Sunday 20 October 2019

'When I read the scripts, I laughed out loud on every page' - Derry Girls actress on female-led phenomenon

Tara Lynne O'Neill, as Mary Quinn, third left, with Tommy Tiernan as her husband Gerry (far left)
Tara Lynne O'Neill, as Mary Quinn, third left, with Tommy Tiernan as her husband Gerry (far left)
Hit: Channel 4 has a second series of Derry Girls planned
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Derry Girls
Louise Harland who plays Orla
Comedy gold: Jamie-Lee O’Donnell says the reaction to Derry Girls has been unbelievable

Kelly Allen

With its witty one-liners, sense of nostalgia and epic soundtrack, Derry Girls is the biggest comedy hit for Channel 4 in years, with more than 2.5 million people tuning in to watch the coming-of-age sitcom.

Tara Lynne O'Neill, who plays mum Mary Quinn, revealed how even the stars of the show, which was written by Being Human screenwriter Lisa McGee, had been totally overwhelmed by the reaction to it.

She told Sunday Life: "Derry Girls exceeded everyone's expectations. When I was reading the scripts, I was laughing out loud on every page.

"That doesn't happen very often, so I knew it was something special. It's been brilliant - the support from the people in Northern Ireland and, of course, in England. It's been unbelievable that it's been able to cross the water.

"It's a surprise to everyone that it's translated so well, although I suppose not to Lisa McGee, who is well-experienced in writing."

Derry Girls, which centres around Erin Quinn (Saoirse Monica Jackson) and her friends Orla McCool (Louisa Harland), Clare Devlin (Nicola Coughlan) and Michelle Mallon (Jamie Lee O'Donnell), has been such a runaway hit that it's already been commissioned for a second series for 2019.

"Getting the second series took even the producers and Lisa by surprise," explained 42-year-old Tara.

"Everything you do you want it to be good and you want it to be successful, but you don't have control of that, so it has just been amazing.

"It's also great because we all get to work together again at home.

"It's a great opportunity for us to showcase Northern Ireland and how amazing it is.

"I think it's also really important at this time, with the 100th anniversary of the women's movement, to have a whole female-led TV show."

Tara is thrilled that with the sitcom getting recommissioned she will get to spend more time with Ian McElhinney, who plays granddad Joe, and Tommy Tiernan, who plays her husband, Gerry.

"Tommy and I just had such a laugh, and then you've got Ian as my father" she said. "I've been directed by him in plays, but I've never worked with him as an actor.

"It was joyous to go to work with him and listen to stories and his dulcet tones as my daddy.

"Then there's the girls - their energy is infectious. I auditioned with Saoirse, and just from the word go they were in themselves brilliant fun."

Tara hopes the show will boost tourism in Derry and wants to see people visiting to get a closer look at the filming locations.

"People will be going to see the walls just like they do with the Dark Hedges from Game of Thrones," she said. "People will come. People will be interested.

"It's putting out our humour, especially for Channel 4 and young people. Some of the shows from Northern Ireland are aimed at an older market. This is young and fresh. It's set during the 1990s, but it's still aimed at a youthful market."

Every week after the show airs, social media is full of people reminiscing about memories from their past, whether it's the Chernobyl children, weekly mass or your mammy always knowing what you were up to.

Tara, who was a teenager in the 1990s, admitted Derry Girls was like looking back on her childhood.

"I think everyone recognises either their own mothers or someone they know," she said. "It's not specific to Northern Ireland. We all recognise that stressed-out mum working a job and raising children - then throw in the Troubles at the same time.

"The bits of truth Lisa has got in there that she obviously exaggerates or explores, I think that's why people are relating to it, and there's that essence of truth that we all remember. It reminds me so much of myself - it's totally the same. The soundtrack is my youth. Every song I can tell you where I was and what I was doing when that was playing. All these people in their 40s are watching it and saying 'I remember that, I remember this at the disco'. It's a great memory for everyone."

But while the show is teaching the rest of the UK about the Trocaire fast, cross-community trips and the Twelfth, Tara warned that Northern Ireland talent was likely to disappear from TV screens if Stormont's planned cuts to the arts budget are passed.

"The way the arts sector is in Northern Ireland at the moment, we are almost on our knees," she explained. "It's so under-funded and it's only going to get worse.

"It's great Channel 4 can come in and shoot here with an amazing crew and showcase what talent is here, but that talent will only exist if we support the arts in the first place.

"It's great to have things like Game of Thrones here, but very few local actors are actually in that show. For Derry Girls, it's local actors, local crew, local fashion designers. All that only exists if we support it at its ground roots. We are only able to have the actors and the crew because we have supported them until this point."

More than 50 arts organisations across the province will suffer if the budget is slashed by 8% next year.

Tara, who previously starred in EastEnders, The Fall and Line of Duty, is based in Northern Ireland.

"I choose to live here because I love it. I know so many actors that have had to move to England because there is no work at home," she said.

"I believe in the arts sector here and I believe in what it can do for people. I've seen what it's done for communities, so it's so tough to see it struggle. If these Stormont cuts go ahead, I don't know how we will continue to exist.

"Derry Girls shows the talent is there. If we all support it, then we can do amazing things. But without funds, eventually all the talent will have to leave, so how do we produce programmes to attract people to the city and inspire our young people here?"

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