Welcome to Straight to Series, where Backstage takes a deep dive into how some of our era’s most celebrated TV shows got made—and how you can make one, too.
Sex Education is Netflix’s hit teen drama, currently filming its third series. A global smash with over 40 million streams, the show follows teenager Otis, who sets himself up as a secret sex therapist for his fellow high school students. Not that he knows much – he’s a virgin who just happens to have a mother (Gillian Anderson) who is a professional sex therapist prone to cringe-worthy chats about the birds and the bees with her permanently mortified son. It’s funny, sexy, and moving, and is now one of Netflix’s biggest shows.
The creator, writer, and showrunner is Laurie Nunn, and Sex Education is her first TV show. That’s worth relishing: a 30-something untested writer is now the lauded showrunner of a global hit seen by over 40 million people worldwide – and Netflix HQ even has a floor named after the show. Nunn comes from a performing arts family (her parents are the legendary theatre director Sir Trevor Nunn and Australian actor Sharon Lee Hill) but the catalyst of her success was the decision to follow film school in Melbourne with a screenwriting course at the UK’s National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield.
Her coursework came to the attention of producer Sian Robins-Grace at production company Eleven, who was working on a seed pitch for what was to become Sex Education. Eleven were asking writers to flesh out the one-liner seed idea into a pitch, and Nunn was invited to contribute. Nunn tells Backstage: “I definitely went all-in, in terms of pitching for it,” admitting she sent them photos of herself as a gawky teen to convince producers she knew what she was talking about.
With Eleven, Nunn developed her pitch into a pilot but no broadcaster or streamer would bite: “We couldn’t really find a home for it, people didn’t know what to do with it. I thought it had died a death, and then it ended up in the hands of Netflix and it came back to life, which was wonderful,” she told the Royal Television Society. “Before that, I’d had lots of stuff in development, and things would get very close to a green light, but then somebody would leave their job, or the money would fall through. That’s just the way it is in the industry, but I do believe that if you keep at it, you’ll have the right story for the right moment.”
Nunn’s script came at an opportune moment for Netflix’s burgeoning UK production arm, who were on the search for British dramas to make on British soil, significantly increasing their UK spend, a trend that has continued apace. During Season 1’s press launch, the streamer’s UK commissioner Alex Sapot said: “We recognise the vast pool of talent here [in the UK] so we would love to be in business with those storytellers”. More than anything, Sapot was attracted to its distinctiveness: “One of the fallacies about making something for a global audience is that you have to make it feel commercial or non-specific. I think the opposite is true. The culture is what makes it distinctive and feel original. It is risky and bold.” Netflix put their money where their mouth is, winning Eleven its first commission with them, and backing a winner in the process.
“I went from not ever having been in a writers’ room to running my own; I had to learn a lot very, very fast.”
Sex Education wasn’t born fully formed. For example, lead character Otis was originally female, but Nunn particularly enjoyed the central relationship between Otis and his gay best friend Eric – she told the Guardian it was an “antidote to some bromance storylines we’ve seen in the past. They take the piss, but they also love each other, and accept each other for their differences, and are able to be vulnerable with each other. We don’t see that with male characters enough.”
So, the next stage was to set up a “writers room” – something she’s described as the “world’s longest dinner party” – to thrash out the characters, storyline and script.
She tells Backstage: “The whole thing’s just been a gigantic learning curve. I went from not ever having been in a writers’ room to running my own; I had to learn a lot very, very fast… It’s incredibly important to have a team of people around you that you trust. Sometimes the writer notes can feel very brutal and quite hurtful. You have to be surrounded by people you know want the best for the show.”
One of the stand-out elements Sex Education’s success is its writing. Fresh, frank, and funny, the tone of the show sets it apart. Nunn tells Backstage: “Every day I’m googling incredibly strange things. There’s a website I use that has all the different slang words for penis that’s constantly up on my laptop. When I work in cafés, I have to be really careful to not have it up around children.”
Of the atmosphere in the writers room, Nunn tells us: “People have to feel like it is a safe environment to share personal information and know that we’re going to write about it in a way that they feel they can impart their trust in us. “That’s a very important aspect of running the room, I think, probably more than anything else.”
The actor Aimee Lou Wood, who plays Aimee, says that the show is special because it has a particular “female energy” propelled by its female writers and directors: “The set is so joyful and supportive. And I think it is feminist just because it has female characters that are fully formed, nuanced and multi-faceted. You don’t see that a lot.”
