Real-life Derry Girl Jamie-Lee O'Donnell had to control giggle fits when filming

As new Channel 4 series Derry Girls continues draw in viewers, actress Jamie-Lee O'Donnell tells Gail Bell how the craic on screen was always real – and how, despite the very Derry Troubles backdrop, the humour is universal

Derry Girls actress Jamie-Lee O'Donnell
Gail Bell

BY HER own admission, Jamie-Lee O'Donnell was quite a "dramatic child" – according to her granny – so it came as no surprise to her family, or herself, for that matter, that she should end up embroiled in melodrama for a living.

Anyone who has watched new Channel 4 drama, Derry Girls (a helpful glossary of Derry terms can be read here) will understand why the perceptive grandmother was correct in thinking that the animated child in her living room would one day steal the show.

For many critics, observers and fans, that is exactly what has happened because while all the actors in Derry Girls (also starring Saoirse Jackson, Nicola Coughlan, Louise Harland, Tommy Tiernan and Ian McElhinney) play their part with aplomb, O'Donnell delivers a nuanced performance, rich with understatement and never overplayed.

Keeping her character, the mouthy Michelle, "real" instead of exaggerating her into a parody of her time and place may or may not have been her own decision, but the result is a more believable teenager in Lisa McGee's darkly comic coming-of-age tale which is set in troubled 1990s.

Filmed in Derry and Belfast, the six-parter, which was signed up for a second series last week after the first episode aired, has struck a chord not only with Northern Ireland viewers but with many tuning in from 'across the water' and unfamiliar with terms such as 'lurred', 'head melter' and 'cack attack'. (Check out the aforementioned glossary if explanations are needed.)

But esoteric turns of phrase aside, the humour, according to the "20-something" actress, is universal, with the peculiar trials of teenage girls not restricted to any particular city or side.

"I think the scenarios and relationships that Lisa has created could be transferred anywhere really, because no matter where you're from or how you talk, or what is happening all around you, when you're 16 or 17, you just want to find your own place in the world and try to figure out what sort of person you are," O'Donnell, who previously starred in BBC NI teen drama 6 Degrees, reasons.

"For me, the story being set in Derry was brilliant because I could identify with everything and I knew girls like Michelle in school who were real wee rebels and a total terror, really.

"I was a bit similar to Michelle when I was growing up, but I definitely didn't have her confidence and I was a lot more cautious and aware of consequences. I didn't throw caution to the wind like she does, but I suppose, when I was younger, I liked to pretend that I was cool like that."

Her accent is much softer off-screen, but she still sets quick pace, enthusing about her fellow actors, the script, and her beloved Derry in equal measure.

A "great believer" in the success of Derry Girls from the outset, O'Donnell is nonetheless getting used to people stopping her in the street and the recognition that has come from her new role, but she is, to borrow the lingo, 'buzzing' all the way to Buncrana (a 'popular holiday destination' according to the glossary).

"I have loved being in Derry Girls as it has been so much craic working with the other girls," she says. "We didn't know each other before we auditioned, but then we all lived together in an apartment in Belfast during filming and have since become good friends. I think that translates to what you see on screen – we are very at ease with other and there is a genuine familiarity there.

"The only difficult thing was keeping straight-faced when we weren't supposed to be laughing. I found myself wanting to go into giggling mode at some of the lines, but I had to hold it together when the camera was rolling."

Although she has no strong memories of the Troubles herself, she recalls her parents' stories of the 70s and 80s and how, despite the bomb scares and checkpoints, 'normal' family life, somehow, continued.

"Looking back at it all, you think life must have been really difficult and you wonder how life did go on as normal, but that was the era and people did just get on with it," she says.

"It's a great script and Lisa doesn't shy away from the Troubles, even though, in the middle of it all, people still manage to find the funny side of life. All I remember from those days is seeing soldiers on the streets with rifles, but I was still able to walk to the shop and get safely back to my home in the housing estate."

Described by some as a black comedy about the Troubles as much as a story about teenage angst, Derry Girls manages to find the humour easily – one classroom scene alludes to a light-fingered nun who confiscates Michelle's lip liner, much to her disgust, given that the particular colour has been "discontinued".

It's lines like these which make the comedy "real" according to the actress who first found her love of acting through school plays and various workshops at the Playhouse Theatre in Derry before going on to study performing arts at North West College in Derry and later at De Montford University in Leicester.

"I love the buzz of live theatre but I have also really enjoyed filming and working with the camera," O'Donnell continues. "And while I love comedy, I love doing serious drama too and have been recently involved in a production about a young Irish girl having to travel to an English abortion clinic; it's a subject I feel passionately about, as I was friends with girls with similar stories."

She toured for nine weeks with the show, I Told My Mum I Was Going On An RE Trip, produced by 20 Stories High theatre group and written by Liverpool-based writer and director Julia Samuels who used verbatim voices based on real interviews with young girls in similar situations.

The play was picked up by BBC2 and a live performance is due to be being screened on January 20 as part of a one-hour documentary special.

"I have been acting for as long as I can remember and it's all I ever really wanted to do. I like strong female roles," O'Donnell adds. "My granny used to say I had the spirit of Bette Davis as I was known to be quite a dramatic child. Can't think why."

:: Derry Girls continues on Channel 4 at 10pm tonight.

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