Inside the “epic” final season of ‘Derry Girls’: “It’s been magic”

School's out! We meet the cast of Channel 4's hit sitcom as they prepare to graduate

When filming wrapped on the third and final season of Derry Girls, out next week on Channel 4, it was an emotional moment for creator Lisa McGee. Inspired by her own experiences growing up in Ireland, the hit sitcom’s last day of shooting felt like closing a door on her childhood. “People always say you don’t get to go back to your youth,” she tells NME during an afternoon Zoom chat, “but with Derry Girls, I did just that every day for six years. It’s been wonderful.”

For those who don’t know (and where have you been?), Derry Girls is the riotous comedy about a group of working class, teenage friends in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. That’s four girls – anxious leader Erin, panicky Clare, straight-talking thrillseeker Michelle and out-there Orla – plus one boy, English-born James, cousin of Michelle, who becomes an honorary Derry girl after bonding with the gang. Together they get into a series of mad scrapes, like accidentally setting fire to the local chippy or causing a bomb scare on a bus with an illegal vodka stash.

Derry Girls
CREDIT: Channel 4

It’s undoubtedly the best sitcom on TV right now, combining searingly witty one-liners with a genuinely moving story and an unbeatable ‘90s soundtrack. You might wonder, then, why it’s coming off the air at all. Surely we deserve more than 18 episodes? McGee explains: “I felt right from the start that it was a three-series show about the country, and a group of teenagers, moving on in a very short window of time. I’m just thrilled we’ve been able to get it done.”

Born and raised in the titular town just north of the Irish border, McGee once swore she was never going to write about that early part of her life – the part where Derry was right at the heart of a sectarian conflict stretching back three decades. Clearly McGee’s hesitation didn’t last, because when the show first aired in 2018, it was filled with characters plucked from her adolescence. Erin is based on McGee, Erin’s mum and dad are similar to McGee’s own, and Erin’s quirky pals are sketched from the people she grew up with in the ‘90s.

Derry Girls
‘Derry Girls’ season three kicks off on the eve of GCSE results day. CREDIT: Channel 4

“When writing, I would listen to music, smell White Musk perfume that everyone wore back then and look at loads of photographs,” remembers McGee, now 40. “The school is exactly like my school, the uniforms exactly like my uniform. The set was made using photos of my living room at home.”

If McGee’s youth was anything like the anarchic adventures of her beloved Derry girls, she must have had her hands full. Around the same time we talk with the showrunner, NME is invited to meet the cast: Saoirse-Monica Jackson (Erin), Nicola Coughlan (Clare), Dylan Llewellyn (James), Louisa Harland (Orla) and Jamie-Lee O’Donnell (Michelle). Everyone is excited to talk about their next steps, but gutted the ride is over.

“It’s been surreal, strange and sad”
– Saoirse-Monica Jackson

“It felt surreal, strange and sad when we wrapped,” says Jackson, who recalls tears during those final scenes. “But what an amazing thing we’ve achieved together. What a show to have been a part of.”

Reflecting on Derry Girls’ legacy, Jackson praises McGee for completely rewriting how young women from Northern Ireland are seen on screen. “Lisa has changed the lives of so many with this show,” she says. “There’s a real punk attitude of girls from Derry, and she’s captured that perfectly.” O’Donnell agrees: “It’s showing that young women are not archetypical like the rest of the world decided we have to be. We said ‘fuck you’ to that. We’re all very flawed, really honest and fucking great people, but we’re also dicks because we’re teenagers.”

Derry Girls
Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) and Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson). CREDIT: Channel 4

Llewellyn adds: “It’s been so great being a part of a female-led show like this. It’s good to see the femininity of boys too. Letting that feminine side out is important.” Coughlan offers a final thought: “More than anything,” she says, “I hope that it’s inspired young women who want to be funny that they can be and that there’s a place for them. What greater legacy is there than that?”

We last found our motley crew at risk of being broken up. Season two, which aired in 2019, saw the gang distraught when James was forced to return to England with his mother. Thankfully, he chose not to go and there was an emotional reunion in the finale. Season three picks up shortly afterwards, on the eve of GCSE results day.

“They grapple with some serious stuff this season”
–Creator Lisa McGee

“I wanted this first episode to feel like: ‘We’re back!’” says McGee excitedly. “We start quite stupidly, but on a high. They’re getting into trouble again and everything is reassuringly the same.” Later, the atmosphere changes when the best mates fall out over an argument.

