Sex Education

I don’t feel like writing a long analytical piece about the recently concluded Netflix series Sex Education, so this is going to be mainly uncritical squee. It’s four series of eight episodes each about teenagers at school in a very fictional English town (where numerous aspects of the set-up bear little relationship to the English education system or indeed to British culture generally). The lead character is Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) whose gay best friend Eric (incoming star of Doctor Who, Ncuti Gatwa) encourages him to set up a sex education clinic at school, in collaboration with wild-but-smart girl Maeve (Emma Mackey). Gillian Anderson puts in a star turn as Otis’s mother Jean, who actually is a sex therapist. All of them have romantic troughs and peaks, as does the extensive supporting cast.

We decided to watch it to get acquainted with Ncuti Gatwa in advance of his appearance on Doctor Who, and really we were not disappointed. Anne argues that the entire series should be treated as speculative fiction anyway, because it’s obviously happening in a parallel Britain where schools are largely privately funded, and where various other implausible things happen in terms of the social context. So you have to suspend your disbelief a little. But once you do, you are swept into a beautifully constructed and often vey funny world of characterisation, with most of the characters following their own arcs, some of them getting to surprising places. Ncuti Gatwa stands out but does not dominate as Eric.

The other two characters who always drew the eye were Emma Rainey as Maeve and Aimee Lou Gibbs as her blonde friend Aimee (presumably it was not planned that actor and character would have the same name). The last season has a particularly effective episode revolving around a funeral which gets superb performances from both (and they are both generally very good).

Just as important as the plot, in times where sexual minorities are being demonised by people including the British Prime Minister, the ethos of the show is empowering and liberating. The actual sex advice given is sound and sensible, and the repressed authority figures get their comeuppance. There’s decent representation of disability too. Perhaps the lack of racism encountered by the non-white characters is a little too good to be true. There’s a very powerful scene at the end of the second season where Aimee’s friends join her in solidarity on the school bus, after she has spent several episodes dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault.

This episode, the seventh of Season 2, is the top-rated on IMDB and I think justifiably so. The second-highest rated is the fifth episode of series 3, where Otis and Maeve get stranded together during a school trip to France.

I would enter one mild note of annoyance. Lily, played by Tanya Reynolds, is the science fiction fan in the story. I felt that her portrayal tipped a bit more into mockery than was necessary. Most sf fans don’t actually believe, as Lily apparently does, that aliens are about to land. It’s a flaw in an otherwise very enjoyable show. (And she gets mercilessly written out at the end of the third season.)

That aside, I recommend it with no other reservations, and I’ve left out a lot of the good stuff here – the rotating head teachers, Gillian Anderson’s character’s arc, Maeve’s self-discovery in America, the surprisingly positive portrayal of Christianity in Eric’s family. You’ve just about got time to get through all 32 episodes before the era of Ncuti Gatwa’s as the Fifteenth Doctor begins.

Knights of God

I’m on a boat all day today, and setting this to post as I cruise sedately from France to Ireland, avoiding England and Wales entirely. I’ll write that up when I get a chance.

Earlier in the summer I watched the thirteen 25-minute episodes of the 1987 series Knights of God, an ITV children’s TV production about a near-future dystopian Britain (specifically, set in 2020), where a theocratic military regime has taken over and Wales has become the core of the limited resistance. Apparently the copyright rests with Disney, who have shown no interest in commercially releasing it, but at time of writing all 13 episodes can be found on both Youtube and Archive.org. For us genre TV fans, it’s especially notable for the resistance leaders being played by Gareth “Roj Blake” Thomas and Patrick “Second Doctor” Troughton.

(The picture quality in the online videos is not fantastic.)

The story was actually made in 1985, and by the time it was shown in 1987 two of the leading actors had died – Patrick Troughton and Nigel Stock, who is one of the leading bad guys, the titular Knights of God. The story revolves around young Gervase Edwards, a rebel who gets brainwashed by the Knights and instructed to kill the one person who can unite the country against them. It turns out (massive spoiler for a TV show from 36 years ago) that this person is in fact young Gervase himself, who is the rightful King. He overcomes his conditioning, the Knights are overthrown and the constitutional monarchy restored.

