Derry Girls' Lisa McGee on breaking the patriarchy's grip on comedy

Abby Robinson
·12-min read
Photo credit: David M. Benett - Getty Images
Photo credit: David M. Benett - Getty Images

From Digital Spy

To celebrate Women's History Month and International Women's Day, we've launched Screen Sisters, a collection of conversations with women both in front of and behind the camera about what it means to be a woman working in television.

As well as recognising their contribution to the industry, the series will also examine how far television has progressed, and how much further it still has to go.

Next up, we're speaking to Derry Girls creator Lisa McGee.

The towering success of Derry Girls has been cemented by sparkling reviews, multiple awards and confirmation that the season two opener was Channel 4's biggest UK comedy launch for 15 years. In 2018, it was also reported that the sitcom was the most-watched series in Northern Ireland since modern records began in 2002 – another feather in its cap.

But it is undoubtedly a giant mural on the side of a pub in Derry, a ringing endorsement from the city itself, that truly underscores just how beloved the series is.

People travel from far and wide to have their photo taken in front of the titular girls: Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), Clare (Nicola Coughlan), Orla (Louisa Harland) and Michelle (Jamie-Lee O'Donnell), plus honorary girl James (Dylan Llewellyn), affectionately – and not so affectionately – dubbed the "wee Englishman".

They are the product of Lisa McGee, a playwright and screenwriter from Derry, who has achieved what many would have assumed impossible: a narrative that takes place during The Troubles without being dominated by the conflict that raged between Republicans and Loyalists, and one that places women front and centre.

There is tragedy, of course. The season-one finale will attest to that. But the girls don't sit around dissecting the dispute. It takes on more of a supporting role to inter-friendship squabbles, grappling with identity and a Take That concert in Belfast.

Photo credit: @nicolacoughlan  - Instagram
Photo credit: @nicolacoughlan - Instagram

Lisa describes the show as a "love letter" to her town. She wanted to make people laugh, above all else, and her writing, coupled with some outstanding physical comedy, does just that. But there's a legitimacy to her female characters in particular, whose anxieties and frustrations, hopes and dreams have resonated with viewers.

"I just thought about what real women are like, young women, and they don't spend all of their time talking about men or relationships," explains Lisa. "We were obsessed with exam results," she says, referencing the history test in season one that drives Clare to the brink of emotional collapse. "They could change your life. There was a lot of pressure on us and that probably took up just as much, or more time than talking about who we fancied.

"So ambition is important when I'm writing my female characters, and conversation beyond men and beyond who they fancy. There's a bit of that in Derry Girls, that's important. But making them real, I think, that was one of the reasons it's been successful because women watched it and went, 'I was like that at school.' And young girls who don't know the period at all identify with those characters, too."

It's also about giving the women in her narratives permission to make mistakes, flaunt the rules and indulge in mischief, because what could be more truthful than that?

"I hate women being the goodies, the good people," she adds. "I hate that. I love them being messy and flawed and angry in comedy and in drama. Making them feel like proper people. As a viewer, if something feels real for me, the dialogue, that's something that just hits you in a way that it doesn't in other dramas. It's something you really connect with."

Photo credit: Adam Lawrence - Channel 4
Photo credit: Adam Lawrence - Channel 4

Even now, being presented with fictional women who resemble yourself or those around can feel groundbreaking. But with the likes of Lisa taking up space in writers' rooms and other traditionally male-dominated environments, those voices will continue to come to the fore. That's what we get in Derry Girls, a series that is teeming with her real-world experience as a woman.

With that in mind, how does Lisa feel about men writing female characters? Do they have the capabilities to sketch them with the same level of understanding and care?

"I feel like a good writer can write anything," she replies. "It's about not being lazy and attacking your female characters. It's about finding them as interesting as the men, finding something to say.

"But I do feel like if a show's built around a woman, a woman's experience, maybe a woman is the best person to write that show. And I think because we're still quite limited with what we have, there's still not an awful lot of us in the industry, that maybe if the show's lead is a woman, there should be more women on the writing team."

Lisa's thoughts drift to Michaela Coel and I May Destroy You, which critics and viewers across the globe lauded as one of 2020's televisual crown jewels.

"I think it's one of the best pieces of television ever made," she says.

Photo credit: HBO/BBC
Photo credit: HBO/BBC

"It's interesting that a lot of these lead actresses are creating the shows as well. Even Billie Piper was involved in I Hate Suzie. I know Lucy Prebble wrote it, but she was involved in that process. Maybe they know what's not being offered to them. Maybe the most interesting thing is to create your own show because the parts they're getting offered aren't that interesting.

"I've not really seen a female character like Arabella [in I May Destroy You] before. And there's the structure. She's just really reinvented drama."

But as "critical" as both of those shows are in terms of the voices that they're centring and the themes that they're tackling, such as sexual violence and female masturbation, they both spotlight women who are in their early thirties, as does Fleabag, another series also spoken about in the same breath.

As essential and game-changing as the work of Coel, Prebble and Waller-Bridge is, Lisa wants that to be a gateway to more, with commissioners branching out further rather than sticking strictly to that script.

