Jamie-Lee O’Donnell shows ‘The Real Derry’

Thursday: The Real Derry: Jamie-Lee O’Donnell - (Channel 4, 10pm)

By Claire Cartmill
Wednesday, 15th June 2022, 5:00 pm

A show about being a teenager in Northern Ireland during the 1990s might have initially sounded a bit niche, but the Channel 4 sitcom Derry Girls has gone on to become an international hit.

Speaking ahead of the recent third and final series, Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, who played foul-mouthed Michelle, revealed she had encountered fans in some surprising places.

She said: “I got recognised recently in Portugal and on holiday in Spain and when I was in LA. We get mentions from literally all over the world. I’m delighted. It’s what every actor wants to hear: that you do a piece of work that you really love, that you’re really passionate about, and people globally respond so positively. It’s the dream.”

Jamie-Lee O'Donnell on the peace bridge, Londonderry

However, the series undoubtedly had an extra resonance for residents of Derry – and that includes Jamie-Lee herself, who really is a Derry girl.

She says: “It’s overwhelming and something that I’m incredibly, incredibly proud of. The further away I get from finishing it, the more I can look back with sheer delight that we went for it. We made all the decisions that we made and we just went for the characters and didn’t hold back from the Derry-isms and the Derry-ness. I hope we represented it well and did Derry proud because the people from that town deserve it.”

She added: “This will be one of the most important jobs I’ve ever done and I think it’s always going to stay at that. It’s the job that launched my career. It’s the city I’m from and it’s my community and my family and friends and loved ones, and it’s something that I’ll always be incredibly proud of.”

Now, she’s getting another chance to bring her home to the screen in the documentary The Real Derry: Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, in which she discovers what life is like for young people growing up there today.

As Derry Girls proved, it’s a place with its own distinctive sense of humour, but 30 years of the Troubles have also taken their toll on the city and its people.

Some of those painful memories come to the surface as Jamie-Lee prepares to take part in a special commemoration event marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, leading her to reflect on her childhood experiences of growing up in a community where fear was everywhere.

She also revisits her old school to talk to the sixth-form students about what it’s like to live in a city where Catholics and Protestants are still mostly segregated. They reveal that despite the Good Friday Agreement, which helped to make Northern Ireland a more peaceful place (and provided the backdrop of Derry Girls’ moving final episode), the legacy of the past continues to affect them.

There’s another trip down memory lane for Jamie-Lee as she goes back to a familiar part of town for a night out – and she’s taking her Derry Girls co-star Saoirse-Monica Jackson (who grew up in Derry, and Greencastle, County Donegal). The presenter does step out of her comfort zone though when she meets members of a Protestant flute band in a hall decorated with Union Jack flags.