The two young actors in the lead roles are OK but somewhat overshadowed by the big names in the rest of the cast. Neither of them became a household name. George Winter, who plays Gervase, has switched careers and became an artist. Claire Parker, who plays his girlfriend Julia, is still an actor and wellness consultant. There is a decent dynamic between them. Her haircut is so 80s that you could probably identify the month it was filmed in 1985 with sufficient specialist knowledge. (Picture from the cover of the novelisation.)

But the pairing you really watch is the two lead bad guys, John Woodvine (memorable in Doctor Who as the Marshal of Atrios in The Armageddon Factor; he turned 94 last month) and Julian Fellowes (most famous now for writing Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, but also now a real-life Conservative member of the House of Lords) as Prior Mordrin and Brother Hugo. They move from being collaborators to becoming bitter enemies in a very credible story arc. (Nigel Stock is #3 in the hierarchy, Brother Simon, and enables them both at different times.)

Lots of other familiar faces from 1970s and 1980s television, especially Welsh actors, pop up from time to time. The most visible woman actor, apart from Claire Parker, is Shirley Stelfox who plays Gareth Thomas’s character’s wife (and Gervase’s supposed mother, until the truth comes out).

There are a lot of hidden father/child relationships. We start with the apparent one between Gervase and Roj Blake Gareth Thomas’s character, though that turns out to be fake. Two others become apparent in the course of the series, in one of which the actors concerned have only a nine year age different in real life. (Jocelyn Jee Esien, who played Clyde Langer’s mother in one of the Sarah Jane Adventures, is only eight years older than the youthful-looking Daniel Anthony.)

The whole thing was done on a relatively low budget – a few key sets and locations which we return to again and again, and a lot of money must have been blown on the two helicopters which feature frequently. But for what it is, I think it is very well done; I found the episodes flying by, and each cliff-hanger coming as a surprise. The directors were Andrew Morgan and Michael Kerrigan, both of whom also directed Doctor Who stories in the 1980s. If you have thirteen half-hour sized slots to fill in the coming days, you could make worse choices than watching this.

There’s also a novel by screenplay writer Richard Cooper (who also wrote Codename Icarus); the second paragraph of the third chapter is:

In the room, he saw the knight, who should have been standing to attention, slumped in a chair, head bowed in sleep. He slammed the door behind him and the man awoke, head jerking up, eyes slowly focusing and then, when he saw Mordrin, filling with fear. He got to his feet, rifle clattering to the floor. Mordrin, impassive, looked at it.

It’s great stuff, actually; only 204 pages for 13 episodes (and thus over 300 minutes of screentime) but packing in more interesting details – Ireland (as a whole) has become one of the states of the USA and is shipping in arms to the rebels; we get a lot more detail on the military situation and, crucially, on the Mordrin / Hugo relationship (rather less on the Gervase / Julia relationship, but that’s a case where less may be more). It is a perfectly adequate substitute for experiencing the original series.

I shouldn’t think this will ever be released commercially – the right moment to sell dystopian fiction set in the year 2020 may have passed, especially given what actually happened that year – but it was well worth tracking down.

The Diplomat

We’ve been hugely enjoying the Netflix series, The Diplomat, over the last week or so. It’s about a woman who is appointed as the American ambassador to London in the midst of a crisis, little realising that this may be a step towards something much bigger, and also attempting (or not) to salvage her marriage. It looks gorgeous, as this trailer will demonstrate:

Of course, it’s all a bit different from the way these things work in real life – no US Ambassador would get sent to London without a confirmation hearing by the Senate. (Yes, technically it could be done by a recess appointment, but this is not mentioned in the show.) The level of access enjoyed by the ambassador to the UK Foreign Office, and vice versa, is a tad unrealistic; the fact that we see officials swirling around the protagonist, and not the equivalent flocks around her British counterparts, makes the British look distinctly and unrealistically unbureaucratic. POLITICO has mercilessly fact-checked the show from the American point of view, and the UK foreign secretary has done the same with a little more mercy:

But let’s be honest, we don’t watch Macbeth to learn about eleventh-century Scottish history. The script was fun, the international intrigue a little crazy but also engaging, and the actors good to look at. I remember Rufus Sewell smouldering in Cold Comfort Farm three decades ago. He does a good smoulder. And it’s nice to see T’Nia Miller again from Doctor Who, Years and Years and Foudnation, though I’d have liked to see a bit more of Pearl Mackie.

So yes, recommended if you don’t mind a show that is definitely more drama than documentary.