“They really grapple with some serious stuff this season,” McGee says. “There’s a lot of different things which force them to grow up a bit. It all leads to a big thing at the end of the series, which is the first time they don’t have the same view about something. It’s a really big deal for them.”

Lisa McGee
‘Derry Girls’ creator Lisa McGee’. CREDIT: Press

Both Jackson and O’Donnell say their characters go through some particularly big changes during their final fling. “In the previous series, we’ve always seen Erin apologise for being a dick when she’s a dick,” Jackson laughs. “I think what we get to see in this series is a very complicated situation being thrown her way and her really having to stand her ground to say: ‘This is not necessarily a situation where I have to say sorry, but we do have different opinions on this.’”

O’Donnell says Michelle also grows up this season. “She can’t just say ‘fuck it!’ and move on with it for the craic, distracting herself as she has done before. Michelle is still a bit out there, a bit of a loose cannon. But she has to grow into herself and really face something head on. It’s a bit of a different side we see. I hope people like it!”

Derry Girls
Clare, played by Nicola Coughlan. CREDIT: Channel 4

Llewellyn says they’re going out on a high with “even more chaos than before”, and Coughlan agrees: “It’s very much the same as before but at a much more heightened level. They’re still an absolute bunch of idiots so there’s no change there.” For Harland, the latest scripts were “probably the best they’ve ever been.”

Of course, signing off with a flourish wasn’t as simple as the cast make it sound. There were actually a lot of problems. First to contend with was COVID, which swept the globe in March 2020 and shut down production completely. Then, once McGee and her team were allowed to start shooting again, the scheduling issues began. In the two years since the show debuted, its rising cast had gone on to even bigger things. Coughlan struck gold with saucy period drama Bridgerton and Jackson signed up for The Flash, DC’s upcoming superhero blockbuster. Usually, starry productions can get around not having their cast together by filming separately. This wasn’t an option for McGee because the show’s comedy relies heavily on close physical proximity.

“I hope we’ve inspired young women who want to be funny”
–Nicola Coughlan

Derry Girls is a show about squeezing as many people onto a sofa as possible,” she says. “It was never going to work for us [without that]. So we had to wait.” On the other hand, an enforced period of isolation did give McGee more time to write.

“The final episode is quite epic,” she says. “I knew how I wanted it to end initially, but then I wound up making some big changes. There are other episodes that I think I’ve done something quite a bit different with. Some of the scenes are probably the most idiotic we’ve ever done. We really went for it with! Hopefully I haven’t used the extra time to ruin the show…”

Dylan Llewellyn
James, played by Dylan Llewellyn. CREDIT: Channel 4

It’s unlikely that McGee has done that. She’s nailed every decision up ’til now – so much so that fans often come up to congratulate her on the street. In Derry itself, people like to collar her and talk about Erin, Clare and the rest for hours. This is quite impressive when you consider Derry Girls tackles some very sensitive subjects. McGee was originally worried she’d mess it up.

“I tried to write the show at first without The Troubles in it, but when I put that stuff in it was much funnier. I had to have a good sense of where the line is though,” she tells us. “The great thing about Derry Girls is a lot of the harsher things are being said by teenagers who are not threatening so they get away with a lot. But sometimes I do panic about having offended someone.

Derry Girls
‘Derry Girls’ returns next week on Channel 4 for its last series. CREDIT: Channel 4

“I mean, thank God they liked it because if they didn’t, people from Derry are definitely not afraid to give their opinion on something,” she continues, laughing. “That was a real worry for me because I would just have to listen to a lot of people moaning at me every time I went home if they didn’t like it. Now there are Derry Girls tours, murals, afternoon teas – you get to the airport and you’re met with a big poster of them.”

There’s talk of a film next, but McGee says that’s not been officially confirmed: “I think I have an idea for one. I need to take a break first.” It might also be tricky to get the cast back in the same room again. Coughlan in particular seems ready to move on, and tells us she’s “definitely played Clare for the last time.”

Even if this really is their swansong, McGee is proud of what the show has achieved. “I learned a lot more about that time [in the ‘90s],” she explains. “It was my world back then but now I’ve actually thought about it and [realised] what a lasting effect it had, not only on my parent’s generation but also on my generation. That’s been an important part of the show for me. It’s been magic.”

‘Derry Girls’ returns April 12 on Channel 4 and All 4 at 9:15pm