The February / March issue of Creative Review is all about humour. We talk to writers, designers and creatives using wit in their work, examine why humour fell out of fashion in advertising and explore what creative agencies can learn from practising stand up. We also have an interview with Lisa McGee – the writer and creator of the brilliant Channel 4 sitcom Derry Girls. Below is an extended version of our interview with McGee, in which she discusses her creative process, how she went from idea to script and the challenges of writing for comedy versus drama.
Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls will conjure up fond memories for anyone who grew up in the early 1990s. Its lead characters wear scrunchies and stonewash denim jackets, develop obsessions with aerobics and Pulp Fiction and listen to Salt N Pepa, Madonna and Supergrass.
The show captures the camaraderie and closeness of female friendships in a way that is rarely seen on TV. It also presents an alternative view of life in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Its characters grow up against a backdrop of bomb scares and kidnappings but they go through the same dramas as any other teenager – from arguing with their ‘Ma’s to stressing about exams.
McGee had the idea for the show after writing London / Irish, a sitcom about four Northern Irish expats living in London. The series is inspired by her life – she grew up in Derry before moving to Belfast to study drama at The Queen’s University and the characters are loosely based on real people. “No one is 100 percent one person – they’re combinations of people,” she tells CR.
The show has been hugely successful. Two-and-a-half million people tuned in to watch the first episode within a week of its release and a second series was commissioned before episode two had aired. As McGee explains to CR, writing it was a labour of love…
I’d never seen a true representation of what a group of girlfriends that age really get up to
Creative Review: How did the idea for Derry Girls come about?
Lisa McGee: I had written another comedy [London/Irish] and I started thinking ‘what else?’ I liked the experience and knew I wanted to try something else funny and I’d always had this thought in the back of my head that I might want to write about my friends at school.
I’d never seen a true representation of what a group of girlfriends that age really get up to. It was always [girls being] obsessed with boys and self-image and all that sort of stuff and while there’s elements of that [in Derry Girls], we have a character who would do anything to get a good grade in her exams and we have egos and all these things that traditionally you only see in these young male comic characters.
I was interested in that first and creating that group of characters and once I found them, it just sort of went from there.
How did you go about getting the show made?
I have a very close relationship with two producers, Liz Lewin and Caroline Leddy…. Caroline and Liz are great because they really sort of trick you into writing the thing. [With Derry Girls], they would talk to me about my school days and my friends and before I knew it, I had created this world just by reminiscing and picking bits and piece. It was a very enjoyable process early on. It was a script that while I was writing other things, I wanted to go back to.
The script went through [several iterations]. At the start, I didn’t want to set it during the Troubles, because I thought it would get in the way of the comedy but then I started writing it and it didn’t feel truthful because I grew up during the Troubles – so I have no teenage experience outside of that. It just felt weirdly wrong.
When we had a script we showed it to a commissioner at Channel 4 called Nerys Evans – she’s left now but she’s brilliant – and she really liked the pilot script and commissioned the series.
“Writing the first episode of anything’s the toughest, I think”
It sounds dead quick when I say it like that but me writing that script was a long process. It took about a year and a half – two years maybe – from the initial idea to the final episode that Channel 4 would have read.
[Writing] the first episode of anything’s the toughest I think, because you don’t really know who the characters are, you don’t really know what the world is, you don’t know if it’s going to work or gel. But once you start to make it work and it all clicks together, the rest [is much easier]. I probably wrote the other five episodes in a few months but the first one took me a year-and-a-half.
How did you go about building the characters – and how much time did you spend developing them before you start writing the script?
I find you never really find out who the characters are until you start writing the dialogue, so I’ll work them up a bit and then I’ll put them in a scene together and see how they talk to each other and see what works and what doesn’t.
One thing that seemed to really work for Clare – the sort of nerdy, stressed-out friend of [lead character] Erin’s – was when she grassed people up … and that worked plot-wise as well. It’s interesting when those things help each other out and the character helps the plot rather than the other way around. With Michelle, for example [another friend of Erin’s], her mischievous streak often led them into story situations just because she wants to try something or she’s bored.
