Television comedy is a fine art that is very hard to get right. The Mash Report, the BBC’s weak stab at satire, is a particularly egregious current example. There is, however, a positive to take from this general mirthlessness: it has become easy to spot genuinely hilarious programmes on the odd occasion they do come along. Derry Girls is undoubtedly one of those.
This six-part sitcom recently finished its run, but is available on the Channel 4 website until the middle of March. It’s set in Derry in the mid-1990s, with the episodes revolving around the home and school life of Erin Quinn, part of an Inbetweeners-esque gang of friends (four Derry girls, one English boy) at their Catholic school.
Mishap-filled adventures abound, involving exchange students from Chernobyl (who think they are being sent to a hellhole), Erin being made editor of the school newspaper, and a possible miracle involving a dog and a statue of the Virgin Mary. This latter example is the one moment in Derry Girls that some readers might baulk at. But I’d highly recommend giving yourself over to the series as a whole, because it presents an unsentimental but warm portrait of Northern Irish Catholic experience at an important moment in recent history.
Lisa McGee’s script is packed with sharp jokes and memorable characters, who are very well played by the assembled cast. I’d pick out Siobhan McSweeney’s Sister Michael, the jaded headmistress, and Nicola Coughlan’s Clare, the feisty but goody-goody member of the girl gang, as the best performances of a very good bunch.
Truly great sitcoms are often capable of dropping in a little serious stuff amid the tomfoolery. Usually it takes a few seasons before this is attempted, but Derry Girls displays great confidence by going for it from the off. The Troubles form a harsh backdrop to the silliness, occasionally impinging on the action (at one point the Quinns accidentally drive through an Orange Order parade), but are generally used simply to underscore it. In the series’ final moments, the horror of terrorism takes centre-stage in a way that properly stings. It could have been hideously mawkish, but, like the rest of Derry Girls, it’s expertly judged.