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In Conversation with Ben Taylor, director of Netflix's 'Sex Education'

“I wish this show had been around when I was younger,” says Ben Taylor, director and executive producer of 'Sex Education' - the Netflix series which hasn’t budged from number one since its second season was released in January.

Taylor has worked on the show since its inception, closely with the writer and creator, Laurie Nunn, and is responsible for many of the creative decisions that make the show so eccentric.

“My cum tastes like kimchi. Do I have a fermented dick?” and “Last night I looked at some cheese and got an erection”, are fan-favourite lines that signal this absurdity.

But Taylor doesn’t flinch when I ask how the obscenity of the show has been received. “My dad’s church friends all watch it independently and seem to think it’s brilliant,” laughs Ben, fully aware that the opening minutes of Season 2 is kicked off by an epic montage of Otis (Asa Butterfield) pleasuring himself on screen.

And just when you thought the show couldn’t get more relevant, Season 2 almost doubles the ground covered in the previous season; introducing discussions of pansexuality and Asexuality, sexual health and assault. And if one thing becomes clear from the Netflix series’ quirky humour and cultural relevancy: schools have been getting sex education completely wrong.

Strand spoke to Taylor about challenging taboos, Amy’s (Aimee Lou Wood) harrowing sexual assault storyline, favourite moments in the series, and the heartening appeal of watching people stumble their way into adulthood.

Image: Ben Taylor/Netflix

For people who haven’t yet seen season 2, how would you describe the new season compared to the first and what can they expect?

The second season picks up exactly where it left off, Otis has spectacularly broken through his sexual block, and we get to reveal and understand more about these characters and what makes them tick within themselves and romantically. We begin to see them put more of their theory into practice, they continue relationships, start new ones, and they all become more complex where love triangles become love squares. The joy of doing a Netflix show rather than a film is that we get eight hours to reveal a lot more about them and different layers to them.

Sex education tackles so many issues regarded as ‘taboo’ in society, and it’s clear that many people are grateful for this show because of the way it has opened up the conversation around sexuality, relationships and individual identity.

Did you know that this was the case, as you were filming the series?

It was definitely an ambition from the first meeting about the pilot script, but it was always entertainment and character first and never shoe-horning the issues. We hoped that if we could create a show that was both funny and moving, then we would be in a position to tell these stories that haven’t been told before. Or even when they’re familiar stories or tropes it’s about where and how you shine the light on it. In creating this very specific world and cast of characters we hoped to be able to push some conversations further. Behind closed doors, we would get carried away and say ‘wouldn’t this be great if this was an important show that furthered conversations and broke taboos’. But we never dreamt of it having that success and the connection that it’s found, so when you see the reaction and you read about how it has affected people on specific issues and challenges, I think that has been the most gratifying part.

The series encourages people to talk more openly about intimate subjects which perhaps should have been addressed a long time ago. For example, when Viv’s character notes in episode 7: ‘2/3’s of women have experienced a form of sexual assault before the age of 21’, that’s something that really sticks with the viewer.

Do you think the show has now acquired a level of social responsibility to actually educate its viewers now, more than before?

Yes, I think it inevitably has a little bit. The premise of Otis and Jean and Sex & Relationship therapists sets itself up as having this style and this purpose but hopefully never in a preachy way. But when these characters are advising their clients you are essentially advising the audience, which I think is a massive responsibility. It’s very responsibly and accurately written by Laurie based on a lot of research and guest advisors that came into the writers room. Then ultimately the “therapy” is very sensitively brought to life by Asa (Otis) on screen. As soon as you give yourself a soap box, your responsibility is to be accurate and educational.

In the second series, it wasn’t only the character Otis who bore the weight of this responsibility. For example, Otis is entirely absent from the sexual assault storyline, it was about Amy's personal experience and then Amy and Maeve, the friend that she confided in. In Episode 7 which was amazing right from the page, Amy further shares her story with the girls in detention and their response is not only sympathy, it’s ‘me too’, as they begin to share similar situations they have been through. The final scene of that episode is one of my favourites of the season. As they ride the bus together it shows the support and solidarity between this disparate group of girls brought closer together by their shared experiences of sexual assault. It has hope in it but it’s not punching the air saying ‘we’ve fixed it’, it’s saying “this will continue but we hope it will get better, just by having begun to talk about it.” I think that represents the hope of the show too, helping by starting conversations.