I think it’s always better to try and get the characters talking to each other so you can just sort of feel them as a group. You might end up tweaking one because it just doesn’t work in the gang.
“I like to start with a very basic A, B, C for the episode otherwise I wouldn’t be able to write”
How did you approach writing individual episodes? Did you start with an idea for an incident? So for example getting detention or trying to get a job? And build out scenes from there?
I always start with a story idea. That idea will change and you sharpen it up a bit as you go, but in episode one [which culminates with the death of a nun who is supervising the lead characters during an after-school detention], I always knew all these little things they were doing – Clare’s doing a fast, James needs to go to the loo and Erin wants to meet a boy – I knew I wanted it to lead up to them being accused of killing a nun.
Then you sort of just go on this path of trying to make it work and you take loads of wrong turns, but I like to start with a very basic ‘A, B, C’ for the episode otherwise I wouldn’t be able to write … I would feel like I had no map.
Was the process very different to other series you’ve worked on? You were also a writer on BBC comedy-drama Being Humans and Channel 4 drama Indian Summers…
I’ve mostly done drama. Being Human was a comedy drama but it was still hour-long episodes and the focus of the stories was definitely more dramatic than comic.
It’s a completely different kind of torture getting that hour-long plot to work. In an hour-long show, it’s about making every act feel dramatic and engaging, because an hour’s a long time on TV. In a half-hour, you usually have too much material and you don’t have time to make it all work, so it’s a different kind of stressful.
The tough thing about comedy is that every line has to be funny. Every line is examined in a way that it just wouldn’t be in drama. The dialogue is so important and there’s a very definite aim: to make people laugh.
You can tell quite quickly if that’s not working when you’re in a read-through. In drama, if you have a good story and good characters, it’s always going to work, but if everyone’s sitting there [during a comedy read-through] and it’s tumbleweed, then you’re in trouble.
“I’d be very nervous going in to shoot something having not heard a room full of people’s reactions to it”
How do you go about testing whether scenes are funny? You must have a sense of whether something works while you’re writing it but how do you test whether it will resonate with viewers?
We had a very long audition process for casting the young people [in Derry Girls] so you hear a lot of things that way…. We then had chemistry read-throughs with the kids to make sure they were working as a gang and read-throughs with the whole cast.
You do have a sense [of whether something’s funny] – I always know if something’s not going to work but sometimes I think ‘I might get away with this’ and you never do. If there’s something dodgy about the joke or the setup up, I think it’s obvious when you hear it that there’s something not quite right.
So is that read-through process even more important in comedy?
I think it’s essential in comedy to do read-throughs in a way that it’s just not really in drama…. You need to hear where the laughter’s coming from and I’d be very nervous going in to shoot something having not heard a room full of people’s reactions to it.
Why do you think Derry Girls has been so popular?
I’m not sure. I think it’s different isn’t it? When you see [it’s set during] the Troubles, and it’s funny and it’s a group of mouthy girls – maybe it’s that. Also stuff on TV’s been a bit dark for a long time and there does seem to be a real appetite for comedy at the minute. I think the nostalgia thing plays a part as well. A lot of people in my generation are wanting to look back with fondness at that time before social media. It’s a combination of things really.
The response from people in Derry seems to be positive – were you nervous about how they would react to it?
You’re always a bit like ‘Oh God’ when you write anything but this was absolutely [terrifying] because it’s about a city that’s never been represented. It’s about my hometown and getting that wrong for me would have been heart breaking – but they seem to love it in Derry, thank God.
That was the main thing I was worried about: that people at home would say ‘I don’t like it’ or ‘that doesn’t feel truthful’. We had a small screening in Derry and once I knew people were happy enough I relaxed a bit because that’s what I had set out to do – to tell another side to the Troubles story.
People really seem to recognise and identify with the world you’ve created in Derry Girls. What was the key to achieving that level of authenticity, do you think?
