Sex Education creators: How we made it

Ahead of the season two release on Netflix, writer Laurie Nunn and director Ben Taylor reveal how they created a generation-defining teen drama phenomenon.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 24 January 2020 - 11.42am
Netflix

Skins, Dawson's Creek, My So-Called Life, The O.C, Beverly Hills, 90210. A truly classic teen drama series doesn’t just make viewers laugh, cry and feel warm inside - it leaves an indent and a memory that stays with you forever.

When a TV show manages to capture the essence and spirit of teenage life - and all the pain, joy and complications that it brings - the characters will firmly lodge a place in your heart. All it takes is a quick burst of the theme tune and it will immediately take you back to a time when all your insecurities and angst could be washed away for at least one hour of the day.

Netflix's Sex Education burst into the world in 2019 and immediately grabbed the attention of over 40 million viewers with its inclusive, warm-hearted and cringe-inducingly frank look at modern romance.

Season two is released on Netflix on Friday, January 17th and its bolder, funnier and better than the first. Tackling topics as diverse consent, anxiety, self-harm and some very unusual fetishes, writer Laurie Nunn has built a TV universe that is both recognisable and escapism.

Nunn spent her school years watching teen TV shows and John Hughes classics like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Sex Education is distinctly British, but is also filled with sights and sounds that UK viewers have grown up with in American High School comedies - it’s all baseball jackets and bleachers.

"I hope [viewers] see themselves reflected. When I was young, I was really obsessed with teen movies and teen TV shows," said Nunn.

"I found school very difficult and I went to that sort of content because I felt seen. But I’m a white woman. So hopefully in this show, they will watch it and feel reflected."

Expanding the Sex Education universe

Alistair Petrie and Sam Spiro in Sex Education season two Netflix

The biggest shift in season two of Sex Education is the expansion of the cast. Not only do we have a couple of new additions in the school - Rahim, a dashing new French boy who turns heads, Isaac, a new resident in Maeve’s caravan park and Viv, a super-smart high-performing student who is given the job of tutoring Jackson. We also dive deeper into the minor characters and family members of the established cast.

James Purefoy, who cameoed in season one as Otis’s dad Remi, becomes a key player in season two. Not only do we get a disastrous camping trip with Remi, Otis and Eric, the show also delves into the toxic masculinity that ruined the marriage of Remi and Jean and the lasting impact its had on Otis.

Teachers Mr Hendricks (Jim Howick) and Miss Sands (Rakhee Thakrar) have increased roles - including one unforgettable sex scene that completely redefines the concept of 'dirty talk'.

Alistair Petrie and Samantha Spiro also come to the fore as the parents of Adam, who is still struggling and confused about his sexuality.

Director Ben Taylor revealed that turning their roles from cameos to significant characters  wasn’t an accident.

Alistair Petrie as Mr Groff in Sex Education Netflix

"We were really lucky that not only did we have a brilliant cast that you had seen, we also had some sleeper cells, like Sam who plays Mrs Groff," he told BT TV.

"I think we knew that Laurie would do some Groff family storylines in season two, but we had the dangerous thing where she only had 10 lines in season one. So if we gave that role to a supporting artist, we would have ruled out being able to use that character in the future.

"But Sam very generously did the first series on faith, knowing there were bigger things possibly to come - and she’s extraordinary in this season."

Laurie also believes that the universal appeal of Sex Education outside young audiences comes from broadening to the cast and exploring family dynamics.

"I truly believe our inner teenager never leaves us," she said.

"That’s a theme I’m trying to tap into with this series. The adults are as much of a mess as the kids."

 

No story is off limits

Aimee Lou Wood and Emma Mackey in Sex Education season 2 Netflix

If you thought that season two might tone down the humour and sex, you couldn’t be more wrong.

Nunn admits that she was fortunate that she had written half of season two, before the first was even released.

"I stayed in a creative bubble and I was thinking about where these characters would go next in a much more organic way rather than listening to any outside noise," she explains.

Nunn and Taylor also said that Netflix were only ever "encouraging and pushing" and happy to give total "free reign" as they moved onto topics in the bedroom that you have never seen covered before.

"I hear all the time about families who have watched it in different rooms and then come together to talk about it at breakfast," said Nunn.

"If the show is really about anything it’s about getting people to communicate more, breaking down barriers and be more honest with each other - so that’s a lovely thing to see."

 

The inspiration for the Groff family dynamic revealed

Connor Swindells as Adam Groff in Sex Education Netflix

"When I first started writing it, Mr Groff wasn’t Adam’s dad," explains Nunn, talking about the origins of the troubled relationship between the stern and fusty headmaster and his son.

"And then I met Ben and when [he] said that [his] dad was the headmaster, I knew that I had to put that in the show. It was too good."

On the subject of Taylor’s father, the director admits that one of the most surprising parts of making the series has been the response from older viewers.

"I was able to attend the writers room with Laurie for the first season and there was a real therapy feel to it because everyone was sharing," he recalled.

"You realise that across the age ranges, things never really change. It’s the first thing I’ve done that my dad truly loves. And the thought of him watching it kills me."

Nunn added: "I think it’s because everyone can remember these moments. Everyone thinks, 'Oh no, I’m still 16 inside. It’s horrific!'

The importance of 'Education'

Gillian Anderson in Sex Education Netflix

What's in the title of a TV show? For Laurie Nunn, she feels a certain responsibility to match up the messages of the show with the title.

Although writing the series begins “first and foremost” with the characters, there is a full-time sex educator working on the series who feeds back on the scripts to ensure that everything they talk about is correct and won’t leave anyone feeling alienated.

Taylor believes that the performance of Asa Butterfield has been vital in blending entertainment and education into a joyous mix.

"It’s a tricky tonal tightrope. It has to be entertaining. It has to be gripping. But there also has to be a responsibility when someone is teaching and giving guidance that what we say rings true and is accurate," said the director.

"I think it lands so squarely on Asa’s shoulders to be this character who you don’t feel preached to by. I think the first time we had one of those scenes in season one, when a character was in the bathtub, that was a big moment.

"Because it’s the one thing you don’t know. Until you’ve heard Otis, you don’t know if it will land. But as soon as you hear him, he has the most beautiful soul and he gives it all to Otis."

"You just have that amazing voice which gives life to Laurie’s writing so it doesn’t come across as preachy and sanctimonious and it never goes without becoming entertaining."

True stories

Aimee, Maeve and Otis, played by Aimee Lou Wood, Emma Mackey and Asa Butterfield in Sex Education season 2 Netflix

How does Sex Education keep coming up with the weird and wonderful storylines about the sex lives of teenagers?

"I run a writers room. A lot of those stories come from writers personal stories," explains Nunn.

One significant and emotional storyline in season two was inspired by events in Nunn’s own life. The writer admits that it was a "cathartic" experience putting it all down on paper.

Director Taylor believes that the broad ensemble cast is what allows the show a flexibility to reflect viewers own lives without ever losing an authenticity.

"We have the chance to run the full spectrum of sexual orientation without it feeling like we are box-ticking or doing 'a thing'," he said.

"I think we’re just in a really lucky position, where these characters all believably exist. It never feels like we’re covering 'an issue' in an episode. It never feels like this is the pan-sexual episode...They are not defined by it."

Sex Education season 2 is streaming now.

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