Amy’s experiences of everyday sexual assault on the bus was extremely relatable to many women in different ways as it addressed an issue in society that usually gets ‘brushed under the carpet’, and this storyline has been vitally important in raising awareness. When filming Amy’s journey after the assault to regain her confidence; did this open as much discussion on set as it has done on social media?

We don’t really have any rehearsal period on this show, frequently the first time you’re working through scenes will be on the day that you are filming them. But with episode 7 the actors and I had talked a little about the library scenes ahead of time; it was very personal to them and they were excited to shoot them. But I find there’s an element with sensitive material that you don’t want to put too much weight on it, because when you come around to filming those scenes there’s a freshness about finding it on camera and doing it for real.

But once you’re shooting you trust the scripts and your instincts and try to do the scenes justice - there truly isn’t much time to sit and discuss it. So watching the completed scenes with the actors was a very moving experience. Also, relief that we pulled it off. Now it’s out and it exists in the world, it’s a storyline that can be viewed and unpacked by a new set of audiences and that’s hugely exciting.

Image: Ben Taylor/Netflix

Not only is Sex Education empowering for younger women, but also older women, such as Jean and Maureen who reflect the experiences of women of their own generation. How have the responses varied between different generations of viewers?

We know that our audience demographic is incredibly wide. What’s really blown Netflix’s minds and ours is that Sex Education isn’t just being enjoyed by the main demographic reflected on screen, but it’s also parents watching it and discussing it with their kids. And beyond that generation too, my parents are both in their 70s, they obviously watch because of family duty, but they both absolutely love it. My dad’s church friends all watch it independently and seem to think it’s brilliant.

I always wanted it to be a show that my friends would want to watch, and you realise that everybody has had these universal experiences, and the way we talk about it may have changed but essentially those feelings and emotions are something we’ve been through. You tend to remember it as if it was yesterday, remembering both the good and the bad. The show makes for some cringe viewing.

In terms of the older cast, I think they’re really important in portraying a parents generation, still baffled and bumbling their way through life and sexual relationships like the teens and it’s heartening but also terrifying to know that you never really figure it out. It’s also important to have an age range in a show like this where you don’t just show the teenage experience, it helps broaden it. A highlight for me this year was Sam Spiro who plays Adam’s mum, she is such a supremely brilliant actor, she was kept in the background in series 1, essentially playing a silent wife, our sleeping timebomb but she finds her voice in this series. She’s in an oppressive loveless marriage, one where you are traditionally expected to ‘stick it out’, but when she starts rediscovering things about herself and her sexuality it leads her to kick Mr Groff out, it’s proper fist-pumping stuff for an audience of any age.

Do you think that the show is most impactful for younger audiences, or is there something older adults can take away from it too?

The universality of these subjects and the storytelling I think is particularly relevant to the high school genre, a stage of your life that everyone is guaranteed to have gone through in some form or other - and that period brings the pain and the angst of first love. With the breadth of the characters at Moordale, the hope is that within there, you are represented. It’s not like saying ‘I’m definitely a Monica and you’re a Ross’, there’s an array of characters with different levels of life experiences and specific thoughts on sexuality and what they represent. Across the broad ensemble, its progressively representative. For example, this year we introduced an Asexual character, one of the most encouraging responses on twitter was from Asexual viewers who may have loved that one scene or that one line that has articulated what Asexuality feels like to them. We hope to continue that into series 3.

Finally, what was your favourite scene in season 2 to film and why?

“I’ll cheat and give you two answers. I think that the one you love the most is where the exact and right emotion was on set and being captured on camera, for me this was the bus scene of the girls all together at the end of episode 7. It was a really beautiful and cathartic moment, it was the last scene of the series for a lot of the actors, and they were genuinely emotional at the thought of it ending. Then at that moment where the sun was setting at exactly the right time and the right angle, the bus powers into the distance. It couldn’t have been more perfect.

Most fun was probably the most stressful, which was the house party at Otis’ in episode 6. To shoot with 80 kids on a very small set was really fun chaos. We had to pump music into the set to get everyone dancing to the same rhythm and feel the same vibe, and then you cut the music and run the dialogue. In the last scene, when it goes nuts with Asa and the chicken, it was just wild, and that was in the last 10 minutes of filming that week. Thankfully no injuries occurred.”

Sex Education Season 2 premiered on January 17 and is available to watch on Netflix now.

Edited by Andriani Scordellis, Film and TV Editor

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