- 28 Feb 19
Netflix’s new smash hit, Sex Education, is a teen sex comedy that challenges the pimples and hormones stereotypes perpetuated by classic examples of the genre, as the writer and director tell Ed Power.
Every generation gets the toe-curling sex comedy it deserves. Where kids of yesteryear clutched their sides (and their pearls) to Animal House, Fast Times At Ridgemont High and, just a decade ago, The Inbetweeners, more enlightened times call for a more sophisticated strain of coming-of-age sex dramedy. One that serves up chuckles while making serious points about sexual politics and the tribulations of growing up in a confusing world.
Step forward Sex Education, Netflix’s new hit series created by Laurie Nunn (daughter of esteemed theatre director Trevor) and directed by Ben Taylor, from the Sharon Horgan-Rob Delaney vehicle Catastrophe.
Starring Gillian Anderson as a sex therapist with a personal life built around emotional detachment (lovers are ships in a very chilly night) and Asa Butterfield (Ender’s Game) as her meek and perpetually cringing teenage son, Otis, the series has become one of Netflix’s biggest hits of the 2019 to date (though those that disliked it did so with a vengeance).
Though sex and comedy have a long track record in putting bums (yes, ooh err etc) on seats, the success of Sex Education, already renewed for a second run, feels different. It aims for often crude laughs, true. But you won’t mistake this for a lads-lose-their-virginity farce. It clearly sees itself as having the serious purpose of interrogating contemporary attitudes toward relationships.
It is also a tonal curio. Sex Education was filmed in Wales with an all–English cast – but the biggest influence is the American high-school milieu.
So nobody wears a school uniform and students fall into ye old archetypal categories of jocks, nerds etc. At one point someone even tosses an American football – no, not an innuendo either. What’s going on?
“It’s not American, but not quite British,” nods Taylor. “High school drama is a genre I love. I was always frustrated that there wasn’t a good example of British school experience told with positivity and heart.”
As opposed to the Grange Hill school of head-down-the-toilet miserabilism? Hey, in Ireland we didn’t even have that.
“It’s always a case of ‘fuck you, I can’t wait to graduate’,” says Taylor. “Even though John Hughes’ movies and the like are riddled with angst – I saw this as a good opportunity to do something different.”
“When I read the script my first two questions,” he elaborates, “were could it be set in the ’80s and can it be American? It was a firm ‘no’ to both. But as I’ve said, the look comes from the frustration of the British school experience on screen not having anything optimistic or joyful. We wanted it to not be grey, we didn’t want bad school uniforms, we wanted more open horizons.
“The same problems that they were having in Chicago in John Hughes’ films are the same problems that they’re having now in the UK in 2018. So, stylistically it was a deliberate choice to have it dislocated from geographically knowing exactly where it was – it was mid-Atlantic, you would say: American influenced but very much British ingredients.”
In addition to Hughes classics like The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink and Sixteen Candles, films such as Fast Times At Ridgemont High (for which we have to thank the stardom of Sean Penn) were part of the conversation.
However, Nunn and Taylor recognised early on that they couldn’t just mimic the sensibilities of the milieu – if for no other reason than that their take on sexual politics and, especially, consent simply wouldn’t fly today.
“I still love those films,” says Taylor. “But we were watching a lot of them in the writer’s room and they were clearly from a very different era. It was like, ‘oh my god – there’s some crazy stuff in there’. Forced kissing seems to happen a lot in teen films.”
After three seasons of Catastrophe, directing cringe-comedy is second nature to Taylor. He’s keen to draw a line between his previous project and Sex Education – one is a psychoanalysis of adult relationships, the other an inquiry into the agonies and joys of growing up. Yet they share certain similarities.
“I’d just come out of Catastrophe and it’s hard not to think of the thing you’ve just finished. It was always important to us that the cast felt like real people – which is what Rob and Sharon did so brilliantly. Sex-wise, I’d had three years of filming scenes in which people are really bad at sex.”
Nunn was attached to the project after Netflix had decided to commission a sex comedy. She lobbied hard to come on board as writer.
“I was so awkward, so much a loser at school. I really connected with Otis and from there built this big ensemble.”
Otis soon becomes unofficial sex therapist to his school-mates despite being himself a virgin. But their sexual hang-ups are never too obscure or over the top. It was important that the series not descend into freakishness or gimmickry, says Taylor.
“You know House, the Hugh Laurie series? That was about tropical diseases. And every week you had an unusual disease that nobody had heard of. We didn’t want this to be the sexy version of House – where people have the weirdest problems with their bodies. You hear the most outlandish sex problem urban legends. As funny as they are, it becomes quite exclusive. We didn’t go in that direction because we wanted the series to be relatable.”
Sex Education is on Netflix now.