Derry Girls review: A triumphant and exuberant return for the Channel 4 sitcom

No, the Troubles weren’t funny, but they generated their own grim, sardonic moments among young people trying to get on with their own lives

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 05 March 2019 19:41
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Trailer: Derry Girls Series 2

It is sometimes remarked that the Troubles in Northern Ireland make for an unpromising backdrop for a sitcom about adolescent kids. Well, yer man’s wrong, as they might say. Derry Girls, returning for a triumphant and exuberant second run on Channel 4, proves that humour, dark or otherwise, can be quarried from even the most unlikely of locations. Indeed, those settings generate comic absurdities all of their own…

Bigotry, ludicrous as it is, is actually an ideal starting point for satire, and there is plenty enough of it in mid-Nineties Derry/Londonderry. Here we find the teenage Catholic Derry girls at Our Lady Immaculate College sent on a cross-community expedition to the countryside, there to make friends with a contingent from the Londonderry Boys Academy. I’m only a little surprised the makers didn’t go the whole hog and call it the Londonderry Apprentice Boys Academy, but still.

“The Prods have landed,” the girls declare when the minibus turns up, and the whole show is laced with some of the more acceptable epithets the communities knew each other by. A nice priest from the south, who’d apparently just missed being defrocked for a flirtation with a parishioner, a chap who might have stepped straight out of Father Ted as “the normal one”, is given the unenviable task of persuading the kids attending the “Friends Across the Barricade” that they have more in common than that which divides them, as they say.

Father Peter (Peter Campion) asks them what they have as differences and as similarities – all to be recorded on two blackboards. Obviously, the “differences” board is soon full with details that are both shrewd and a little disquieting if you’re not quite used to seeing simmering resentments, fermented over 400 years, occasionally coming up to the surface: “Protestants are richer”; “I hate Catholics”; “Protestants like to march, and Catholics like to walk”; “They’re British, we’re Irish”. That sort of thing. When something called a “half Protestant” is discovered, the Derry girls fuss over him like some rare exotic zoo specimen.

The “period” prop work and references are very well judged, and of course everything is distorted through the prism of internecine hatred. Hugh Grant’s arrest in LA in the company of the sex worker Divine Brown is all about it being a defeat for the occupiers, because Grant is such an archetypal Englishman. So he therefore deserves everything he gets, the golly gosh charm lost on these proto-republicans. Less viciously, I had, until reminded by the dialogue, quietly forgotten that people used to do some of their shopping via the Kays catalogue, a primitive version of Amazon.

It also seems an eternity ago that the BBC used to have to dub interviews with the likes of Gerry Adams because of the (partial) “broadcasting ban” on Sinn Fein. This was designed to deny these spokesmen for the Provisional IRA the “oxygen of publicity”, but was fiercely resented by the broadcast media. The Derry girls think it is all a conspiracy because Adams’s real voice is so silkily seductive that it might end British rule in the six counties overnight.

The irony the show gently underlines is that the greatest thing these young Ulster men and women have in common is an awakening interest in the opposite sex – the one force with the potential to overpower the class and religious barricades. But their respective parents and teachers make sure that any cross-community canoodling is nipped in the bud – “no funny business with these Protestant lads”. The late night dorm party is brutally broken up, like the B-Specials raiding a Republican club.

The writing and the performances are superbly fluent, natural, and funny. With such a large ensemble cast, it is a bit unfair to pick anyone in particular for special praise, but I have to mention Siobhan McSweeney, who plays Sister Michael, or, as the Proddy girls call her, “small, angry penguin woman”.

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No, the Troubles weren’t funny, but they generated their own grim, sardonic moments among young people trying to get on with their own lives, getting their hair done, having sex, failing exams and all the rest of it.

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