Poet and screenwriter Thara Popoola’s career has been a slow and steady climb. Poem after poem, then short after short, and more recently one script after another, earning her a seat at the season 4 Sex Education writers’ room, where she got her first TV credit on the award winning show’s final episode. We caught up with her to talk what it’s really like to write for a living, Sex Education and her artistic sensibilities.
Do you remember what point you realised you could write for a living?
Probably when I started screenwriting, which was in 2020/2021. Before that I was doing shorts here and there but I hadn’t been paid for my writing. I think I did like a scratch night where I got 50 pounds or so but I was definitely still working my 9-5 as a paralegal. When I got my agent it made me realise, okay, I could do this as a job. Shortly after I also got Sex Education. That was my first TV writing job. But even then, I still stayed at my 9-5. I only left last year.
Logistically, how do you do that? How did you do a 9-5 and write full time?
Use all your annual leave [laughs] plus unpaid leave. And then later that year, I had a really understanding manager. I eventually ended up going part time and would work three times a week, and use the other days to write and do writing rooms. I just made it work. And then when it literally became impossible, that's when I finally left my 9-5.
When did you join the Sex Education writers' room?
I joined for season four, we did writers room around summer 2021, so it's been a long-time journey.
Tell me a little about having a completely new cast for season four.
When you’re writing on a show, you're serving the vision of the creator. I think there were various reasons, including the fact that Moordale closes down at the end of season three so there’s a new school, and inevitably new characters. But we came on board and was just kind of there to support Laurie’s vision for the season.
What was it like having to integrate these new characters in an already established TV universe?
It was quite fun actually. I think to come into a room of a show that is very established and to have that freedom to pitch new ideas, new characters, new themes, it’s quite fun. And then seeing them brought to life. I think the new class were brilliant, the actors did a great job. So, I really liked it.
Can you describe to me a little what the atmosphere is like in a writers’ room for a show like Sex Education?
So, it was the first room I’ve ever done. Laurie always describes it as like an extended dinner party and that's sort of how it feels. You're just talking all day for five weeks. The atmosphere in the room is very open. It's everyone pitching ideas. Sometimes by the time an idea goes on the board we don't actually remember who it came from, because everyone’s jumped on and added their bit to get it to what it is. I know we always hear about safe spaces, but it genuinely did actually feel like a safe space. People were free to have opposing views and it was fine. And I think in this climate, you don't get that. It often feels like everyone has to agree on everything otherwise you're cancelled but that was not the case with us. Although you do sort of ended up becoming a kind of hive mind, but you still want people to bring their different experiences. Especially with a show as diverse as Sex Education.
How many new writers were there for season four?
Selena Lim, who wrote episode four was the only writer returning. All the rest of us were new and for quite a few of us this was our first TV credit. I think they've done that in previous seasons as well, they’ve created opportunities for new writers. And that doesn't happen. I remember I was told that they wanted to meet me and I genuinely thought it was for an assistant role because I didn't have any credits, I had only written one script.
That is very cool, especially for a show that is so acclaimed. I can see how the pressure to finish strong would have them stick with writers they know, so it’s great that they were willing to involve new writers.
Yeah it doesn't happen very often in this industry. Often you find yourself in the catch 22 where you need experience to get experience.
The biggest thing this season was that it zooms out a little bit and the focus is less on the micro interactions, but instead on the big picture stuff. It felt a bit more led by social issues than relationships between the characters. I wonder if that was intentional?
I think it was to an extent, but I think it very much also did come from the characters who were experiencing these things, whether it be to do with sexuality or disability. As a result of that we ended up exploring these themes. I don't know if we necessarily went into the room and outright said ‘these are the issues we're going to cover,’ I think we sort of started with the characters and then through discussions and people's experiences in the room those issues were drawn out and explored during the season.
What was it like for you to have the job of tying up all the storylines at the end?
So when I was writing, I didn't necessarily know the show was ending. I maybe had an inkling because it felt like things were resolving, but I didn't really know. I think Laurie has really brilliant outlines, and there's a lot of support from Clare Couchman, the executive producer, and Maria Odufuye, who's the script editor. So, it was a lot of going back and forth and exploring and discussing. I felt very supported. I wasn’t just left to my own devices or left to freak out so it was alright, to be honest.
Would you have suggested any big outline changes if you knew that episode 8 was the finale?
I mean I’ve heard a lot of people say that they wish Maeve and Otis were more cemented, but they're 17 years old. I like that it's open. Maybe I would have made it more “not now, but maybe in a few years,” maybe I would have made that a bit more apparent. But I think it felt true to life in that when you're 17 years old, you have these people and these experiences in your life that feel like they’re forever but ultimately, for a lot of them the end of the show is essentially just the start of their journey.
The friendships feel far more cemented though, particularly Otis and Eric’s. Tell me a little about having that friendship being a constant factor in the whole show?
