Guardian Weekend

Guardian Weekend

The Sex Education cast was photographed and interviewed for The Guardian. View the article, photoshoot and scans below!

The making of Sex Education

THE GUARDIAN – The rude, raucous and revolutionary comedy is back for another term. The stars and creators reveal how it became one of Netflix’s biggest British hits

Sex Education is back with a bang. Several, in fact. The Netflix hit’s third series starts with an epic sex montage. There’s sex in a car; in a living room; in a variety of teenage bedrooms. There are casual encounters, committed relationships, sex together, alone, virtually, playing the drums and with a sci-fi theme. It is a symphony of shags, an opera of orgasms, all set to the thumping beat of the Rubinoos’ I Think We’re Alone Now. As the old saying goes, there’s nowt so queer as folk, and Sex Education is determined to prove it.

The Netflix comedy-drama only began in 2019, but thanks to its cross-generational, multinational appeal, it already seems like part of the cultural landscape. The funny, frank, flamboyant show about teenage life, sex and identity is an awards magnet and has made stars of its young cast, who now front fashion campaigns and appear regularly on stage and cinema screens. Gillian Anderson and Asa Butterfield star as mother and son Jean and Otis Milburn, who live in an enviable, chalet-style house overlooking the gorgeous Wye valley.

Jean is a sex therapist and, at the beginning of the series, Otis follows her into the family business, starting a bootleg counselling service run from the abandoned toilets at his school, Moordale secondary. Over the course of the first season, Otis and his unrequited crush, Maeve, Moordale’s resident bookish bad girl with a soft centre, team up to solve the sexual and romantic problems of their classmates. Season two broadened the show’s horizons, delving further into the adults’ complicated sex lives. Throughout, its storylines were peppered with a smart, cool, matter-of-fact gaze at identity, race and class. Despite the complications of filming through the pandemic, the third series is as fresh as the first two, as Moordale gets a new headteacher who is set on teaching abstinence.

“It does feel like we’re back at school because we’re having fun with each other and hanging out. We’re similar ages, as well, and kind of going through a similar experience,” says Patricia Allison, who plays Ola. Emma Mackey, who stars as Maeve, says the on-screen camaraderie reflects real life. “We all get on stupidly well. It is just a warm thing. And when you watch it, it feels warm, and you get that little tingly nice feeling, and also you want to cry. It just brings out all of these emotions.”

The show was a gamble. It’s a sex comedy in the age of #MeToo, and its predecessors in that genre tend to have a frat-boy flavour, from Porky’s to American Pie to Superbad. It’s a teen-ish series that doesn’t take itself too seriously, while most other shows in that field do. It is made and set in the UK, with a British sensibility, but a US high school look and feel. It is a present-day story with a retro design. And, with the exception of Anderson and Butterfield, the sizeable cast were largely unknown when it began.

From the start, in January 2019, Sex Education was a sensation. Over the last two years, it has upped the game for comedy-drama, proving that there is a demand and a desire for a diverse cast and crew telling a wide range of stories. It helped to pioneer the now widespread use of intimacy coordinators on set, who choreograph and monitor sexual scenes. And it isn’t above a fart joke or two. This is the inside story of how Sex Education became a hit.

Asa Butterfield says hello, then starts to cough. “Hang on, let me lube up my throat,” he says, as his on-screen best friend Ncuti Gatwa, who plays Eric, cackles from another Zoom window. Butterfield was an established name when he was sent an early script for Sex Ed, as the cast and crew fondly call it. “And I was like, this is funny, but I didn’t really know how they could take this idea and make it into a full season,” he says.

Gatwa trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, but was a relative newcomer to the screen. Eric is a young gay man who grows up in a religious Nigerian-Ghanaian family, and his character puts a knowing twist on the gay-best-friend trope. “It was never virtue-signalling,” Gatwa says. “It wasn’t like, isn’t Otis such a great guy for considering possibly being friends with a black gay man? It was just like, they’re good mates who really get on.” When Gatwa first read the description of Eric, it listed all the character’s qualities. “Then the final line was, in capital letters: THIS CHARACTER MUST BE HYSTERICAL.”

“Fucking hell,” says Butterfield, sympathetically.

Gatwa “bombed” his first audition due to nerves, but somehow got through to read with Connor Swindells, who plays Adam, Eric’s bully turned love interest. “At that point, I looked bigger than Connor, so for the bullying scenes, I remember them stopping the audition and being like, we need to do something about the fact that you look like you could take him. I thought, the role’s gone. And then I got another audition.” He laughs, a big, booming laugh. “And that was the one I started twerking in.” Eric is now a firm fan favourite.

