Sex Education: Ben Taylor on directing a hit Netflix show

Sex Education won over fans with its brilliant performances and heartfelt look at teenage life. We talk to director Ben Taylor about creating the show’s aesthetic, getting it commissioned and the challenges of directing comedy-drama

Sex Education offered a joyous escape from the gloom of early January. The Netflix series follows the lives of a teenage sex therapist and his fellow students at Moordale High (a school that has more in common with the settings of the Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off than your average British comprehensive) as they navigate the awkwardness of adolescence. While the series is packed with laughs, it was praised for its sensitive handling of topics from abortion to LGBT+ discrimination and offered a more inclusive and positive look at sex and love than we’re used to seeing in high school dramas. The show’s mix of British and American influences confused some viewers, but its retro aesthetic and rural Welsh setting gave it a distinctive look and feel – one that pays homage to cult films but retains a certain British charm.

Ben Taylor directed the first four episodes of the series and worked with creator Laurie Nunn and production company Eleven Film to create the world of the show. (Later episodes were directed by Kate Herron.) Taylor – who hails from Scarborough – started out assisting on music videos for the likes of Blue, Atomic Kitten and Girls Aloud before making commercials and has directed spots for Nando’s, KFC and Mercedes. He also directed the first three seasons of Catastrophe, along with BBC sitcom Cuckoo and Channel 4 sketch show Cardinal Burns. Here, he tells us more about making the show and bringing Nunn’s vision to life.

Creative Review: How did you end up working on Sex Education?
Ben Taylor: I had been attached to a film called the Rosie Project [based on the bestselling book by Graeme Simsion]. It’s a rom-com, which was something I was really keen to do having worked on Catastrophe, and it seemed like a great next step for me, so I was over the moon when they asked me to do it.

It was supposed to happen in 2017, so I cleared the decks and didn’t take on any other work … but for various reasons it just dragged on. People became available and dropped out and it became quite frustrating, and then it became clear that it probably wasn’t going to happen – or it wasn’t going to happen with me on it. By that time I’d had six months off and time off is nice, but it’s nerve-wracking when you’ve convinced yourself, ‘this is what my working year is going to be like’ and nothing materialises.

One good thing that came out of it was that because I wasn’t [directing] I’d been helping develop a few things and had gone for a meeting with Eleven about Sex Education. I didn’t know if I’d be available as the Rosie Project could have gone into production by then, but I’d read the script and loved it, so I went in and pitched how I would do it.

CR: What appealed to you about the script?
BT: I’m quite geeky with certain genres and high school is one of them. John Hughes films were a big influence on me growing up and I’d always been on the search for a good high school story in a John Hughes sort of mould. Most renderings of the school experience in the UK tend to be quite grey and sarcastic and ironic. It’s never about celebration or joy or warmth or heart – it tends to be about sticking two fingers up to school and fucking off when you graduate. In America, even though the John Hughes school days are full of angst and and unrequited lough and detention and fights, they’re still [treated] with this love and affection and optimism, as if you could look back and say, ‘those were great days’.

What struck a chord with me about Laurie’s writing is that I felt you could do that [with Sex Education]. Laurie’s Australian-British, and there were lots of British references in the script, but it wasn’t framed in a traditionally British, Inbetweeners and Skins-type way, so it was something I thought could be executed in a really interesting way.