"I hope it expands a wee bit," she adds. "All those stories that I've just mentioned are about women of a certain age. I hope we're going to be able to tell other stories about women of different ages, different backgrounds, different stages in their lives in the way that men can.

"I'd love to get to the point where it's not even a thing that it's a woman. That it's just a detective show and she's a woman, or a comedy and she's a woman. That it's not even a talking point. That would be the dream."

Photo credit: Ollie Upton - Sky
Photo credit: Ollie Upton - Sky

At the start of her career, Lisa "didn't know any [female screenwriters personally], adding: "The writing teams I was on at the beginning, I was the only woman."

Following her drama degree at Queens University Belfast, she established a theatre company with some other students after trying but failing to secure work.

"It's typical when you've done a drama degree," she laughs.

They began putting on plays above pubs and any space that'd have them, and were eventually able to pay themselves a small wage. That kept her ticking along until a film producer, who had caught one of her productions, posited the idea of developing it into a screenplay. She signed with an agent in London not long after, while also continuing her work as a playwright.

"I'm from Northern Ireland and there's a great tradition of female playwrights there, like Marie Jones," she continues. "There were a lot of big writers selling out theatres. It was never a hurdle in Northern Ireland. You were a writer like everyone else.

"But then you go to Dublin and their theatres were dominated by men, and then when I moved to London when I started writing TV seriously, it was mostly men in the room. So yeah, I was the only woman in most of the rooms that I was in."

In 2018, a report commissioned by the Writers' Guild of Great Britain (WGGB), which analysed data collected over a period spanning more than a decade from the UK film and television industries, revealed that gender inequality is still prevalent.

Only 28% of TV episodes are "predominantly female-written" and in film, the number sits even lower at just 11%.

Photo credit: David M. Benett - Getty Images
Photo credit: David M. Benett - Getty Images

One of the greatest hurdles for women is balancing their caregiver responsibilities with career demands and aspirations.

When you're the one on laundry duty, the school run and elderly relative patrol, on top of managing your paid employment, writing a screenplay naturally falls to the bottom of the pile, and it's largely women who are forced to press pause on those non-urgent tasks.

The Office for National Statistics' Time Use survey, which looked at the period between March 28 and April 26 last year, revealed that men, despite committing to more responsibilities at home, were still doing over an hour less housework and childcare than women every day.

Another ONS study revealed that older female workers are almost twice as likely as their male counterparts to be informal carers (via The Guardian).

That's also echoed in Caroline Criado Perez's book 'Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men', in which she notes that women do 75% of the world's unpaid care work.

Photo credit: Adam Lawrence - Channel 4
Photo credit: Adam Lawrence - Channel 4

"I'm finding it really difficult at the moment with childcare and homeschooling," admits Lisa. "My husband [screenwriter and actor Tobias Beer] absolutely does more than enough, it's just he's a writer too, and trying to find the space [is hard].

"I felt like when I had my first child, the industry wasn't very maternity friendly. You just have to keep working. I didn't take any maternity leave. And I don't want to complain either because I love what I do, but it is tough and I do worry about some people, some women that maybe aren't as well established, having babies, and the [lack of] support there, and I think that's something we really need to talk about.

"It's such a miracle when a show gets greenlit. There's no option to put it back or to not do it. You just have to go for it, so whatever your situation is you just have to make it work, and I think it would be lovely if we had some sort of support in place for families, some childcare."

Photo credit: Channel 4
Photo credit: Channel 4

That, coupled with "female screenwriters coming on established shows at the start of their career" would be a simple yet effective way to assist women trying to break in, says Lisa.

"Also, to see more entry-level schemes that give people some money, particularly, because of my own experience, women from working-class backgrounds, how to get them into the industry because it's hard."

The ones who have succeeded in establishing themselves, despite the hurdles blocking their respective paths, are producing some of the most exciting and rich work ever to grace the small screen. But as the numbers demonstrate, there's still a dearth of women in writers' rooms across the board, which means there is a wealth of untapped female brilliance that is in danger of being lost forever.

"There's some work to be done," says Lisa.

Quickfire Q&A

Which woman do you admire, either on-screen or behind the scenes?

"There's quite a few of them. I think what Shonda Rhimes has done is incredible. I love a lot of female writers. I love Sarah Phelps, and Michaela Coel I really admire. She's definitely made me want to up my game. God, there's loads."

Who is your favourite female TV character?

"Elaine from Seinfeld. I love how awful she is and I love the lines they gave her and her performance is just immaculate. She's definitely a character I look to when I'm trying to write funny female characters. And Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote."

What's your favourite female-led show?

"It probably would be I May Destroy You. Nothing's affected me as much in a long time. I'm sure there are older ones.

Is there a particular ground-breaking moment that has placed women front and centre that really sticks in your mind?

"There's an episode in Seinfeld where Elaine is dating someone from out of town. He's staying with her and she's really into him at the start, but then she decides that she's not any more and she tries to get rid of him. She accidentally sleeps in when she should be driving him to the airport, but she still tries to get him there. And her performance describing the driving, she does this really heroic speech about how fast she was going and she's in her nightdress, and I just weep with laughter. And Jerry and George are watching her stand around and speak about it and she's totally in charge and it's just beautiful."

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