Is there ever any embarrassment among the cast? (In one of Gatwa’s earliest scenes he fellates a banana). “You kind of know what to expect,” shrugs Butterfield. “Like Otis having his wank montage.” In season one, Otis is unable to masturbate; eventually, he has a spectacular breakthrough, and season two opens with a montage of self-love. “If you feel nervous or anxious about it, then it’s going to come across on screen. And it’s so absurd, what we do. You just have a laugh about it.” So a wank montage is a walk in the park? “Oh yeah,” he says. “I actually have them contractually put into all my projects now, as an icebreaker for me and the crew.”

The friendship between Otis and Eric has had its peaks and troughs, but they have learned to be supportive of each other’s needs; it is a rare on-screen portrait of a platonic friendship between a gay man and a straight man. But they are going their own way, too. In the third season, Otis finds a new partner, while Eric visits family in Nigeria, a country which has tightened its laws against homosexuality in recent years. “We shot it in… Newport, south Wales,” says Gatwa. They were supposed to go to South Africa, but Covid put a stop to that. They briefly considered Nigeria. In the end, Newport had to do. “But Eric going back to Nigeria was a really important step for him. That storyline is really special.”

The idea for Sex Ed emerged from what is known as a “seed pitch”, put out by a production company to several writers to see what they come up with. “It was a half-page idea about what would happen if we put a teenage sex therapist into a school campus environment,” says writer and creator Laurie Nunn. Nunn, 35, had an MA in screenwriting and worked on TV scripts during her 20s, but nothing had been picked up for development, and she pitched hard to write a pilot episode. “Actually, I sent pictures of myself as a teenager to the producers. I was just like, please, I was the nerdiest, most awkward teenager in the world. I have to write this show.”

She got the gig in 2015, but the script spent a couple of years being passed around various channels, until Nunn was certain that it had died a death. She almost stopped writing, and briefly considered training as a therapist. Then, in 2017, Netflix came along. “And that’s when we put together this bible,” she says.

The Sex Ed crew talk about “the bible” in near mythical terms. The director Ben Taylor collaborated with Nunn on a document that established the tone and look of the show. “We both started talking about how much we loved teen films and TV shows when we were younger,” says Nunn. “We’re of slightly different generations, but had a lot of crossover. I was into 10 Things I Hate About You, and Ben was really into John Hughes. We put all that imagery into this book, then we paid a guy to do amazing graffiti all over it. It was covered in really intricate little penises.” The bible sealed the deal. “We were able to show a strong vision for the show. It was British, but also a bit American, and it was going to feel like its own unique thing.”

“It still puts certain people’s noses out of joint that it has an American influence,” says Taylor. “Our take was that this is not the real world. It is a utopian school experience where yes, you can still have your heart broken, and yes, people have challenges in their lives, but this level of intelligent discussion about your individuality and your sexuality is possible.”

One of the obvious challenges was making a sex comedy that is largely about teenagers. “At the time, Girls [HBO comedy-drama] was out, and it really had moved the needle in terms of honesty and sexuality on the screen, and body positivity, and lots of stuff that we were wanting to do,” he explains. “I said, we’re dealing with teenagers having sex for the first time, and it is a very specific target to aim at and to get right.” The comedy element was vital. “Tonally, we had to make sure it was a comic piece. All the sex scenes had to be there for the story and for comedy reasons, and there was no danger of any gratuitousness.” Netflix ordered a full, eight-episode season. “We had this amazing pep talk from them, where they said, listen, we’d rather this was a big miss but you’d gone for it, rather than doing something half-hearted to find an audience. Leave that to us.”

Nothing about Sex Ed could be considered half-hearted. “There was a day when I thought maybe building the giant penis stage wasn’t a good idea…” jokes Samantha Harley, the show’s Bafta-nominated production designer. (At the end of season two, Moordale stages a sci-fi-themed Romeo and Juliet that is heavy on phallic imagery. “I think our students are taking a postmodern approach,” says the dour headteacher, Mr Groff.) After weeks of scouting the UK for a suitable site, they settled on a disused school in Caerleon, near Newport, which became the Moordale campus. “The site had been derelict for four years when we got there, so it was quite a lot of work,” says Harley. The show exists in a highly stylised world. It has a timeless, placeless feel, in which the cars and clothes sometimes look as if they could be from the 70s or 80s, yet the kids have smartphones. Harley says it makes the stories seem more universal, that young people have been through the highs and lows of teenage life, and will go through them again. “We wanted to try to transcend time,” she says. “That’s why we had this quite analogue world, because it’s all about Otis and the kids talking to each other.”

