Derry Girls series two is about to kick off and it's 'madder' than ever, stars assure us
As the long-awaited, highly anticipated second series of Derry Girls hits our this week, Gail Bell goes back to school and meets up with the gang during a camogie lesson in Belfast
ON A sunny, bitter-cold morning at a school in Belfast, pupils are lining up for camogie drill, their breath coming out in painful, vaporous little clouds as they run forward, faces full of violent intent, ready to whack the ball the whole nine yards. Or thereabouts.
To up the passion a bit, they are told to think of "something you really, really hate" and so a variety of words are flung at random into the icy air: 'Injustice'... 'Prejudice'... 'Mass'....'My own socks'...'The fact that everyone says 'wee' here, even when things aren't that small'...
That last line (delivered deadly seriously by actor Dylan Llewellyn as 'wee' English cousin, James Maguire) will tell you that this is no ordinary games lesson in no ordinary school. The camogie wannabes are, in fact, the Derry Girls stars filming an outdoors scene for the long-awaited second series, which goes out on Channel 4 tomorrow.
Saoirse Jackson, who plays central character, Erin Quinn, says shooting it felt like "reliving a disaster" as she did not excel at school sports.
"But, no matter what the gang do, they usually get in trouble without realising they have done anything wrong," she reflects, "and that definitely reminds me of school – I was always in trouble without realising it."
We are on a rare set visit to see the stars of real-life Derry Girl, writer Lisa McGee's hit show in action and waiting in a specially rigged-out classroom at Hunterhouse College in Belfast – where a nun died and James infamously urinated in a corner in Series One – for Jamie-Lee O'Donnell (Michelle), Saoirse Jackson (Erin), Louisa Harland (Orla), Nicola Coughlan (Clare) and Dylan Llewellyn (James) to join us.
McGee, also pulls up a seat to throw in a few teasers about what we can expect in the second series which features all the usual faces, including Tommy Tiernan (Da Gerry), Ian McElhinney (Granda Joe), Tara Lynne O'Neill (Ma Mary), Siobhan McSweeney (Sister Michael) and Kathy Kiera Clarke (Aunt Sarah), as well as a few, recognisable new ones.
Among them is Ardal O'Hanlon, who despite his current clever detective persona in BBC's Death in Paradise, will – for many – always be the lovable-but-dim, Fr Dougal McGuire from Father Ted.
"He plays a very recognisable Irish character, a sort of mammy's boy," says Lisa, who has already planned out future storylines in a potential series three of the comedy which is set in the 1990s and follows the dramas of Derry schoolgirl Erin and her friends and family, while the Troubles rage poignantly in the background.
Loosely based on her own teenage years growing up during the conflict, McGee says the second series will run alongside the beginnings of the peace process, although the main drama will still be centred around miscellaneous school and domestic escapades and the friends' troublesome attempts at growing up.
"I hadn't seen teenagers like me and my friends on TV before and I hadn't seen women – northern Irish women in particular – represented in any real way," she says. "Nor had I seen comedy with Northern Ireland women at the centre – and I think we're really funny people.
"It's all been so grim and serious and dark. When I was a young writer, I said I would never write anything about the Troubles because I'm sick of it, so it's funny I've ended up doing this [Derry Girls], but it's truthful to me."
The young school friends are also based on a type of truthfulness, as McGee took the funny bits, the flaws and virtues, of people she knew and represented them in her fictional creations.
"I think I disappointed the real 'Michelle' who is far madder than me," quips O'Donnell, a natural comedienne at ease in firing off droll one-liners without a script.
"Lisa says Michelle is based on two different girls and I met one of them in Derry and I think I disappointed her as she thought I would be madder than I am – sorry about that."
As for the very under-the-radar funny Sister Michael, the writer based her character on "a combination of a lot of the teachers" at convent school – "those who just had to look at you and you were terrified" and those who "just couldn't be a**ed because you were cutting into their time, kind of thing".
Do friends recognise themselves, I wonder?
"There are combinations of people that I have tweaked, pushed this way and that, but my friends have definitely recognised parts of themselves in the gang and weren't entirely happy at the start," McGee reveals.
"But, they have now met these guys [the actors] and they like them now, and they're sort of on board with it. The real Orla was a bit annoyed, though, and the real Clare complained that she wasn't as much of a grass, but yeah, they're loving it now."
As for upcoming storylines, everyone is terrified of giving too much away, but there is a concert, a new "inspirational teacher", a wedding "that goes disastrously wrong" – and has James "Rocking the Boat" – a new Chinese pupil and interaction with some Protestant boys to keep us laughing.
"Lisa has really outdone herself with this new script which is even funnier," says O'Donnell. "It's mad craic. It's nice to be back in the uniforms [of fictional Our Lady Immaculate College] as putting it on gets you back in the vibe, back in the mentality of the characters.
"I think because we came into it this time already knowing who we were, it felt so comfortable slipping the uniform on again. We're back in the same school where we filmed last year, so there are a lot of nice wee memories to help us 'age down' and transform us back into that way of life."
The classroom in which we sit at grafitti-scratched desks certainly has been transformed: there is a rudimentary chalk sketch of a penis on a blackboard and an old fashioned hand bell sits on the teacher's desk where, instead of a conventional vase of flowers, there is a very un-teacher-like wooden ornament fashioned into a two-fingered salute.
"The art department does an incredible job," laughs Harland (Orla). "Everything is so detailed; even the content of our schoolbags which contain actual biscuits."
Later, in the assembly hall, we watch an indoor scene on the monitor where Clare (Coughlan) tells the group it would be "really cool" to have a Chinese friend and Michelle (O'Donnell), unsure because she "hates people she doesn't know", tells a shocked James that if the Chinese pupil does join their group, it's strictly on a "one in, one out" basis...
It is small, everyday exchanges like this which appeal, even when the 'ordinariness' is exaggerated to laughable limits at times.
"No matter what is going on, these girls – and guy – will have each other's backs," O'Donnell points out. "Ordinary life goes on and the characters deal with the same issues that affect teenagers everywhere. If you took it out of Derry, changed the accents and placed it in some other city, the same feelings apply.
"They're universal; that's what people relate to and I think that's why Derry Girls has done so well".
:: Derry Girls returns to Channel 4 tomorrow, Tuesday March 5, at 9.15pm.