I think the main thing for me was trying to remember what I didn’t like about the representations of Northern Ireland and what used to annoy me as a teenager and all the things I used to wish people knew [about Derry].
[It was also] just really throwing myself back into that world and embracing it. It was lovely to do that – to think like a 15, 16-year-old again and think of what was important to you. These tiny things became your whole world – if your friend stopped talking to you it was the greatest tragedy on earth – and it was great to revisit all of that.
“It’s about truth – finding small stories that sit alongside big ones”
Derry Girls is rooted in a very specific place and time but speaks to pretty universal themes about growing up. How important was it to you to strike that balance while writing the show?
What I wanted to say was that this might have been going on but we were all the same … every young person has a lot in common.
It’s also about truth and finding small stories that sit alongside big ones. So someone getting their van stolen by the IRA [something that happens in the series] and getting tied up [like Erin’s uncle does] and taking the chip shop order … those things happened every day and sat alongside each other.
Someone watching it in England might not understand the uncle getting tied up scene but they’ll understand the chip shop order.
Most of the show is pretty light hearted – the bomb scares and kidnappings seem more of an inconvenience than anything – but the final episode ended on a much more serious note. Why did you feel it was important to have a serious ending?
There were times when it was very serious and it wasn’t just an inconvenience. People died and it’s a small country so everyone in Northern Ireland was touched by that period of violence. I wanted to have a moment just to say ‘this was really, really serious’ and I thought I should do it at the end because you can’t come back from that.
I just felt I had to tell the truth if I’m going to do this show – that sometimes it was just horrendous for families. On the local news you were watching people like you – you were watching these awful things happening to them – and the fact that we were doing it to each other, it was just heartbreaking.
You studied drama and went on to work as a writer on attachment at the National Theatre. How did you get into writing for TV?
I’ve sort of always written. I was writing little stories when I was young and then I went to university and did a drama degree. To be honest … there was a lot of performance-focused stuff in it, and I knew I wasn’t going to be an actor, but I wrote a play when I was in third year and after that, I set up a drama company with a few other students. We put on a few plays in pubs in Belfast and one day, a film producer came to see one of those plays. I don’t know why he came, he was just staying above the pub I think, but he put me in touch with an agent and that was how I got into TV.
Alongside that I’d been sending plays to every theatre company and getting ‘thanks but no thanks’ back, and then the National Theatre invited me to come and talk to them and I did an attachment there because they liked one of my plays.
I think what doing plays gave me … was a confidence and a really strong voice
What lessons did you learn from writing for theatre?
I think what doing the plays gave me – and why I would advise people to think about that way in – was a confidence and a really strong voice. I didn’t even know this at the time but I think if I’d have gone in and my first writing experience had been writing on someone else’s show … I don’t know how it would have worked – me breaking out of that or having the confidence to say ‘no I have my own style and tone and things I want to say’.
I always wanted to go back and write another play … it’s just such a perfect little piece of who you are as a writer and there’s no interference really – or at least there shouldn’t be.
In many ways it’s like writing a novel. And the writer is so important in theatre. Obviously it then moves into a rehearsal space and it becomes collaborative but it’s not like TV where from the very first day, there are other people involved.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing but it’s just nice to have that time on your own. Also in theatre, the stakes are normally much lower – there’s not as much money unless you’re opening shows on Broadway – so it’s a safe place to play. With television, there’s loads of money involved so there are loads of people having opinions [from the outset].
What advice would you give to writers who have an idea for a show?
I would always just say write the script. Don’t go in with an idea or treatment, have a really, really good script – one that you would be happy having filmed right now. If it’s good, people will respond to it … a good script is worth a thousand concepts and people still get excited by a good script in our industry.
The February/March issue of CR – a special issue all about humour – is out on February 22. You can watch Derry Girls on All4 here.
The post Writing Derry Girls: Lisa McGee on making a hit Channel 4 sitcom appeared first on Creative Review.