Filling Moordale with a school’s worth of teenagers and teachers was no small task. “I remember thinking, this is going to be a lot of work,” says the casting director, Lauren Evans. The hardest role to cast was Maeve.“We were looking for someone who had to appear tough, but also have a sort of empathic quality, appear vulnerable at times, be funny, be cutting, sarcastic, really intelligent, have a certain vibe.” They saw hundreds of girls, but nobody was quite right and it was getting close to the wire. “And as soon as Emma Mackey walked in, we knew she was the one.”

“My understanding was that there was no way I was going to play her,” says Mackey, 25. “I didn’t really understand the correlation between me and a 17-year-old punk, music-loving girl. It spiked my curiosity.” She wasn’t like that at 17? “No, God! I mean, is anyone like that at 17?”

By contrast, Evans says they knew who they wanted as the lead. “Ben Taylor and I said, at the same time, who is going to play Otis? And we both went, Asa Butterfield.”

Butterfield, who had played the lead, aged 10, in The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, and appeared in the BBC series Merlin, signed straight up, but when Gillian Anderson, the show’s best-known star, was first asked to play Jean, she turned it down. “It’s weird thinking back now, because I had wanted to find something comedic for a long time, and I don’t often get offered comedy. So the fact that this was right under my nose, and I initially said no, is peculiar,” she says. After that, her then partner asked if he could read the script, and started texting her his favourite bits. “He just completely fell for it. He said, you have to read this again because I think you’re making a mistake. So I did, and on the second read I couldn’t put it down.”

Why does she think it appeals across all age groups? “Because at some point, we are all teenagers, and we all have one version of the experience of teenager-hood which gets addressed within the scope of the show,” she says. “It’s been a while since we’ve had coming-of-age movies that are quite so raw and brazen. So whether it’s the adults who now see it in retrospect, or the kids who are watching it through their own fingers, almost, and going through their own experiences… It feels like a human show, in that it makes space for every version of human there is on this planet. And I think people feel seen and heard and celebrated in a way that is quite unique.” I suggest it is also down to the interiors. “I’ve actually asked for floor plans of Jean’s house in case I ever want to build my own,” she says.

As a sex therapist, Jean is incredibly open with Otis. What does Anderson, who has three children, make of Jean’s approach to parenting? “Certainly, there are things that Jean does that make me cringe, just in terms of not respecting Otis’s boundaries,” she says, smiling. “But at the same time, I do find that in certain areas it has almost given me permission to be a bit more bold in asking embarrassing questions. I might find myself saying things that elicit a ‘Muuum!’ My 26-year-old is at the table, saying, you can’t say that!”

The relationship between Otis and Jean is the backbone of the drama, and other people’s stories grow from it. “It has changed a little bit as it’s gone on, but in series one, for example, Otis has a story of the week, which he will use his secret superpower – as an amateur sex therapist – to solve,” says Nunn. “We realised that Otis, as a cis, straight, white male probably isn’t going to have the answers to every single character’s problems.”

The show operates a writers’ room, which is more typical of a US series, and uses people from a variety of backgrounds with a range of identities and stories. Often, plots will come from discussions about their personal experience. “So now there might be a sex story of the week that needs solving, but you don’t exactly know where the answer to that is going to come from,” says Nunn. These stories come in every size, shape and flavour. Mimi Keene plays Ruby, Moordale’s icy queen bee, who unexpectedly relieves Otis of his virginity, and takes him with her to get the morning-after pill. “It’s one of the funniest scenes,” she says. “I consider Ruby very lucky to have taken Otis’s virginity.”

Patricia Allison as Ola, was Otis’s girlfriend. In series two, she slowly realises that she is attracted to Lily (Tanya Reynolds), and identifies as pansexual, someone attracted to all genders. “There was a huge demand for it,” says Allison. “Afterwards, my friends were like, have you seen Twitter? There’s a whole group of people that felt unheard, who have just been loving it.” She says that Nunn and the writers are particularly good at casually debunking myths around sex and identity, or explaining concepts that may not have been widely understood, whether that’s asexuality or the realities of douching.

