'There's always humour in troubled situations' | Tommy Tiernan on his new role in Channel 4's Derry Girls

'There's always humour in troubled situations'

Tommy Tiernan on his new role in Channel 4's Derry Girls

Can you explain a bit about the backdrop to Derry Girls?

It’s set during The Troubles in Ireland in the 1990s 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.

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.

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 and 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.

It’s different from stand-up 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… 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.

Is it nice working with the new talent in the cast? Did you ever give them any advice?

They would know automatically not to seek any advice from me! They looked at me and thought: ‘Let’s 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.

Then there was 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 1980s, the Catholic Church was beginning to loosen its grip on things so 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,  so I laughed a lot. I still have those strong relationships with the fellas that I went to school with.

• Derry Girls starts on Channel 4 on January 2. Interview courtesy C4 Press

Published: 4 Dec 2017

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