It is rare that I find myself waxing lyrical over a television show but when it comes to Derry Girls I don’t have enough wax to lyric with. I don’t think that’s an expression…but it is now! Let me start by saying that if you haven’t seen it you must. You must! In fact, stop reading this blog and start watching it. Call in sick, whatever you have to do to binge this phenomenal show!
Set in Derry at the tail end of the Troubles writer Lisa McGee has created a show that somehow basks in the nostalgia of 90s pop culture whilst depicting the reality, and frustration, of living in a city where life can be postponed at any second thanks to bomb threats. Or, as Clare’s dad Sean puts it in the first episode: “How long does it take to defuse a fecking bomb?”
Using the Troubles as a backdrop to a comedy isn’t so surprising. Time is the greatest healer after all. The sum being: Time x Tragedy = comedy. What makes Derry Girls such a delight for me isn’t just the politics or the nostalgia, it’s the way it expertly tells the story of four schoolgirls (and one mainly confused schoolboy) as they navigate their way through their daily lives. And – most importantly – it is very, very funny! A little pee came out on more than one occasion. And another show that passes the Bechdel test – nuff said!
It has been a long time since a sitcom has had this effect on me and in turn captured the national moods of not one but two countries. Northern Ireland, after all, crosses the boundaries and cultures of both the UK and the Irish Republic. And to me it shows the beauty of unity in all its glory. A unity that sadly my country of the UK is moving away from. A unity that is so important to me that I often find myself deeply moved, and sometimes choking up, at the very thought of what my brothers and sisters in Northern Ireland went through and will continue to go through if this vicious charade of Brexit goes ahead. We move in dark times and we must stand together in solidarity.
For people in Northern Ireland, there has been a sense of celebration that this time has been shown with authenticity, that there has been no diminishing its difficulty – but it has also been made absolutely clear that daily life went on, that people fell in love and fell about. The Troubles were obviously on television a lot, and my understanding is that there was a feeling of aggrievement that that was all the media represented when there was so much more to it than that. I remember watching the News when I was young and feeling that you were looking back in time – they all seemed trapped in the 70s. I remember a friend of our family, after being caught up in a riot, took a bullet home with her to prove to her mother why she’d failed to get back at the appointed hour. The worry that she could have been burned alive paled in comparison to being discovered coming home late. This is very well represented in the show, based on McGee’s childhood growing up in Derry, and the threat of violence lingers – although paramilitary kidnappings aren’t as worrying to the girls as a lack of funds for a school trip to Paris. As well as bombs causing traffic havoc (“I don’t know about you,” says Aunt Sarah, “but I’m not enjoying this bomb. I’ve an appointment at Tropicana at 12”), Uncle Colm has his van stolen by gun-runners and the girls’ school bus is regularly stopped by British soldiers. But even that drama is an excuse for teenage naughtiness. “Do you think if I told him I had an incendiary device down my knickers he’d have a look?” wonders Michelle.
The nostalgia is perfectly pitched at those who laugh at the memory of Whigfield’s Saturday Night dance, permed hairstyles and floral wallpaper – and a younger audience who laugh at the idea any of that ever existed…it did, believe it or not. I was just about old enough to remember.
But nostalgia alone doesn’t explain why it has struck such a chord. There is a universality to the show: hands up who else has ordered from the chip shop with near-scientific instructions, or rustled up every clothing item going to avoid a sinful half-load? The show is an explosion of one-liners, delivered with Derry’s colourful vernacular. Michelle on the famine: “We got the gist. They ran out of spuds, everyone was raging.”
As an English person I certainly don’t wish to compare the impending post-Brexit drama with what the Northern Irish endured for so many decades but it has reflected to me what people can and will endure and how their lives will carry on through the fight and how hopefully we will find some unity somewhere down the line.
This week has been very unrelated to language and my apologies for that, I guess that as the UK election takes place today I feel that we are on the brink of a potentially disastrous Holocene; the earth quakes beneath my feet. Let Derry Girls be the medicine to carry us through. That has been this week’s Thursday Thoughts. Good night and good luck.