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The Derry Girls finale: sublime television – poignant, political and properly funny

Derry Girls ends with a Special set around the Good Friday Agreement referendum in 1998. An outstanding finale for C4’s best ever comedy

***THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE END OF SERIES THREE OF DERRY GIRLS AND THE SPECIAL HOUR-LONG FINALE***

After three series and a double-length special finale, Derry Girls is over. And it ended in such style that Lisa’s McGee’s comedy about four teenage girls and a wee English fella in Northern Ireland will go down as one of the finest TV series of all time.

A comedy that truly makes a difference. A show full of knockabout humour and quickfire gags that celebrates the intensity and joy of teenage friendship. And all the while it provides genuine insight into life and politics in late-1990s Northern Ireland against a backdrop of sectarian violence.

The skill to achieve all this, in a laugh-out-loud and make-you-cry 30-minute comedy, is extraordinary. McGee brought deep knowledge of and love for her hometown and teenage girls to the table. The ultra specificity of time, place, people enabling her to build believable characters from the opening moment.

Ahead of the Special – Derry Girls’ real and final finale – the third series ended with a carefully constructed episode that took us through the full range of emotions. It began with the deep low of the girls being bullied out of tickets to see Fatboy Slim by Mad Stab (a brilliant, psychotic star turn from Emmett Scanlon), swung back through their delight as Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) swore, sobbed and lied her way to free tickets via an appearance on TV news and they paraded through Derry on top of Clare’s dad’s new Mini. Clare’s thumbs up to her dad? What a moment.

The Derry Girls triumphant journey to see Fatboy Slim. Image: Peter Marley / Channel 4.

Then the shock of being thrown out before Fatboy Slim took the stage was offset, in classic Derry Girls style, by the sheer joy of ‘the wee lesbian’ Clare’s first kiss. A life-changing moment. Any heartbreak about a missed gig and not meeting Norman Cook (quel dommage!) forgotten in the blink of an eye. Teenage kicks and teenage resilience.

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Crushingly, it was followed by a sudden death. Clare’s dad had suffered an aneurysm. This was a brutal moment, beautifully acted by Nicola Coughlan as Clare, Tommy Tiernan as Gerry – who had to break the awful news – and the entire cast. At a preview screening of the final episode and the Special, McGee revealed that the script notes around the funeral procession for Clare’s dad said: “this is the moment the girls grow up”.

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Sure enough, we saw evidence of that in the Special. For McGee, ending the series on such a downbeat note was a luxury afforded by having the hour-long Special scheduled for the following night.

She was able to deliver a crushing reminder that, even in a place where unpredictable violence was a constant, life can throw curveballs of a more mundane but equally heartbreaking nature, safe in the knowledge that she could show the Derry Girls bouncing back 24 hours later.

The following night, the Special delivered more classic Derry Girls. This was the finale the series deserved. Full of depth, full of gags, observations on class and politics woven throughout.

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Set one year later, we found the girls changed and Northern Ireland gripped by fevered discussion around the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

What a timely reminder of politics being taken seriously. A reminder of what proper political engagement and debate looks like.

We saw glimpses of politicians like John Hume talking about this “opportunity to take the gun out of Irish politics forever”. These were politicians treating the electorate as grown-ups, ensuring every household was delivered a copy of the 30 page GFA explainer document.

McGee mined this for comedy as always – Granda Joe using packets of Taytos and bits of wool to figure out the potential impact of the GFA, the teenagers, just turning 18, signing up to vote – which featured a classic extended Orla dance scene (huge props to Louisa Harland) ahead of a day of huge historical significance – that also clashed with Orla and Erin’s 18th birthday party. But the seriousness of the discussions was never underplayed.

Orla (Louisa Harland) dancing into adulthood in the Derry Girls finale. Image: Peter Marley / Channel 4

When there was a major falling out among the gang for the first time, Clare (Nicola Coughlan) – having moved to the next town in the wake of her father’s death – tried to orchestrate her own peace agreement, this time between Erin and Michelle, to ‘get the band back together’.

This was sublime television. Poignant, powerful, profound, political and properly funny.

One 15-second conversation between Granda Joe (Ian McElhinney) and Erin summed up so much that was great about Derry Girls. A lowkey, gentle word of wisdom from Joe – whose kindness to all people (and cats) could be forgotten amid the brilliant barbs bellowed at his son-in-law – about the referendum. He spoke quietly, thoughtfully about future belonging to Erin and her pals, about choosing hope, about imagining that, after all these years, it might just work and peace might follow. “What if no one else has to die?”

This staggering scene, for once not undercut with humour, shot straight into the top five Derry Girls moments. A small slice of everyday life, a teenage girl talking with her grandfather, understated, over in a flash, yet packing such emotional weight.

Cracking guest stars joined in the fun, the genius Siobhan McSweeney was given a nice, hopeful ending as Sister Michael, everyone had their moment in the spotlight and the action moved from Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson) and Orla’s glum birthday party to Jenny Joyce’s rival big budget bonanza and beyond that to the ballot box.

As we watched everyone vote, witnessing this intimate moment of major local and global significance – and maybe even saw James (Dylan Llewelyn) and Erin falling in love as she spoke to his camera about making new dreams – this was sublime television. Poignant, powerful, profound, political and properly funny.

All this and a flash-forward, Chelsea Clinton coda? File under classic television for the ages…

All episodes of Derry Girls are available now on All4

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