Sexcess all areas: how Laurie Nunn creates Sex Education

As it returns for a second season, the writer of Netflix’s hit comedy-drama explains how she brings her show – and her brilliant characters – to a climax on repeat.

Is Sex Education the rudest show on television? Discounting Euphoria, HBO’s drama about the hard-partying lives of suburban Californian kids, probably. 

The intense, gruelling and at times explosively intimate American show made Netflix’s series about British high schoolers feel like chaste foreplay. Everything’s relative, though. Sex Education – which launched, to instant acclaim, this time last year and returns this month – was a hormonal hurricane, an orgasmic riot of copulation, coupling, uncoupling, forbidden love and, for school bully Adam, a forebodingly hefty dong (the size of two Coke cans, apparently).

There were storylines featuring a girl suffering from vaginismus, scenes of fruit-based fellatio, Asa Butterfield’s Otis fruitlessly attempting masturbation and his sex therapist mum (Gillian Anderson) enjoying a swinging succession of one-night stands. Equally: for all the brilliant and cartoonishly comic moments, Sex Education was real(ish), too, boldly depicting situations where the sex was often a damp squib. 

We’ve all been there, right?

Lots of us still are.

After season one rocked the bedsprings of the watching world, there was one question (apart from what’s vaginismus?”): who writes this stuff?

The answer: Laurie Nunn, a young British screenwriter. Sex Education was the show on which this graduate of the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, lost her professional virginity. To paraphrase the old Pulp song (the kind of vintage classic that might pop up alongside Ezra Furman in the ever-colourful Sex Ed soundtrack): do you remember the first time?

Of course Nunn does – it only happened a couple of years ago.

Sex Education was my first proper green light,” the Londoner begins when I ask for the difference between writing a debut series in a vacuum and writing a follow-up when she knows that former child star Butterfield is her leading man and that shooting-star Ncuti Gatwa is his best mate Eric. So I’d never felt that thing of: oh God, actors are playing the parts, so now I’ve got their voice in my head.”

But, she continues, either way it’s freeing. Now when I go into writing the lines, I can hear Ncuti, I can hear Asa. And it just means you can get a lot deeper in those characters. And also: [now] there’s a common understanding between everyone that’s involved in the show. Whereas I think in the first season, before you’ve cast it, it’s very much like: nobody really knows what it is and we’re all hoping for the best.”

In season two there are new characters and a bigger, more expansive” world at Moordale Secondary School. 

It’s still very much following Otis and his friendship with Eric, the tension with his mum. But I would say that a lot of our female characters have come to the forefront and I dig a bit deeper into what makes them tick.”

Was that clear to Nunn going into season two, that she wanted to bring out the female characters more?

Yes and no. Very often when I’m writing it’s not until I get to the end of the process of writing the [story] outlines that I go: Oh, the themes have naturally presented themselves.’ That happened very much in the first season. In this season it was the same. By the end I realised there was a lot of thematic stuff to do with female solidarity and female pleasure/​desire that had really crystallised.”

Equally, the success of the first season was empowering. Because people responded so positively to the frankness of the way we dealt with sex and identity, it meant that we could go a bit further with that and dig a bit deeper. 

Nunn grew up in the UK until she was 14. Then she and three of her siblings moved to Melbourne with their Australian mum. She stayed there through uni and her undergraduate film degree, which explains her slight Aussie twang. In her early twenties she returned to the UK to take a masters in screenwriting.

Her original goal was to become a director. Then I graduated from film school and realised it was really difficult to get stuff off the ground. And it was around that point that I got really into box sets. I watched them all: Sopranos, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, which is the best TV show of all time – I’ve watched it about six times. And at that point I thought: I really want to write TV. I felt like there’s no other way of being that immersed in a story other than reading a book, really. I just loved following characters over many, many episodes.”

At the NFTS she was a classmate, peer and writing partner of Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who’s just landed an Oscar nomination for co-writing 1917 with Sam Mendes. She’s doing so well,” the 33-year-old beams.

