Interview: Tommy Tiernan, Derry Girls

Can you explain a bit about the backdrop and time of which Derry Girls is set….

It’s set during the troubles in Ireland in the 90’s and what’s really interesting is, that like a lot of people that have suffered, one of the way you cope with suffering is through humour. I think that for Irish people to undermine whatever trauma they are experiencing by trying to laugh at it is part of our natural response. What I am excited about is how people in England will see it. The strength of the comic writing in the piece means that it should transcend the situation that it is set in. I think it will go down very well in Northern Ireland and I think it will go down well in southern Ireland . As soon as they send me a sample episode of this I was like “jeez this is brilliant” the writing is so sharp, the girls are fantastically sarcastic and funny. It was a no-brainer for me to do it. 

What can you tell me about your character?

So my character is a southerner, married into a very strong northern household and I am hated by my father-in-law who transfers some of the abandonment issues on to me as a “soft southerner” meaning that the life of the southern Irish hasn’t been as traumatic as the northern Irish, therefore they are a lot tougher so I have supposedly come from this soft southern background into this wild northern Irish family. 

What did you think about how Lisa McGee captured this particular moment in time?

In any kind of troubled situation humour exists. It’s part of some people’s natural response. You can imagine parts of the East End in London were economically deprived but the sense of humour there is sharp. You could say the same thing about parts of Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Sunderland, the list goes on. The sense of humour is so strong and that transfers so obviously to Northern Ireland, where you have armies – sounds daft now as we are 20 years out of it – but there were army checkpoints everywhere around the north. Soldiers were walking the streets, soldiers were being shot. But to be able to focus on ordinary family dynamics in a really funny way, in that situation, it’s a fantastic thing to be able to do.

Do you think today’s teenagers will be shocked when they see that kind of environment and the girls just going around being typically self-centred?

Yes, I mean they are flirting with the soldiers! To come from a background that is being marshalled by an army and the girls are going out flirting with them because they’re in a uniform and are all young and fit, it’s an irrepressible life force or something! It’s one of those sitcoms where the social background of it is like “wow, if you can pull this off, well done”. With a lot of sitcoms now the social backgrounds are quite bland and ordinary a lot of it is middle-class and is all charm but this has got some real teeth to it. 

Did you enjoy filming in Derry & Belfast?

I loved it! I haven’t done a sitcom or any acting for over 20 years, as I spent all my time working on stand up by myself, and I loved being on set. Michael Lennox is a fantastic director, I loved doing take after take, I could have stayed there for months doing it! I also loved the process of being on set, and working with up to 20/30 people – technical crew, practical crew, the producers, cast, camera people – I loved it.

Obviously you’re very well known for stand up, how does filming something like this differ?

It’s different because it’s a shared experience; just the camaraderie of it is huge. The hours as well, you might be told your car is getting you at 6.30am in the morning, I mean usually I am only just getting home from a stand up gig at 4am. It’s a complete change of pace, but also you get that feeling of satisfaction at the end of the day’s work, going back to the hotel and collapsing on to your bed and just watching a bit of telly. 

The young cast are obviously all rising stars, is it nice working with new talent? Did you ever give them any advice?

They would know automatically not to seek any advice from me! They looked at me and thought “Lets avoid him, he’s troubled enough!” A good few of them come from a drama school background so they have technique down already. But it was fantastic to be beside their energy. I got just as much of a kick out of working with Ian McElhinney, who played my father in law, he is one of the best screen actors around at the moment. And then Tara [Lynne O’Neill] and Kathy [Kiera Clarke] who played my wife and my sister-in-law. I had real difficulty with laughing during the scenes, myself and Kathy had to come to an arrangement after the first week that we were no longer able to make eye contact with each other, her character is so ridiculous and she pulls it off so realistically that I just wasn’t able to look at her without giggling. I swear to God, I had awful problems with laughing, cold sweat of anticipation. They are all phenomenally talented people; it was a real education for me.

How do the Derry Girls school days in Ireland compare to your own? 

I guess the school that I went to wouldn’t have been as ferociously religious as the school that the girls went to. At that time in Ireland, when I was at school in the 80’s, the catholic church was beginning to loosen its grip on things so these scenes that I was in based on the school the girls seemed to be under a heavier thumb than I was. 

Are you still in touch with your school friends?

Oh god yeah. My school friends now live all around the country so when I am gigging I often get a text from one of them and we hook up for a drink afterwards, and you never laugh as much as you do when you’re in school. And the stricter the school the more you laugh, our headmaster was strict, not religious, but strict and so I laughed a lot. I still have those strong relationships with the fellas that I went to school with.

Has the series made you feel nostalgic for your life back then?

Not really, but I am very proud of it as an Irish story and for the first time for people to see the troubles on screen in a way that shows the spirit of the people was bigger than the situation that they were in. I don’t think that you have to belong to any particular tradition to understand that it’s just the human resources of just laughing, at the end of the day that’s what keeps us together is laughing really. 

There is obviously a fantastic list of music from the show, have you been digging out all your old albums and listening to them?

In terms of music appreciation I have tragic taste. I missed all the craic in the 90’s – I missed The Stone Roses, The Happy Monday’s, Blur - I just missed everything. I was into Folk music; I am only getting into The Smiths now! During the 90’s I was listening to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, if something is culturally popular I tend to avoid it until it’s passed its sell by date and then can explore it at my own pace. My musical taste is backwards!

Read more about Derry Girls here.

Thursdays, 10pm, C4, from January 4.

Interview supplied by C4.



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