It’s a coming-of-age comedy with some excellently creative vulgarity, set in the British Isles and following a group of mid-teens – there’s a highly-strung uptight one, a boorish one with sex on the brain, a delusionally self-absorbed one, and a dim but personable one. They get into any number of scatological scrapes, and would very much like to be having more sex than they are, but through all their misadventures and heartaches and episodes of being hormonal dickheads, deep down they really do love each other. Quick, what did I just describe: The Inbetweeners or Derry Girls?
Admittedly, I gamed the system there, since the Derry Girls’ power combo has a fifth Beatle, the token male member of the gang. Hilariously, he’s ‘the English one’ despite being played by a guy called Dylan Llewelyn, the most Celtic name imaginable without a Mc- prefix (it’s sort of like an American being called Elvis Washington). Boiled down to those essential elements, though, that’s the main difference. Both shows are striking at the same note of mid-pubescent angst and horror as one gradually realises there is no market for colouring things in with crayons in the real world.
The other major difference is the setting. Derry Girls is, you may gather, set in Derry – or, should I say, Derry/Londonderry/Stroke City – during the period of Ireland’s history politely called The Troubles. A full explanation of this period, and how it plays into Derry’s politically charged name, would be long and harrowing, so put it this way: imagine if the Syrian Civil War was squashed into an area smaller than Wales, and everyone involved spoke with a charming Irish brogue.
By contrast, The Inbetweeners acts as if its setting is a neutral, nondescript one, but it’s not: it’s clearly set in cosy southern England. Plus, like Derry Girls, it’s drawing directly upon the writers’ own adolescence in the early ‘90s, and so finds itself hovering in that time period by default. To be fair, the writers have been perfectly frank about this, with Iain Morris admitting the scene where Will scuppers his chances with a girl by skidding along the dancefloor was something he actually did as a young man, something it takes guts to come out with, let alone televise for the nation. (Similarly, the Derry Girls going on a ‘Friends Across The Barricade’ outing purely to meet attractive Protestant lads was straight from Lisa McGee’s own life.)
The Inbetweeners was ostensibly set in the late noughties, which is when it was broadcast, and lord knows it struck a chord with its teeny-millennial audience, but that’s little more than a veneer. The only actual evidence for this is the occasional scenes featuring the internet and social media, which all seem a bit tacked on, and, crucially, are all tangential to the plot. There’s nothing wrong with them as such, and I can confirm showing your chums stuff like ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’ is simply what teenage boys do, but they made no difference to the wider story.
What I’m getting at is that Derry Girls has a better sense of place. Indeed, it actually has a sense of place, and of time, as opposed to The Inbetweeners, which was doing its level best to avoid just that. This is how The Inbetweeners could be ported wholesale to America with no differences bar the cast and crew. Like nearly all American adaptations of British properties, it flopped dreadfully, despite having the marvelous Taika Waititi as lead director.
Its failure was in some quarters put down to Americans being unable to stomach that kind of filth coming from teenage boys – an odd charge to pin on the country that gave us Portnoy’s Complaint and the American Pie franchise. No, what it comes down to is that despite being apparently untethered in place and time, it was still inescapably British.
(Jay, in particular, translated very poorly. His British incarnation’s existence can be put down to the old Albionese saying ‘oh, this is my mate, Jay…bit of a twat’. By contrast, in the American version, he comes off so actively obnoxious that you just end up wondering why they tolerate this awful boy’s presence.)
It would be impossible, or at least inadvisable, to translate Derry Girls to anywhere outside Northern Ireland. To set it in America might be doable, although to give it the background of sectarian tension would require placing it in New York or Boston circa 1870, at which point being a gilded-age period piece suddenly takes precedence, and even then it would need to become ‘Hell’s Kitchen Girls’ or some such. No, an adaptation would be more trouble than it’s worth before you’d even started.
But that’s the thing of it – is any such adaptation really necessary? The only real barrier to just presenting the originals to any other English-speaking audience is the accent. Now, I live in Wales and have family in Scotland, so I can promise you there’s thicker accents out there than the gentle Derry twang. And there’s a huge international market for British productions, no matter how colloquial. Speaking of thick accents, remember how big Trainspotting was? That one actually was subtitled when released internationally, and this didn’t slow down its success one jot.
True to form, Derry Girls has proved a modest hit now it’s been exposed to international audiences on Netflix, with no localisation necessary. As such, the real question with The Inbetweeners is why MTV went to all that work making their own version instead of just snapping up the foreign distribution rights. After all, they don’t even have the accent issue, although they do have an awful lot of slang.
Other than the geography, the major divide between the two shows is, of course, the gender gap. In the case of Derry Girls, that’s a big part of how they keep The Troubles at a respectable distance – and crucially, by doing so keep it light. Violence is, and always has been, the black market for social capital for men, so if the show was a gang of Derry Boys, all terribly awkward in their own skin and desperate to be noticed by the opposite sex, they’d be grappling with the overwhelming temptation to pick up a gun and take a pot-shot at a British army patrol. A show like that could still be a comedy, but it would be a far, far darker one, along the lines of a more bleak Four Lions.
Despite some of the fashionable new theories about gender relations you see floating around, I’ve always held that the differences are largely skin-deep, and that when it comes down to it, everyone under the sun has the same essential needs and drives – to eat, to drink, to be loved. It is this last which links the two shows more than anything, particularly since adolescence makes these assorted urges all the more keenly felt. The angsty depths to which teenagers descend in their quest to be, ahem, ‘loved’ will remain relatable while the species still has functioning genitalia.
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