I mean, I think Otis and Eric’s friendship is the heartbeat of the show. Even before I was on the show, their friendship and their dynamic was sort of what drew me in. For Otis, even before Maeve, there was always Eric.
Is there a storyline you particularly enjoyed writing for?
Eric exploring his faith and sexuality. I enjoyed that. We don't see that very often in a nuanced way, that explores both sides equally. So often, it feels like someone having to pick a side but I think Eric is very much toiling in between. Those storylines are important. In my interview, I mentioned wanting to, -and Laurie had the idea as well- explore a kind of emotionally abusive relationship. So, I was glad that was something we were able to do [with Viv and Beau]. And I thought the actors did a brilliant job, because it wasn’t easy. Amy’s storyline as well, the bus scene was brilliant. Yeah, I think those were the stand outs.
Is there any that was particularly challenging?
I think in a way all of them because it's like, they're not necessarily my personal experiences. So, I always had that thing of wanting to do it justice. Cal’s storyline was probably the most difficult because of wanting to do justice to their story. We had consultants to help out. We wanted it to be an accurate reflection because it’s such an important story.
I want to talk about Eric a little bit more. Tell me a little about the choice to incorporate magical realism, to depict the evolution of his faith in a show that although dramatic, has been rooted in reality so far.
I think we spoke a lot about that in the room. He feels like he's being called and, there are instances in the Bible, like the burning bush and all these scenarios that are rather magical. So, we decided to draw from that and this idea that God comes to people in strange forms. That's why it was a black woman in this amazing outfit; that's who God is for Eric. I think the show being quite out there made it made sense. As opposed to Eric just being like “I'm being called,” I think having it quite visual and in his face was important for his story and just fits the tone of the show, to be honest.
What’s the aftermath of a big TV credit like that for you?
It feels great! I did it in 2021 and it's definitely opened a lot of doors. Because like I said, with this industry, it's very much, “what have you done? what have you worked on?” So, I feel very fortunate to be able to say that this is my first TV credit. I had just finished a screenwriting course and went on set right after, it was sort of going from training wheels to out in the real world. But I think it was a great place to dip my feet into the industry. I'm very grateful for the opportunity and that they took a chance on me.
When you think of the kinds of shows you’d like to write, what would those be like?
I’m quite open. I love kind of high concept shows that are grounded. I love comedy. I'm developing a sitcom at the moment, which is really fun. Kind of like a my wife and kids type of show. I'm also developing a legal drama thriller, and a sort of a psychological kind of like Russian doll vibe. So, I'm all over the place [laughs]. I'm very much character driven. And I just really liked cool, quirky ideas that are funny.
Is there a common thread in the work you are making or want to make? A sort of underlying purpose?
To an extent, but I think that's always secondary, because I'm not necessarily an issue led writer. I’m very much character driven. For instance, my first screenwriting script explores mental health and domestic violence, but it's a story about a young black girl who struggles with violent intrusive thoughts, and they manifest into a superpower. It's a dark comedy, but when you think domestic violence, your mind doesn't go to comedy. It's in development now and I've had quite good feedback about it. So yeah, I think a lot of my work does explore a lot on mental health, but that's not necessarily the entry point. The issues are kind of peppered on the side. I think a lot of things I absolutely love, like Russian doll, which explored so many issues like mental health, generational trauma, but when you first start it, you just think it's about this woman who just keeps dying and waking up again. Those are the things I’m drawn to and try to create as well. And sometimes it’s just about nothing, like my sitcom is about a black middle-class family and it's centred on twins who are just trying to get their first job and it's just silly and fun and not really about an issue per se.
As a writer in the UK, what has it been like watching other writers across the pond having to like deal with the strike?
I think it made me the realise how bad things are for us because essentially, from what I understand they're striking not become the UK industry in terms of wanting longer writing rooms. I think their mini rooms are around eight weeks, whereas the longest room I've done has been five weeks. They are also fighting for residuals; we don't have that. I've been very blessed that I have been able to sustain myself but that's not the reality for a lot of writers. And I think the strike and the results have been incredible because it shows what's possible, but it hasn't necessarily filtered through to here because our union is just strong enough, to be honest. So yeah, I think it was just an eye opener. Like, we're really in the sticks [laughs]. It's more and more understandable why people end up going to America because the UK industry is difficult. I think the same for actors as well, it's just hard to make a living unless you're literally doing like 10 projects at the same time.
Which sounds like what you're doing right now.
Essentially [laughs], then you're just constantly drowning and burnt out.
I mean you’re at the beginning of your career so I imagine it’s fun to be able to try a bunch of things, but it does also sound like a lot.
Yeah. And even with our fees, what we get here is just crumbs in comparison to what writers in America are getting. There’s that thought that yeah, I'm writing on these amazing shows, but maybe if I was in America I’d be earning, like, triple a year. I think that’s the feeling across a lot of creative industries so it's been an eye opener to say the least. And it is honestly so inspiring the outcome that they've got from the strike.
Yeah it’s great, hopefully the actors get that next.
I’m sure they will.