Lisa McGee discusses Derry Girls, Brian Friel and her play Girls and Dolls
Jenny Lee chats to Derry Girls creator Lisa McGee on how her career as a writer was inspired by Brian Friel and what we can expect from series two of her Channel 4 award-winning comedy series
DERRY GIRLS might not have existed if it had not been for the writing of Omagh-born playwright Brian Friel, says the hit coming-of-age comedy's creator Lisa McGee.
Set against the backdrop of the Troubles, the adventures of teenage friends Erin, Orla, Clare, Michelle and James, has been a resounding hit. Over two and a half million viewers tuned in to watch the first episode, making it Channel 4's highest-rated comedy launch in the past five years – and the biggest programme in Northern Ireland since records began in 2002 – so it was no surprise that a second series was commissioned right away.
The programme's latest accolade came earlier this month, when Derry Girls was crowned Radio Times Comedy Champion 2018.
McGee, who will be speaking before the presentation of Friel's Hiberno-English translation of Chekhov's Three Sisters at Lughnasa Frielfest 2018 this weekend, says Friel had a huge influence upon her career direction.
As well as her own experience of growing up in Derry in the 90s and attending a Catholic convent school, McGee admits “there are parts of Derry Girls that wouldn't have existed if I hadn't discovered Brian Friel”.
“He was one of the first writers I read at school that I got excited about. I enjoyed Shakespeare but it was of very little relevance to my life. Friel's work spoke to me and I've had a huge admiration for him throughout my career,” she says.
Philadelphia Here I Come was the first Friel play McGee studied.
“Whilst I really understood Gar and his predicament, the play also made me laugh,” she recalls. "Getting a class of 15-year-olds to laugh was a feat in itself."
In similar vein, Derry Girls captured the humour and complexity of family life, never more so than in the action-packed yet poignant season finale in February.
“Friel inspired me in a very direct way in that you could write about your own experiences and write the way you speak,” says McGee, who has brought words such as slabber, eejit, spuds and poor critter to the wider Channel Four-viewing public.
“I remember going to see a production of Aristocrats when I first came to London in my early 20s and while the character was talking about the post office in Letterkenny, this whole London audience were laughing. I thought, God, you don't even have to know where that is; if you are a good enough writer the audience will understand. It gave me real confidence to use local things to show universal concepts or feelings.
“In Derry Girls we see families ordering from the chippy, which is something every Northern Ireland family understands. But everyone around the world understands that frustration of trying to organise anything with their family,” she says.
After leaving Thornhill College in Derry, McGee studied drama at Queen's University Belfast, where she first concentrated on writing. Early success with plays such as Girls And Dolls (which won both a Stewart Parker Award and the Blackburn Prize), was followed by television credits including Totally Frank, Things I Haven't Told You, Being Human, Indian Summers and Raw.
Next month sees the revival of her debut play Girls and Dolls, which tells the story of Emma and Clare, whose lives were torn apart by the events of the summer of 1980 when they were 10.
Hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure, its a play in which the audiences will then witness Emma and Clare as adults, as they struggle to come to terms with the events of the past.
“It's one of the first plays I wrote a long time ago. Tinderbox did it in 2006 and it came to the London Fringe. It's set in the same street as Derry Girls, but in the 80s. It's a tragic story, yet also captures the humour that people here hold on to and has those larger-than-life Derry characters,” says McGee, who updated the script a few year ago.
Originally written as a two-hander, the forthcoming production sees Derry Girls actress Jamie Lee O'Donnell and Jennifer Barry, of The Young Offenders fame, play over 20 characters each.
McGee admits she “doesn't know” why Derry Girls grabbed people's attention across the UK.
“I thought and hoped we would have a small but loyal audience. But no-one expected the response we got,” she says.
With audiences expecting even more hilarious shenanighans from the schoolgirls, does she feel more pressure when penning the second series?
“Initially I thought, 'God, how am I going to do it again?' But I just went back and remembered why I wanted to do it and try not to think about the response to it.
“I love writing about Derry. I love that it's about my experiences, my family and friends and that I've been given the opportunity to put the lives of people from there on screen. I'm privileged and proud that people all over the UK are now saying our sayings,” she laughs.
So what can we expect in series 2? Boyfriends? A girlfriend for Claire, who at the end of series one admitted to her friend Erin she was gay?
“I'm not allowed to give anything away. But what I will say is they haven't wised up and, if anything, they have got worse. They will be getting up to bigger and better antics.”
While the cast start filming in Derry and Belfast in October, a transmission date yet to be confirmed.
Away from Derry Girls, McGee has started co-writing a thriller with her husband, actor Tobias Beer, which will be set between Donegal and Cambridge.
“It's still in development, as I've be finishing off Derry Girls series two, but it's been brilliant working with Tobias and having someone else to bounce ideas off and help you work through the difficult sections.”
She has spent the past decade living in London, where she combines writing with caring for her “very active” two-year-old son Joseph, but she does hope to relocate in the future to Ireland's north west.
“It's full-on at the minute. I would love to come back home – I just need someone to arrange it for me," she laughs.
:: Lisa McGee will be in conversation at the Great Hall, Magee Campus, Ulster University, on Friday August 17, as part of Lughnasa FrielFest: Brian Friel International Festival, which runs from August 9 – 19. Tickets available at Artsoverborders.com. Girls and Doll, will be performed at Derry's Millennium Forum from September 17 -20 and Belfast's SSE Arena from September 25-27. See tomorrow's Irish News for a chance to win tickets to Girls and Dolls.