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Movies & TV

12th Jan 2018

Cherish watching Derry Girls for the first time – because it’s destined to be a classic

Nooruddean Choudry

Derry Girls Crystal Maze Channel 4

Sometimes you just know.

There is nothing quite like switching on the telly, settling down for a random film, or pressing play to an unknown tune, and very quickly coming to the realisation that you’ve stumbled over something special. You sit up straighter in your seat, pump up the volume a little, and start to properly relish what you know is about to become your favourite new thing.

I had no great hopes for Derry Girls, and if there was any sort of hype around it, it passed me by. I’d seen the odd advert and assumed it was an old show you could watch as a box set somewhere. Then I realised it was a new programme on Channel 4, so thought I’d give it a go. The fact that it was set in Derry during the Troubles sounded like an interesting sit to the com.

It didn’t take long for the ‘Wait, this is fucking good!’ revelation. From the scrubbing out the ‘London’ before ‘Derry’ on a street sign, to the dismissal of a bridge bomb as an annoying inconvenience, it was clear that the political backdrop would be exactly that. The conflict, the checkpoints, the army fatigues – it’s all happening at the very edges of the screen.

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That’s because, as with all great comedy, the humour is very personal and small. As soon as you try and make something big and universal, you’re fucked. I’m not from Derry, and I’m not a girl. There’s no obvious reason why I should relate to the premise or the main characters, but they’re so perfectly written and acted that I do.

The general sense seems to be: Fuck the Troubles, in a way, because at that age you’ve got troubles of your own. Writer and creator Lisa McGee does an amazing job of evoking that sense of know-it-all impatience you feel as a young person. Your parents and family and school do your head in, and you long for something greater… but you’re not sure what or how.

The context-setting narration at the very beginning is genius. You hear the world-weary voice from a dramatic teen, and think ‘Ah okay, I’ve seen this before, she’s like a Norn Iron Adrian Mole’ – and then you realise you’ve been played and it’s an invasion of someone’s private thoughts. Erin jolts up and you’re instantly introduced to your perfect tragicomic lead.

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The script is, of course, brilliant, but the young (not as young as their parts but still young to me) cast cannot be praised enough. As individuals, they inhabit their roles like seasoned pros – they play characters, not caricatures – and as a collective, they are utterly believable with great chemistry. Whoever did the casting deserves an extra portion of chips.

A joyful aspect of the show is what comes across as a complete lack of ego. The writing is self-deprecating and at times painfully honest. Saoirse-Monica Jackson is piss funny as Erin, the pretentious, neurotic and constantly horrified leader of the pack. The way she contorts her face at every new disaster in her life is weirdly Rik Mayall-ish at times.

Nicola Coughlan (perma-stresshead Clare), Louisa Harland (far away but oddly cool Orla), Jamie-Lee O’Donnell (cocky alpha-female Michelle), and Dylan Llewellyn (poor emasculated James) are all so well defined and roundly observed. They don’t jostle and compete for our attention, but rather combine into a perfect storm of very watchable and relatable idiots.

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The ‘adult’ actors are pitch-perfect, and elevate the show to another level. Suddenly you’ve got the teenage antics of the main cast combined with a rich, warm feel of a Caroline Aherne comedy. It’s all about the small interactions and character quirks that make up a family situation we can all relate to on some level. But again, the more established actors are there to support the young leads, not steal the limelight.

It’s hard to recall a sitcom or comedy-drama of any sort that has managed to establish itself and main characters so quickly – even the greats needed a bedding in period. Two episodes in and you know and buy into everyone. That’s what’s so exciting about Derry Girls. If it’s this good already, and is still to properly grow into itself, we’re in for some treat.

You can’t fake authenticity, no more than you can wing talent. This exciting show has both in spades, and it’s so evident in less than an hour of broadcast. McGee, the cast, and everyone involved have hit gold, and in an age of dire ‘comedy’ tripe like Mrs Brown’s Boys and Citizen Khan, it’s such a joy.

Cherish watching it for the first time, and if you’re not, catch yourself on.

Clip via Channel 4

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