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Teenage dream: Sex Education

Posted on Oct 5, 2023 by Katie Kasperson

As Sex Education comes to a climax, Katie Kasperson unpacks the show’s colourful, transatlantic aesthetic

When Sex Education premiered in 2019, it became an instant classic – and one of Netflix’s biggest British titles. The show attracted international audiences of all ages, thanks in part to its timeless visual style and unidentifiable locale.

Created by Laurie Nunn, Sex Education is a cross-generational lesson in sexuality, intimacy and identity. Its expertly selected cast amalgamates person-next-door innocence with proper star power. Mum-and-son duo Jean (Gillian Anderson) and Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) both act as sex therapists – and though only Jean is professionally qualified, both address their peers’ problems with empathy and delicacy, leaving viewers with a warm, fuzzy feeling.

BRAT PACK

The Milburns live, work and study in Moordale, a fictional town shot primarily in the UK’s Wye Valley. Although the characters are distinctively British (they have got accents at least), their world is far less concretely defined. Moordale Secondary School, housed in a beautifully grandiose University of South Wales building, is arguably American, with letterman jackets and an emblematic ‘M’ logo. Samantha Harley, production designer on Series 1-3, says the show’s look “started with the school. Those rows of lockers are so iconically American.”

Sex Education’s critics may call its cultural ambiguity a sales tactic – meant to generate wider commercial appeal – but that wasn’t the intent. “When the production designer and I had the first meeting with Ben Taylor – the director of the first three series – he said he wanted to create a show that was nostalgic, but with a nod to John Hughes,” explains Rosa Dias, costume designer on Series 1-3. “I think that automatically brought in the American slant. It wasn’t deliberate to combine the US and England – it wasn’t the primary aim at all.”

Harley echoes this: “We didn’t specifically say: ‘it needs to be American’. We were influenced by Americana, but it was to be a hybrid.”

Sex Education largely revolves around Otis and his peers’ high school experiences. We watch as they navigate the physical, emotional and social turbulence that comes post-puberty. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club – those were massive influences,” says Christina Tom, art director on Series 2-4. In addition to the show’s themes, the sets, the costumes, even the colour palettes pay homage to genre-defining director Hughes.

“The eighties coming-of-age films were feel-good,” describes Harley. “A lot of Sex Education plays with some really important, challenging topics. I think that, ultimately, the characters have all got redeeming qualities. Very quickly, you realise they’re much more layered, much more complex – there’s so much more going on.”

A WHOLE NEW WORLD

Although influenced by US popular culture, Moordale is a little world of its own. The creative departments started almost from scratch, designing sets, props and costumes that transcended time and place.

“It’s got some of the US, but it’s still set in the UK,” states Tom. But Moordale’s pine forests, hills, rivers and more urban areas do make it difficult to map.

“The valley could look like North Europe, the US or Canada,” says Harley. “Some of those vistas you see – you don’t feel like you’re in the UK.”

According to Dias, that was largely the point. “We wanted it to be a show full of colour. Quite often, a lot of shows – UK shows – go so real, it’s completely uninspiring and almost too gritty.” She continues: “It wasn’t about being gritty, even though the subjects are heartfelt, important and deep. We wanted to deliver it in an upbeat way.”

“Ultimately, one of the main elements of the show is talking,” says Harley. “It’s about communication and it’s about friendship.” To that end, Moordale exists in a ‘slightly more analogue world’ – one which combines record players and vintage cars with smartphones and modern medicine. “We were trying to hark back to a simpler time where there wasn’t as much tech and we could talk.”

VIBE CHECK | Tapping into a colourful, vintage aesthetic, Sex Education's costuming creates individuality for each character (Sam Taylor/NETFLIX © 2020)

PRETTY IN PINK

Sex Education’s costumes also lend themselves to the show’s unplaceable era. “I thought the best way to do something [non-specific] would be to try and mix periods – with lots of elements from different decades for different people,” Dias explains.

Otis dons an eighties-esque tri-colour puffer, while resident rebel Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey) combines Ally Sheedy’s pre-makeover Breakfast Club look with Sloane’s fringe jacket from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Jackson Marchetti (Kedar Williams-Stirling), Moordale’s star swimmer, wears a varsity jacket like that of Emilio Estevez’s Andrew Clark. Meanwhile, Jean’s wardrobe borrows from the twenties and thirties, Michael Groff’s (Alistair Petrie) from the sixties and seventies and Adam Groff’s (Connor Swindells) from the nineties.

Series 3 introduces school uniforms, which are more in keeping with British culture. Despite them all being grey, each character’s outfit is purposefully personalised. “People in high school tend to individualise a little bit of the school uniform – and then get told off, of course,” laughs Dias.

TIMELESS CLASSIC | The show’s visual style harks back to eighties coming-of-age films, making for a nostalgic viewing experience (Cr. Samuel Taylor/Netflix © 2022)

BACK TO SCHOOL

The Series 3 finale sees Moordale shut down and sold to developers, with Maeve leaving for the US – introducing not one but two new schools in Series 4. This was partially due to parts of the real University of South Wales building being redeveloped. Either way, the production team faced fresh dilemmas.

The show’s students split up, with most attending the Cavendish College. “The production designer came up with the whole new look for the Cavendish College, which is based on a bit more modernism,” reveals Tom, “but with a nod towards queer culture and LGBTQ+ colours. It’s slightly brighter – but keeps the pastels and muted tones that we know from the usual Sex Education.”

Maeve, an ocean apart, attends an Ivy League-inspired institution. “Visually, that’s kind of an expensive-looking, old school,” explains Tom, much like Harvard or Yale. “Cavendish is more of a modern, sixties and seventies kind of building, but with technology updated, which is very different to Moordale.”

DON’T DREAM IT’S OVER

Fans are already sad to see the show end. Its depictions of and discussions around teenage sex have helped audiences answer crucial questions and overcome their own issues. “I’ve heard on numerous occasions about different generations watching it,” Harley says. “Parents watching it and their kids watching it – not always together – but then having a lovely chat about it afterwards. It’s opened up conversations.”

“When we were finishing, we didn’t know it was the last series, to be honest,” reveals Tom. “There was some talk about Series 5.” Although it’s officially over, Sex Education promises to go out with a bang. “I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I can’t wait to see it.”

Sex Education’s fourth and final series is now streaming on Netflix

This article appears in the October 2023 issue of Definition. Read the full magazine here.

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