For Laurie Nunn, the last 18 months have been a fitting reflection of her favourite kind of story. “With all the anxiety we’ve been going through, we’ve all had to keep our sense of humour,” says the screenwriter and master-creator of Netflix’s Gen-Z colossus Sex Education, which returns to screens next month after a long, 20-month hiatus.
Since it premiered across Britain’s TV screens in January 2019 (the first series was watched by 40 million people - a Netflix record), Nunn’s teen drama has been widely acclaimed for its smart amalgamation of laugh-out-loud moments and whip-smart humour with serious issues from sexual assault to race and religion. That combination, she says, is much like real life, certainly this year: happiness alongside sadness; “dramatic, but funny,” says Nunn, 35, listing the shows that got her through lockdown: I May Destroy You, I Hate Susie, Adult Material. Like hers, these series all received praise for their blending of the silly and the serious. “Those are the stories I always find myself most drawn to. They’re the ones that feel most true to life.”
Certainly, Nunn’s favoured storytelling technique is a mantra for the Covid era. If she hadn’t had a sense of humour, the UK born, Melbourne-raised screenwriting graduate probably would have struggled to get through the fact that she hasn’t seen her family - still mostly living in Australia - in more than 18 months (“the novelty has worn off now... It’s starting to feel a bit panic-inducing”). She’d probably have struggled, too, with the fact that she didn’t once make it onto set of series three of her beloved show, and that Covid delayed filming by five months. She started writing this particular series in September 2019, so it’s a relief to see her ideas making it into viewers’ homes. “I’ve been with this particular set of stories for too long now,” she laughs.
Like many of our favourite TV shows, creating a show based around intimacy under the restrictions of Covid threw up all kinds of challenges. Nunn wasn’t able to see her writing team for a year - there were “some tears” when they were reunited in-person a few weeks ago - and restrictions on set made filming a “slow and painful” process. “Everybody [on set] really had to dig quite deep - there were a lot of emotions swirling around,” says Nunn, who has dark hair and striking features and looks like a combination of lead characters Maeve and Aimee (if they swapped their school uniform for Nunn’s sophisticated white blouse and gold hoops).
Today, Nunn, who is taking part in the Evening Standard Stories Festival in September, is speaking to me from an Airbnb in London, where she is enjoying a much-awaited time away from her flat. Lockdown was spent in north London with her dog Ruby, bought as a puppy last year and named after the character in her Netflix show because she’s a “diva”. “She’s been such a lifesaver”, says Nunn, whose Instagram of 23,000 followers is a mosaic of snoozing pup pics, post-pandemic friend reunions and Sex Education plugs.
Nunn remains obediently tight-lipped on the plot of series three, but she tells me the main theme is “shame” and how it can be weaponised - a key talking point this year after the conversations sparked by the Everyone’s Invited ‘rape culture’ movement in British schools since March. Nunn had finished writing by then - she did “dig a bit deeper into some of the strands” when filming was delayed - but calls the movement a “long time coming” and welcomes greater attention on subjects such as consent among teenagers.
“I’m 35 now and my sex education was basically: ‘Don’t get pregnant and don’t get an STI’,” she says. “I don’t think the word consent ever came up. We weren’t taught about female pleasure, female desire, LGBTQ issues...” She’d like to think education is changing and hopes her show will help in driving that. The first episode of series two opened with a montage of protagonist Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) discovering a new-found fondness for alfresco self-pleasure, with later episodes covering chlamydia, bisexuality, middle-aged desire, douching in the gay community and, memorably, baba ganoush-based dirty talk.
The show was also famously one of the first to use a professional intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien, to help navigate sex scenes, and Nunn thinks it’s right that shows are following its lead. “If you’re going to have a fight coordinator on set for a fight scene you should definitely have an intimacy coordinator on set for a sex scene. I personally feel it should be a standard.”
Nunn clearly has a fondness for all her characters, but naturally there are some she holds particularly close. The most common message she receives on social media is about sci-fi obsessive Lily, who suffers with a sexually inhibiting condition called vaginismus (“people are just so happy to see a character going through the same thing as them - it’s a very common thing but just not really talked about”). Another scene where character Aimee is sexually assaulted on a bus - based on Nunn’s own similar experience years ago on a bus to King’s Cross - also continues to resonate with viewers.
She’s excited to introduce new characters: Girls star Jemima Kirke joins season three as the new headmistress and Nunn brings in the show’s first non-binary character, Cal. “Writing that particular strand was a really eye-opening experience,” says Nunn. “We work with a really diverse group of writers so we really tried to get as many authentic voices into the mix”.
For Nunn, reflecting the diversity of her audience on screen is at the “core” of her work. She wants Sex Education to represent all demographics and is excited to develop many strands in series three. Isaac, the show’s first character in a wheelchair, was a favourite of hers in series two because he’s a love interest to Maeve but also “flawed”, putting him in a “grey area”, says Nunn, who will be joining George Robinson who plays Isaac to talk about diversity and inclusion at the Evening Standard’s Stories Festival in September.
The panel will hear Nunn give her advice for new writers and her main tip for those starting out is simple: start. Compared to other professions in the industry there are very few barriers, she believes. “With writing... the thing that is great about it is no one can stop you doing it. You just need your computer or even paper and a pen and you can write at any time.”
Surely, then, there’s little stopping her writing a fourth series of Sex Education? Nunn insists she doesn’t know and “cannot say” and then pauses, remembering her own words of wisdom. “I’d love to keep writing the characters,” she says, side-eyeing her Netflix agent on Zoom. “If Netflix wants to let me keep writing, I would love to.”
Laurie Nunn will be speaking at the Evening Standard Stories Festival, in association with Netflix, taking place in London on 24th - 26th September. Tickets for the festival are on sale now. Head to stories.standard.co.uk to book and find out more about the line-up
Sex Education Season 3 launches on Netflix globally on 17th September