Rainbow Brite, via London Irish

Devoid of television but feeling the need to wind down of an evening with short doses of effortless comedy, we’ve been going through the vaults of All4, Channel 4’s catch-up service. Having loved Derry Girls (2017-), himself was curious about writer Lisa McKee’s earlier comedy which ran for only one series, London Irish (2013). 

Guessing accurately that it would focus on a bunch of stereotypically drunken hallions in Big Smokie, and therefore wouldn’t have the charm of Derry Girls, I am neither surprised nor sorry about its demise. While there were some well-delivered corkers of lines and an episode-stealing performance from Siobhan McSweeney who plays Sister Michael so deliciously in Derry Girls, the highly-strung yet underdeveloped characters, the 0-60 ridiculousness of the scenarios, and the clunky writing shoehorning in Norn Irish sayin’s (notably, the culturally Catholic bunch only refer to Ireland, never the North, even though they all apparently hail from Belfast) largely left me cold and disappointed. The forced and inaccurate accents helped me empathize more with home viewers of Derry Girls who experienced similar issues as most characters supposedly native to Derry were played by north-eastern actors who couldn't quite manage or sustain the north-western accents. In London Irish most actors were southern playing northerners. For such a small island, the variations across our verbal utterings are astounding, but become a source of frustration when portrayals of them are not quite right.

The title proves awkward in that ‘London Irish’ usually refers to the subsequent generations born and raised in the UK capital to Irish diaspora parents not the case for any of the characters as well, of course, to the rugby union team and fusilliers. No doubt the us-four-against-the-world format channels those sporting and military connotations. This made me no less apathetic about them. I found the four central characters too animated, aggressive and angry. It is true that we Nordies can be excitable and boisterous, but – as is consistent with our inherently conflictual natures – we are also pretty laid back. What was missing was our deadpan wryness so abundant in Derry Girls, particularly from the older characters. It felt like McKee’s writing and/or Ben Palmer/Tom Marshall’s directing perhaps overcompensated for the – and I’m generalizing from experience – English lack of understanding or awareness of the cynical, on-the-knuckle Northern Irish sense of humour in having the characters turn overtly shrill and nasty to blatantly signpost the jokes. Sometimes the balance was fine or on the tipping point, but most of the time I found it tipped over too far. 

I’d like to think these were all vital stages in development as Derry Girls is unapologetically Northern/Irish, which is why it works for so many of us. It is the rarest of instances of cultural production made by us for us that rarely panders to anyone else and leaves you with a feeling of pride and pain – always the dualism. It is also important for its rarer-still depictions of the experiences of girls and women during the conflict (or at all, really).

Sinéad Keenan as Bronagh in London Irish

We gave all six episodes of London Irish a go, and while a few belly laughs bent me double at some of the quick wit and sharp delivery, and there was a good mix of experienced and developing actors, overall it didn’t work for me. What it did give me, though, was a reference to something lost long ago to the deepest recesses of my early-childhood memory. As quickly becomes customary, episode 4 ends with the central group taking refuge in a pub after a self-inflicted set of uncomfortable circumstances escalate out of control. As Niamh (Kat Reagan) comments on who each of her companions looks like she tells Bronagh (Sinéad Keenan, who I loved as Nina in BBC3's Being Human) she’s always reminded her of Rainbow Brite, to which Bronagh replies, ‘I’ll take that; she’s not a bad lookin’ doll’. Bronagh swigs the last of her pint of lager and the credits roll. 


The answer to a mystery that had spanned most of my life. The reference to Rainbow Brite finally provided words to put to vaguely retained images of rainbows, airborne horses, gems and tiny multicoloured beings. I must have been 2 or 3 years old when it was my favourite thing ever in the whole wide world.

I associate these brief images with another vague childhood memory of losing a storybook – possibly a Rainbow Brite book, but more likely The Care Bears – when accompanying my dad to pick up a Chinese takeaway at a restaurant near the Holywood Arches that has been other kinds of establishment in the thirty years since. It’s one of the few not-quite memories from my early girlhood that occasionally play gif-like in my mind; from before the many deaths of close family members that began when I was 7.

The original Rainbow Brite cartoon series first aired in the early to mid-1980s. It centres around a brave and determined little girl called Wisp who assembles a team – including the self-professed ‘most wonderful horse in the universe’, Starlite – and the necessary tools to ‘set colour free’ by finding the sphere of light to transform a harsh, desolate world into Rainbow Land. When Wisp finds the colour belt, she becomes Rainbow Brite. Many adventures based on continuing to help others be bright, happy and ‘full of life’ ensue.

Rediscovering the show on YouTube has been illuminating with memory gaps getting filled and my adult-self gaining insight into my very-young-self. While the original creators, Hallmark Cards, were cynically using the franchise to sell toys and greetings cards,[i] the characters and storylines were empowering in depicting little girls as smart, caring heroes who problem-solve and cooperate with everyone else to get stuff done. Utopia.

Although I wouldn’t say I liked London Irish, associating Keenan/Bronagh and her bunched-up mass of blonde hair with Rainbow Brite helped me solve a puzzle about myself. It all also adds to a growing feeling I'm experiencing that is stronger than combined homesickness and nostalgia – another mystery for which I have no words. This feeling is at once welcome and not. I love filling gaps in knowledge and memory. I appreciate stumbling upon keys to unlocking the obscure memories of my youth. I love recalling home and the overwhelming sense of belonging to somewhere. Then I remember that I am not there, I cannot be there, and I belong seemingly nowhere – perhaps a place vaguely on planet Earth. Perhaps in Rainbow Land.


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