And Nunn often showcases the work of writers whose voices might previously be unheard. She gave the task of writing Eric (Otis’ best friend, a young gay Black man) to two writers who could fully enrich the script with their own experiences, realising, as a white woman, that there were other writers more suited to giving authenticity to that character.
As for Nunn’s biggest tip for aspiring writers? Watch TV. “It’s important to watch as many different genres as possible,” she tells us. “The more you watch television, the more that you innately learn about structure. I think one of the only ways that you can learn structure is by watching it. If you want to write TV, you really do have to love it.”
One the show’s key strengths is its cast, led by Asa Butterfield as Otis. He may have only been 21 when he began work with Sex Education but Butterfield is an old pro compared to many of his castmates – he’s been acting since he was 7, most notably starring in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo at 14. The show broke new ground for him, as he described to Backstage: “I’ve mostly done a lot of drama and adventure movies. I hadn’t really done much comedy, so to speak. So that was exciting to me, just as an actor, to be able to do something different. And [Otis is] a really well fleshed-out character. You really see the layers to him.”
The task of finding Otis’ friends was given to casting director Lauren Evans, who like so many of Sex Ed’s production staff was a relative newbie. She had worked with legendary CD Nina Gold, but Sex Education was her first major solo gig.
Evans found new talents such as Emma Mackey (Maeve), Aimee Lou Wood (Aimee), and Ncuti Gatwa (Eric ). She tells Backstage she feels “lucky” her teenage stars hadn’t been discovered before, but also relieved she was given the power to cast totally new diverse talents: “We were given freedom to cast people who were unknowns rather than look for actors that would sell the show, which is refreshing because at the heart of it, we just wanted really talented people.”
One role, in particular, challenged the casting team: “Maeve was such a difficult part – everyone came in and put their own spin on it. They were all really interesting but we just didn’t feel like we found it. And then Emma came in and I remember [director] Ben Taylor’s face – he was like a giddy schoolboy. When Emma left and we shut the door, he was like: ‘Eeeeee!’ It had taken a while but we’d found her.”
Add to that new talent the established star power of Gillian Anderson as Otis’ sex therapist Mother and clearly the show has a winning formula.
Sex Education has a very distinctive look. Moordale’s sunny utopia is set in an aesthetically weird world that could be 2021 or 1983, the UK or the US. In reality, the show is filmed in South Wales, and the high school drama’s sun-kissed visuals require long days of light. As in other areas, the show took a chance on new filmmaking talent: alongside the more established director Ben Taylor (Catastrophe), Kate Herron is a debut director bringing a real freshness to the look of the show. Netflix also invested in the next generation of production staff, creating a training scheme for local talent to get involved in the making of the show.
Although ostensibly set in the UK, there are elements of the show’s school setting, Moordale, that no Brit student will ever have experienced. Varsity jackets, lockers and proms are not familiar to most British kids apart from in films, and that cinematic look wasn’t accidental. Speaking to the Guardian, Nunn said: “We created a bible of what I wanted to do visually. It had images of teen films and TV shows we loved: Freaks and Geeks, 10 Things I Hate About You, a lot of John Hughes [writer, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club]. Then we paid someone to draw all these graffiti penises over it!”
She continued: “It’s about this kid who gives out sex advice in the toilet cubicle. It needed a really heightened world to match it. Moordale’s not a real place: it’s almost like a comic book, a teenage utopia.”
From its release in January 2019, Sex Education was a hit, pure and simple. Over 40 million viewers streamed the sweet but sexy exploits of Otis, Eric, and Maeve, seeming to love every second of it. Critics agreed and Series 2 was commissioned almost immediately, hitting screens in January 2020. After Season 1’s success, the second series saw Otis develop as a character – even letting loose once in a while. It also saw a slight shift in focus as the show started to be more interested in the adults’ lives. Crucially, there was also a sexy sci-fi musical take on Romeo and Juliet, which most TV professionals know is an essential element of any international hit.
Despite pandemic delays, Series 3 is in the can and on track to be released in late 2021. There’s a bit of a time jump since the end of the last series, though fans will be relieved that Otis is apparently still as Otis as ever. As for show creator Nunn: she’s looking forward to an eventual creative life after Sex Education, telling Screen International: “It would be interesting to do something where I don’t have to tell penis jokes all the time – although I do love them.”