  • I feel very passionate about portraying female pleasure, desire and agency on screen.”  I feel very passionate about portraying female pleasure, desire and agency on screen.”  I feel very passionate about portraying female pleasure, desire and agency on screen.”  I feel very passionate about portraying female pleasure, desire and agency on screen.”  I feel very passionate about portraying female pleasure, desire and agency on screen.”  I feel very passionate about portraying female pleasure, desire and agency on screen.”  I feel very passionate about portraying female pleasure, desire and agency on screen.”  I feel very passionate about portraying female pleasure, desire and agency on screen.”  I feel very passionate about portraying female pleasure, desire and agency on screen.”  I feel very passionate about portraying female pleasure, desire and agency on screen.”  I feel very passionate about portraying female pleasure, desire and agency on screen.”  I feel very passionate about portraying female pleasure, desire and agency on screen.”  I feel very passionate about portraying female pleasure, desire and agency on screen.”  I feel very passionate about portraying female pleasure, desire and agency on screen.”  I feel very passionate about portraying female pleasure, desire and agency on screen.”  I feel very passionate about portraying female pleasure, desire and agency on screen.”  I feel very passionate about portraying female pleasure, desire and agency on screen.”  I feel very passionate about portraying female pleasure, desire and agency on screen.”  I feel very passionate about portraying female pleasure, desire and agency on screen.”  I feel very passionate about portraying female pleasure, desire and agency on screen.” 

Nunn began writing Sex Education five years ago, a couple of years after graduating. It came to her as a seed pitch” from production company Eleven Film. They’d come up with a basic hook of what would happen if we put a teenage sex therapist onto a campus. It went out to loads of writers, and I pitched really hard. I created the characters and came up with the format and built the world of Moordale. 

And I sent photographs of myself as a teenager to the producers and was like: you have to let me write this show.”

Ask her what it was about her pitch that won the day and she replies, with cheerful self-deprecation: Maybe it was the weird photographs! Sometimes I do think if you really want something you have to put yourself out there, but it was a bit crazy. I think I was a bit desperate for a job at that point.”

Once she’d landed the gig, she hit the ground running. And, it seems, the ground hit her, too.

When I ran the writers’ room for [season one], that was the first one I’d ever been in. I think there were pros and cons to that because I was very much making it up as I went along, having an extended panic attack for five weeks.

It’s a very competitive industry,” Nunn expands. There’s a lot of people trying to do the same thing. Also, I think it’s starting to change but in the UK you don’t have as much of a culture of writers’ rooms as in the States.”

Even beyond TV industry circles, we hear a lot about the macho tyranny of the writers’ room. She nods.

My writers’ room is the complete opposite – it’s like a very big hug. We clap each other when people pitch good ideas, and it’s mostly women in the room, and it’s quite a queer space. 

I try and foster a non-competitive atmosphere. I think particularly with the subject matter of this show, people need to feel safe to be able to share quite intimate stuff from their own life. You want people to feel like they can put forward their idea and not be scared of being shot down, even if the idea is terrible, which it sometimes is,” Dunn notes cheerfully.

As with season one, in season two it’s the trials of Butterfield’s character that are the sticky, beating heart of Sex Education.

Otis is always the guiding light for me throughout the writing process. I feel like every episode, if I ever get stuck I have to come back to him, what he’s feeling, what he wants. I think there’s something very interesting about the fact that he’s a young white male, and he’s the one that’s taking us through this world where it’s actually about so many people who have a different experience to that.”

She admits, though, that early on in the production process, Otis was a girl.

We did talk about gender flipping the role. But it just didn’t feel as interesting. There’s something about a boy who’s able to talk about emotions, who’s able to be honest and kind of vulnerable, that makes it feel unique.”

It’s that educational dynamic to Sex Education that makes it a show worth far more than cheap thrills. Nunn wants her show to be a bulwark against some of the crasser versions of so called sex ed that are out there, especially for boys (hello, Pornhub).

The show definitely has a point to it,” she says firmly. I feel very passionate particularly about portraying female pleasure and female desire and agency on screen. And it’s in the title – in order for us to explore this sensitive subject matter, it has to feel like it has an educational element.

I always feel like the sex scenes need to drive the story forward, or they need to be teaching us something. Otherwise they’re just gratuitous. The sex education that I had as a teenager was absolutely appalling, and I don’t think it’s that much better now – especially for LGBTQI+ people, it’s even worse and there’s a lot of work to be done in that area. Hopefully our show helps with that a little bit.”

Sex Education season 2 is on Netflix from 17th January. 


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