Derry Girls creator Lisa McGee on getting into screenwriting and giving a voice to 'ordinary people'
It took the world by storm in early 2018, and now the brains behind Northern Ireland's biggest ever series has words of encouragement for anyone with a unfinished script of their own
There had to be a change. I don’t know about you, but I got largely fed up with the dreary, male dominated, political landscape that Northern Ireland had continued to be painted as on the large and small screens. A voice had been given to the Northern Irish, but it wasn’t exactly a vibrant one.
A writer who is changing that is Derry’s Lisa McGee, creator and executive producer of the critically acclaimed Derry Girls. Throughout six episodes we follow Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), Orla (Louisa Harland), Clare (Nicola Caughlan) and their English punch-bag/cousin James (Dylan Llewellyn) as they navigate the surroundings of a troubled Derry whilst holding on dearly to their child-like innocence.
As part of Creativity Month, an initiative designed to encourage young people to enter a career in the creative industry, I spoke with Lisa about her early life as a writer, obstacles overcome and words of advice for aspiring wordsmiths in a bid to spark some inspiration for whoever might be reading.
'I remember always enjoying writing from when I was very young', she says. 'I remember the best days in school were when you were asked to write a story in English. When I was eight a priest came into our school and asked us all what we wanted to be, and I said "An author", and everyone was like, "What are you talking about?" '
McGee goes on to explain that she wasn’t aware that writing dialogue was even 'a thing' during her time at school. The urge to write dialogue instead was plucked from the very innocence that is the very foundation of Derry Girls. She simply did it to make her friends and herself laugh.
'I think those talent shows were dead important for starting me off', she says. 'I actually put as much into them as I do with writing now. I really cared. It’s probably some of the best stuff I’ve ever written!'
McGee went on to work on a variety of different shows, movies and plays, including London Irish, Being Human, Indian Summers, The Thing I Haven’t Told You and Raw – a television show based on a Dublin restaurant and its staff. I’m keen to learn more about this artist’s journey in becoming a professional screenwriter and the obstacles she faced along the way.
'Looking back now there were hurdles, but I didn’t even realise', she says. 'I don’t know if I was just dozy or not (laughs), but really early on I didn’t notice. It was when I moved to London and witnessed the types of facilities and things that people had at schools for drama and what kind of opportunities they had. I don’t think much of that existed in Northern Ireland when I was growing up.'
Those in Northern Ireland may not have had the facilities or opportunities that our friends across the water had once upon a time, but that is by no means a negative thing, as McGee explains this can be channelled into a form of artistic inventiveness.
'When you speak to people from my generation from home, they were always doing little theatre gigs and constantly moving. I think not having as much opportunity makes you more inventive and it’s something that actually helped me. Nothing was given to you, in regards to the arts. Nothing was handed to you; you had to create it yourself.'
One aspect of Derry Girls it's clear that McGee was keen to have shine through was the humour of the female cast. Most women in the industry have been caught in the ugly eye of sexism, and she is no different. Traditionally, films or television shows based around The Troubles are dominated by male politicians, soldiers and hunger strikers, but Derry Girls has taken a refreshing, alternative route by implementing a cast made up almost entirely of women; women who abolish the dated stereotype of not being funny through fast-paced wit and the mutual understanding with an audience of the highs and lows of adolescence.
'Being a woman in the industry is hard,' McGee admits. 'I didn’t think much of it at the time, but now looking back, you would see a lot of men getting gigs and you’d think "Why?" Now I think "Oh god, there really were a lot of men at that time and not very many women." '
'For a long time as well, I was super keen to put Northern Irish voices on screen, and for a long time no one was interested in that. I think that’s a regional thing to be honest. Anyone who comes from an area with a particularly broad accent scares people a bit.'
That voice is now being heard, well and truly. Through Derry Girls, Lisa has finally painted her portrait of the miss and under-represented people that lived throughout such a turbulent time during Northern Ireland’s history.
'I always felt that I, my friends and my family were never represented', she explains. 'Ordinary people were brilliant at those times. They were so funny. They had it tough, but they laughed too. I just wanted to have the girls be funny. They’re eejits and get into trouble in the show, but they’re actually extremely clever young girls who are really going to go far.'
'There were a lot of things that I just felt I wanted to show the world. Once people see that they respond to it because it’s truthful. These are my experiences but they’re also the experiences of other young women who were around at that time. You can see ordinary families commented on the show, saying "That was us stuck in the middle of it." '
The art of scriptwriting is a wonder to behold. To have the ability to create a story based on your own experiences in life; to see that come to life in front of you, it must be breathtaking.
Austrian novelist Peter Handke once said, 'If a nation loses its storytellers, it loses its childhood', and I feel that sums it up perfectly. Without the story of Derry Girls we may have one day forgot about the normality of growing up that occurred in such an abnormal environment. Stories are important.
Before our time comes to an end, I’m keen to learn of any advice for aspiring writers. What’s the best way to get your foot in the door?
'Nowadays there seems to be a lot of people going on courses,' says McGee. 'Before people even know what they want to write they go to these workshops and they’re taught all these rules and they begin to panic before they even put pen to paper. I think that’s for people that have been in the industry a while and maybe need a little help managing a writing career, or pushing in a different direction. I think when you’re starting you just need to find your own voice. Get people to read it. Get advice from people you trust.'
She adds: 'Take a bit of time, if you can. Set yourself a deadline, try and get a script finished. That’s what did it for me. Writing plays is a fantastic way to start as well. They’re relatively cheap to put on and it’s a good, quick way to get your work out there. Getting people to see your work come to life is the most important thing, rather than going to hundreds of meetings and pitching an idea.'
As with most great art, bringing it to life seems to be the key.
This article has been published as part of Creativity Month, a celebration of creativity and the Creative Industries in Northern Ireland which runs throughout March. This year's theme is careers and skills – click here to read other articles on how to get into various Creative Industries professions. See the programme of events featuring over 150 inspiring workshops, performances, talks and much more at www.creativityni.org/events.
Derry Girls will return for a second series on Channel 4. Further details are yet to be announced.