed. I did worry when I wrote it that people wouldn’t watch it because there were so many female characters.”
“But I think it’s harder for women,” she continues. “In theatre too, definitely in Ireland, people are speaking about it now. But I remember it was always female playwrights getting readings while men the same age and experience were given productions.
“There can’t only be male Irish writers or playwrights because women are shit at it – there’s something else at work.”
This attitude, she says, has been especially true within comedy. “I remember being at Queen’s [University Belfast] and people regularly saying women weren’t funny. For a long time, women in comedies were the girlfriends telling men off.”
McGee’s example shows how much space is available for new, or traditionally overlooked, perspectives to reach a wide audience. As she sits down to write a second series of one of the most popular sitcoms on TV, she knows exactly how she wants her characters to proceed.
“I always think of when you were young,” she says, “and you heard some story, this boy, or that boy pushed some lad in a trolley down a hill, or whatever. But you’d never meet the fellas who did it, you’d just hear the story.
“I want my girls to be the people who did the thing you heard about. I want them to be the urban myths themselves.”
Girls and Dolls, starring Jamie-Lee O’Donnell and Jennifer Barry runs from September 11th to 15th at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin; gaietytheatre.ie