Does anyone remember The Fitz?
It was a BBC2 sitcom written by the acclaimed Co Tyrone stand-up Owen O’Neill about an unhinged family living along the border.
It aired in 2000 and had a cast that included Eamon Morrissey, Bronagh Gallagher, Deirdre O’Kane, Ruth McCabe, Pat Shortt and Jon Kenny.
Well, that’s not surprising. ‘The Fitz’ died after one series after appalling reviews from critics who desperately hoped it would be the new ‘Fr Ted’.
Ever since Channel 4’s clerical sitcom struck gold, TV executives in the U.K. and Ireland have been trying to find another Irish comedy classic.
Sky 1 came pretty close to replicating the formula with Chris O’Dowd’s ‘Moone Boy’.
BBC Scotland and RTÉ have enjoyed strong ratings for Brendan O’Carroll’s ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’, even if it has received the disdain of most critics.
BBC4’s ‘The Walshes’ and RTÉ’s ‘Val Falvey TD’ stuttered despite having various members of the ‘Fr Ted’ team on board.
Pat Shortt’s ‘Killinaskully’ on RTE has not really been able to find an audience outside Ireland and it remains a mystery how RTÉ’s ‘Bridget and Eamon’ ended up on UK Gold.
So the track record of sitcoms in Ireland remains patchy and north the border, it has been mainly dominated by the woeful ‘Give My Head Peace’ and the debacle that was ‘The Number Twos’ – even if Pearse Elliott’s BBC3 West Belfast comedy ‘Pulling Moves’ deserves an honourable mention.
Playwright Lisa McGee has had one stab at a sitcom so far for Channel 4, ‘London Irish’ which only lasted a series and didn’t quite live up to expectation.
However with ‘Derry Girls’, she has turned closer to home and dipped into her experiences growing up in the city for her latest Channel 4 sitcom.
There was understandable nervousness around Channel 4 greenlighting a sitcom about a group of convent educated teenagers in Derry/Londonderry (whatever you prefer) at the tail end of the Troubles.
How would it play with audiences outside Northern Ireland who tend to shy away from fiction set there?
How would it play too with audiences closer to home and especially in the Maiden City?
How would the makers of ‘Derry Girls’ avoid the exaggerated, overblown performances that have dogged most Northern Irish comedies?
It is, therefore, a pleasure to report that the opening episode of ‘Derry Girls’ suggests this is a sitcom with real laughs and a hell of a lot of potential.
At its heart is Saoirse Monica Jackson’s Erin Quinn, an insecure teen who is constantly embarrassed by her family including her cousin, Louisa Harland’s Orla McCool.
Orla has no qualms about breaking any personal boundaries and she likes to read aloud excerpts from Erin’s personal diary, much to her cousin’s chagrin.
Erin and Orla knock about with Nicola Coughlan’s rather earnest Clare Devlin, who in the first episode was on a fast for Africa, and Jamie Lee O’Donnell’s gobby Michelle Mallon who cursed like Samuel L Jackson after seeing ‘Pulp Fiction’.
Joining this motley crew is Michelle’s English cousin, Dylan Llewellyn’s James Maguire who ended up being the only boy in the convent because of fears that if he went to the local Christian Brothers school he would be beaten up for being a Brit.
The plot of the opening episode was pretty basic, sketching out many of the characters.
Erin got tongue tied over a boy she fancied and hoped to catch up with him after school.
The girls got into bother over an incident on a school bus in which Michelle tried to intimidate some first years into giving up their seats at the back, only to encounter a rather thran girl.
James was distraught that the school seemed to have made no provision at all for him going to the loo. Clare suffered desperate hunger pangs and they also had to deal with a kleptomaniac nun.
There was a real sense in the opening episode that McGee really knows the territory she is lampooning – a School Assembly scene with a motivational speech from a rather obnoxious prefect was laugh out loud funny (and no doubt chimed with anyone who went to a convent school like Thornhill) and there was also a well landed gag about one of the pupils, Rhonda Gallagher not being expelled even though “she’s in the IRA”.
There was something rather refreshing too about a sitcom set in the final years of the Troubles which treated the conflict more as an inconvenience.
A scene where Michelle ogled a British soldier searching their school bus, while James struggled to comprehend what was going on was amusing.
Rounding out the cast were Tommy Tiernan and Tara Lynne O’Neill as Erin’s parents Gerry and Mary, Ian McElhinney as her grandpa Joe and Kathy Kiera Clarke as Aunt Sara.
With only brief appearances by them in the first episode, it will be interesting to see if McGee lets these characters loose in later instalments.
Inevitably, given the convent school setting and its no nonsense headmistress Siobhan McSweeney’s Sister Michael, some critics have already reached for the ‘Fr Ted’ comparisons.
However with its mixture of gobby and confused teenagers, the first episode of McGee’s sitcom felt more like a Northern Irish version of Channel 4’s ‘The In Betweeners’ and ‘Shameless’.
And while not every gag hit the mark and one or two members of the cast still succumbed to that tendency in Northern Irish comedy to play everything too big, there was much to suggest that ‘Derry Girls’ could be a surprise hit – not least Jamie’s Lee O’Donnell’s potentially star making turn as Michelle.
Some locals may quibble about the accents but there can be little doubt that McGee has a firm grasp on the black humour of her home city, especially in the period ‘Derry Girls’ is set.
But what will be really fascinating to watch in the weeks ahead is how McGee’s sitcom travels with audiences outside of Northern Ireland.
Dan McGinn is a journalist who was previously the Ireland Political Editor and Ireland Deputy Editor of the Press Association and has worked for the Irish News, Belfast Telegraph and other publications and for TV and radio. He currently works in public affairs and is also a film and television critic with his own blog, They’ll Love It In Pomona covering the latest cinema releases.