Film & Television

What Do Margaret Thatcher and Sex Education Have in Common?

The press at entertainment awards shows is notorious for asking, shall we say, less than Mensa-material questions. The red carpet’s “Who are you wearing?”, regardless of the complexity or excellence of a role being honored, is ubiquitous (although rarely used when addressing men . . . hmmm).

But a question posed during the recent Emmy Awards may have raised the bar higher. (Or, should I say lower?)

Gillian Anderson was recognized as Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her truly superb work in The Crown. After she received the award, a reporter from American Urban Radio asked, “Just to kind of continue with this Margaret Thatcher thing, have you talked to her about this role at all?”

After a slight pause, Anderson replied simply, “I have not spoken to Margaret at all.”

Indeed, without the aid of an Ouija board, consulting the former Prime Minister would have been something of a miraculous feat. Thatcher passed away in 2013 at the age of 87. But props to Anderson for resisting any urge to correct or belittle the reporter. Classy decision.

The award for playing Thatcher is Anderson’s second Emmy; she won the first in 1997 for her breakout role as Agent Scully in The X-Files. After gracefully dodging questions about communicating with the dead, Anderson was quick to point out the difference between her earlier and current work.

“It feels extra special. When you’re 24 or 27, you feel like you’re invincible and it’s always going to be like that, and of course, it isn’t necessarily.” The actor, who is now 52, continued, “For something like this, this was such an extraordinary experience, and one of the hardest things, I think I’ve done to date. It’s really a lovely feeling to be recognized for the work at the end of the day.”

The actor was recognized for a different reason earlier this year when she posted on Instagram Live:

“I don’t wear a bra anymore. I can’t wear a bra. I’m sorry. I don’t care if my breasts reach my belly button. I’m not wearing a bra, it’s just too fucking uncomfortable.” The public’s reaction was overwhelming agreement, as many felt she was voicing an opinion they shared. Interestingly, with so many working from home during the pandemic, underwire bra sales have dipped, while more comfortable sports bra and bralette sales have increased.

Anderson may have felt qualified to offer advice on lady’s lingerie because of her role on Netflix’s Sex Education, which just launched its third season. In this clever and terribly funny series, she plays Jean Millburn, a very frank sex therapist and mother to Otis (Asa Butterfield), a sexually repressed and very confused teen. As you might imagine, he finds his mother’s occupation, not to mention her insistence on talking about personal issues in less than private places, mortifying. 

At Moordale Secondary School, Otis goes from nearly invisible to infamous when Maeve (Emma Mackey), a smart girl from the wrong side of the tracks, realizes that what the school needs is its own sex therapist. She’ll handle sales and marketing, and Otis can provide advice based on what he’s picked up from his mother. 

Series creator Laurie Nunn was a graduate of the National Film and Television School in Buckinghamshire, but struggled to get her foot in the door professionally. As she explained to The Face after the success of the first season, she became involved when she was invited to pitch her vision of the show several years ago. ​“[Eleven Film had] come up with a basic hook of what would happen if we put a teenage sex therapist onto a campus. It went out to loads of writers, and I pitched really hard. I created the characters and came up with the format and built the world of Moordale. And I sent photographs of myself as a teenager to the producers and was like: you have to let me write this show.”

Although Otis is Sex Education’s main focus, much of the plot revolves around his awkward relationship with his mother (and with virtually every other female character). The series is a comedy, but Nunn insists, “The show definitely has a point to it, ​I feel very passionate particularly about portraying female pleasure and female desire and agency on screen. And it’s in the title — in order for us to explore this sensitive subject matter, it has to feel like it has an educational element.” That responsibility falls most often to Anderson, whose Jean may know every detail of human sexuality but is often confounded by matters of the heart.

If Sex Education sounds a little too sexual (or a bit too educational), you might enjoy Anderson’s outstanding work in War and Peace (2016) as Anna Pavlovna Scherer or Bleak House (2005) as Lady Dedlock. And she’s currently tackling another historic figure, Eleanor Roosevelt, in the upcoming biopic series The First Lady

I set the title of this story up like a joke. “What Do Margaret Thatcher and Sex Education Have in Common?” The answer, however, “Gillian Anderson,” is no one to laugh at. In fact, she is a serious talent who shines equally bright in stories about affairs of state, affairs of the heart, and the clumsy affairs of hormonally challenged teenagers.

So I’ll leave you with a better Thatcher joke.

Margaret Thatcher takes the cabinet out for dinner. The waiter comes along and asks her what she will be eating tonight.

Thatcher replies, “I’ll have the steak.”

The waiter then asks, “What about the vegetables?”

To which Thatcher says, “Oh, they’ll have the same as me.”

The Crown and Sex Education are available to stream on Netflix.

War and Peace can be rented on Amazon Prime or streamed on Acorn.

Bleak House can be rented on Amazon Prime or streamed on BritBox.

The X-Files can be streamed on Hulu. 

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