Thursday 23 May 2019

Sound and vision: Derry Girls' brilliant use of music

Channel 4's Derry Girls' nostalgic 1990s soundtrack has been a big part of its success but the best TV drama has long realised the power of using great songs

Music of a generation: Derry Girls has featured tracks from The Cranberries to Whigfield
Music of a generation: Derry Girls has featured tracks from The Cranberries to Whigfield
John Meagher

John Meagher

Ian Katz, the head of programming at Channel 4, was shown just one episode of Derry Girls and he green-lit the second series immediately. The short, snappy comedy has been a sensation since it first aired in early January.

The writing, characterisation, plotting and acting are all first-rate but part of the reason for its critical and popular success is its brilliant use of music.

The series is set in the Derry of the early 1990s, in the days where British soldiers patrolled the streets and the Good Friday Agreement was a long way into the future. And the song choice is utterly inspired.

The opening scene of the very first episode features The Cranberries' 'Dreams' as the camera tracks an army jeep before panning over the fine city on the banks of the Foyle. For those who've recently been catching up with the series on the All4 player, it will have felt terribly poignant in the wake of Dolores O'Riordan's untimely death.

Each episode leans heavily on the chart music that characterised the early 1990s and for those of us who were in our late teens then, it brings back great memories. EMF's 'Unbelievable'? It's there, and so too is Cypress Hill's then-ubiquitous 'Insane in the Brain'.

There's room, too, for the era's biggest pop hits, including the Eurodance anthem 'Saturday Night' from Danish one-hit-wonder Whigfield and En Vogue's 'My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It)'.

Several of the songs found a much larger proportionate audience in Ireland than Britain, such as House of Pain's 'Jump Around' and Dropkick Murphys' 'I'm Shipping Up to Boston' and a handful were huge hits in Ireland only, including Eleanor McEvoy and Mary Black's 'Only a Woman's Heart' from the album 'A Woman's Heart' - still, all these years later, the biggest seller in Irish chart history.

And hearing these songs in the context of a really well-realised show delivers nostalgia and pleasure in equal amounts. It's all part of that shared experience - music that soundtracked a particular moment in time. And even for those who were not born when the action is set, there's much to savour in the authenticity of the soundtrack - and they're bloody good songs, too.

The best television drama has long understood the importance of its soundtrack; not just the score, but the songs, too. Consider how the Choir of Young Believers' 'Hollow Talk' elevates the opening titles of the pan-Scandinavian The Bridge to rarefied heights or how The Platters' 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' so brilliantly soundtracked a memorable scene in Mad Men. The latter used songs to help move the drama through the 1960s and while it opted for some of the decade's best-loved tracks, they were chosen with great care.

It was a similarly great song selection which helped make Bachelors Walk one of the best dramas RTÉ ever made. The finale of the first season back in 2001 concluded with our three heroes listening to Tom Waits's heart-rending 'Kentucky Avenue' - and the song played out as the credits rolled.

Its director John Carney knew a thing or two about the impact of a fine song having served his apprenticeship as a member of The Frames. And his cinematic work post-Bachelors Walk has majored heavily on songs, whether it's been the Dublin-set Once and Sing Street or his underrated Keira Knightley-vehicle Begin Again.

And yet, it was its brilliant choice of songs that has put paid to Bachelors Walk's life after that Christmas special was aired in 2006. Due to copyright issues, the second and third seasons can't be released on DVD or shown on such streaming sites as Netflix, thus denying a new generation the chance to see the exploits of much-loved central characters played by Don Wycherley, Keith McErlean and Simon Delaney.

It's little wonder, then, that subsequent homegrown TV hits have relied on music from Irish artists. The restaurant-set drama series, Raw, which was co-written by Derry Girls creator Lisa McGee, ran for five seasons on RTÉ and included a creatively curated soundtrack featuring the likes of Bell X1, Lisa Hannigan, Heathers and Two Door Cinema Club. Snappy tracks for snappy action.

A largely Irish ensemble also feature in RTÉ's latest big-money drama, Striking Out, which sees its second season conclude tomorrow night. The uncharitable might say the music is the best thing about the Amy Huberman lawyer drama, a triumph of style over substance - and both seasons have featured domestic acts both well established and fledgeling.

The quality of the songs from artists as diverse as Róisín O, Daithí and Sive has been notable, and it was Niall Byrne, the man behind the hugely popular Nialler9 new music blog, who was charged with selecting the songs in conjunction with New Music Port, the "independent music licensing and sonic branding agency".

It's win-win for the musicians, too, not least the London-based Cork artist Lyra, whose track 'Emerald' attracted plenty of excitement on social media when it aired at the finale of season one last year. And it's not just dramas that have witnessed superlative use of music. A huge part of the appeal of the perennially popular Reeling in the Years has been the smart choice of songs to soundtrack the events portrayed in each year. And as anyone who has watched even a single episode will know, the tracks were chosen to fit with the mood of the historical event being depicted and not simply selected because it was released in the year in question.

A couple of years ago, someone went to the trouble of creating a Spotify playlist featuring all 442 songs featured in the series - everything from Steely Dan's 'Reelin' in the Years' to The Temper Trap's 'Sweet Disposition'. On the very first day it was shared, it was picked up by almost 800 followers.

No doubt when Derry Girls' six-part run ends this Thursday, someone will have added every song featured to a streaming playlist - and it will provoke a smile here and there.

Certainly, I'll never be able to listen to 'Saturday Night' again and not think of the show.

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