Sex education specialists praise the show’s honesty and sex positivity; the School of Sexuality Education cites the show as a potential teaching resource. In part, this approach came from Nunn’s experience of sex education at school in Australia and the UK. “It was just so full of shame and fear,” she says. “Now, as a woman in my 30s, I’m able to look back and go, actually that had a very damaging effect on the way I felt about my own body and my own sexuality. As a young woman, I was taught nothing about female desire or female pleasure. I probably didn’t even know where my clitoris was, which is frightening.”

In season three, the Moordale utopia is brought back to earth by a new headteacher, Hope Haddon. In the aftermath of Jean’s controversial book about the school’s sexual antics, and a chlamydia outbreak, Hope is brought in to impose order, with a strict curriculum focused on sexual abstinence. The wall of penis graffiti is under grave threat. A new, sober uniform becomes mandatory. “It’s a big change from their colourful world, to this drab, straight world,” says costume designer Rosa Dias. “We wanted it to be slightly oppressive and also dull, but we didn’t want it to be so dull that you lost the Sex Education vibe.” The school’s trademark red and yellow remain as accents, but the uniforms are almost entirely grey.

Hope is played by Jemima Kirke, best known as the sexually liberated Jessa in Girls, the show Ben Taylor cited as an inspiration. “Girls moved the needle for a lot of shows, in displaying sex in a more casual light and as a form of expression and self-love,” says Kirke, from Belfast, where she is shooting the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Conversations With Friends. “One thing I love that Lena [Dunham] did, is that sex doesn’t have to be sexy and the nudity doesn’t have to be sexual.”

With their opposing ideologies, Hope butts heads with Jean. “That was fun,” Kirke says. “You have two of the few grownups on the show, and they are polar opposite thinkers, and threats to each other.” Kirke is a supporter of the show’s candour :“It’s essential because we’re talking frankly about how teenagers have sex and how we hope teenagers will have sex. So we have to speak their language.”

Talking to the cast and crew, I find everything I say sounds like innuendo. It is catching: Gatwa does a double-take when he talks of a “semi”-educational script. It all reaches a climax when I talk to David Thackeray, one of the series’ intimacy coordinators. In the end, I just go for it. You can’t beat around the bush, can you? He smiles, with the serene patience of a man who is far above this kind of thing.

“Intimacy coordinators call this ‘the Glastonbury of intimacy’,” he says. He trained as an actor and has worked as an intimacy coordinator on shows including I Hate Suzie and It’s A Sin. His job involves a lot of talking, addressing issues of consent, safety and comfort, as well as practical considerations such as finding the right “nudity garment”, as in nipple covers or genital pouches, for example. Thackeray sees his job as bridging the gaps between the actors and the production, establishing boundaries and demystifying what is involved in the choreography of a sex scene.

The job has become increasingly important – and increasingly accepted as necessary. When collecting her Bafta for I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel thanked Ita O’Brien, who also worked on Sex Education, for creating a safe space away from exploitation and abuse. For someone like Anderson, who has worked in the industry for years, their presence has been “revelatory”, particularly for new actors coming into the business. “It means that from second one, the conversation is on the table – you’re allowed to have it. There’s somebody you can talk to if you have any concerns, there’s somebody you can go to if something has happened. They are hired in order to hear you. That’s got to make a world of difference,” she says. “The fact that it never happened until a couple of years ago is astounding.”

Of all the series to be affected by the pandemic, Sex Ed had many hoops to jump through. “It is about intimacy and sex and relationships, and we couldn’t make the show without that being part of it,” says Nunn. The writers’ room happened virtually. When filming began, in summer, it was under strict Covid safety conditions: regular testing, cast bubbles, as few people on set as possible. “I didn’t even manage to get to set this year,” Nunn says. “It felt a bit jarring.”

Now that she can see the episodes, she feels immensely proud that they pulled it off. There are two vital questions left for Nunn. What happens when these beloved characters age out of Moordale? “This is something we talk about in the writers’ room quite a lot because each series is technically a term, sometimes two terms. So in between series two and three, there’s been a little break, and the characters are in sixth form. They are definitely working towards the end, but still very much in school. They are not of university age yet,” she says. So they have a reprieve, for now. “But you don’t want to be like, these characters are 45 and still in high school!”

And what about Otis and Maeve: will they get together? “In TV shows, when the people that you want to get together actually do, then usually it’s like you burst some kind of bubble. I always feel like it’s the thing you think you want, but you don’t actually want,” she says, admitting a lot of people want them to hook up. “Also, you can’t fall in love with the person of your dreams when you’re 17,” she adds. “They should probably wait till they are older and wiser.”

Series three of Sex Education streams on Netflix from 17 September.