A real education
HIT COMEDY-DRAMA TACKLES TABOO SUBJECTS WITH HEART AND HUMOUR
Last year’s Covid-safe filming protocols presented a rather unique problem for the third season of Sex Education, namely: how do you film a show primarily focused around intimacy and, well, bonking, and still socially distance?
Like so many productions around the world, shooting on the hit Netflix comedy-drama was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and when it finally got up and running again with the virus still raging around the UK, the physical contact and the raunchy scenes for which it has become famous had to be considered for the safety of the cast.
“It was tricky, but I felt like we dealt with it pretty well,” says lead actor Asa Butterfield, who plays amateur sex therapist Otis Milburn.
“We got tested a lot and wore masks – what you’d expect – and actually filming the scenes it didn’t actually affect it too much, thankfully, and we were still able to have that intimacy and that connection and that proximity, which the show needs.
“I was surprised at how well everyone just kind of got on with it and accepted the new norm and quite quickly we were like ‘OK, this is how we are doing it now’.
And we just kind of got into that rhythm and it was fine.”
Former child actor Butterfield, who shot to fame in movies including The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas, Hugo and Ender’s Game, admits there was a time he greeted the scripts for Sex Education with a fair bit of trepidation. With the premise of the show being that Otis – the son of a famously forthright sex therapist played by Gillian Anderson – starts to earn money by dishing out sex advice to his clueless fellow students, while wrestling with his own adolescent desires, Butterfield has had to deal with plenty of confronting material. The second season kicked off with Otis engaging in a startlingly hilarious marathon of self-love, and the new season ups the ante even further as he and his secret friend with benefits Ruby enthusiastically explore their arrangement.
“I remember that,” he says with a slight grimace of the infamous montage that opened the second season. “Vividly. I got the season 3 scripts in an email from my agent and the opening scene was … interesting. I was like ‘oh boy, here we go’. But I feel like they can’t really shock me any more. I feel like I am numb to whatever they throw at me.”
Sex Education has earned plaudits not just for its diversity and inclusivity but also the way it tackles difficult subjects – from homophobia and bullying to body image and experimentation – with a light touch and a fearless approach.
Scottish actor Ncuti Gatwa, who plays Otis’ best friend Eric, says the show is revered because it took what could have been stock characters in a cliched high school setting and infused them with depth, humour, unpredictability and real-life situations.
“It was unflinching in its portrayal of life as we know it and the issues that we deal with,” he says. “And it dealt with them in a very realistic way and also in a very humorous way. I feel like the humour made it more realistic so people were able to let their guard down and not feel like they were in a lecture. They could relax and watch a comedy and at the end go ‘huh, I never thought of it like this’ or ‘I didn’t know about that’. I think it just struck a chord with the time that we are in and the conversations that we are
having regarding diversity and inclusion.”
Gatwa, who is of Rwandan descent, has often been singled out for praise for his portrayal of the black and gay Eric, and says he is constantly learning on the job and hopes audiences are being informed as well as entertained.
“Obviously that’s what is happening when people are watching the show,” says. “They are being introduced to people that they wouldn’t normally and hopefully that keeps the show refreshing.”
Butterfield agrees, saying that the cast regularly get messages and feedback from fans – often from marginalised or minority groups – thanking them for putting the spotlight on taboo topics and starting difficult conversations.
“Ever since season 1 there have been people – and particularly people in countries where they perhaps don’t have much of a sexual education curriculum in
I feel like they can’t really shock me any more
school or perhaps it’s not culturally a conversation that comes up with your parents or whatever and that must be really difficult,” he says.
“To have a show that starts those conversations or is just a medium to learn some things is really valuable. People have really responded to that. We have all had messages from people just saying how much they appreciate what the show has given to them, which is lovely.”
Butterfield says he was as fascinated as anyone to see his onscreen mother Anderson in her Emmy-nominated role as Maggie Thatcher in The Crown, having shown off some selfies of her in full costume and make-up while they were filming season 2. But did she ever practice the voice on him?
“No, thank God,” he says with a laugh, “That would have been terrifying.”