Anna Richardson (The Sex Education Show) Interview

Anna Richardson must be the most committed presenter on television. As the presenter of Supersize vs. Superskinny, for example, she threw herself into a world of weight-loss fads, from liposuction to diet pills, and diets based around everything from baby food to maple syrup. Now, she’s tackling the sensitive subject of sex in Channel 4’s informative and irreverent new series, The Sex Education Show. And yes, she is still prepared to tackle her subject matter head on (no pun intended).

Richardson has subjected herself to all kinds of privations, experiments and tests in the name of research. She’s also talked to a range of people, from experts and sexperts to a cross-section of the nations teenagers, and even to random strangers in the street, in an effort to find out exactly what people think about sex in Britain in 2008. Here, she reveals where we’re going wrong - and what we’ve got right - with regards to sex, how she cried while filming a live birth, and what her partner described as ‘like having sex with a cagoule’.

Why do you feel that this is a series that needs to be made?

Basically it’s been an awfully long time since we’ve seen anything on our screens that is an engaging, informative and educational and funny sex education show. We’ve had lots of programmes that show you how to have sex, and give you tips, and even a show where you see a couple having sex in bed using night-vision cameras. But this is different - we are genuinely making an informative show whilst at the same time being quite entertaining and tongue-in-cheek.

Who is the show aimed at?

It’s aimed at families. It’s got an 8pm, pre-watershed slot, so it’s extremely important that it’s aimed at everybody. One of the key things about the show is that our sex education is so poor in this country, and clearly is not getting through. We are trying to get parents and children and families talking about it, and get them informed. We’re trying to arm teenagers and their families with knowledge.

One of the things you do in the series is talk to teenagers about their attitudes to sex. What is your impression of the level of knowledge they possess?

I must say, British teens are absolutely fascinating. It’s been a real eye-opener doing this. The impression I’m getting is that the people I’m talking to are very articulate, very streetwise, but when it actually comes to sex education, they’re really ignorant. They have absolutely no idea about sexually transmitted infections, for example; they’re not particularly clued-up about contraception; they have no idea about what they’d do if they got pregnant. But conversely, some of them are incredibly over-exposed to sex, and over-experienced for their age. It’s almost as if there’s nowhere else for them to go, because they’ve done everything. So, although I’m a generation ahead - and I was a fairly wild teenager - occasionally the scales have fallen from my eyes, talking to some of these kids.

As a result, we’ve got the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Europe. What could we be doing better to help our teens?

From what they are saying to me, my impression is that sex education in schools falls below par. My impression is that a lot of parents and teachers feel awkward talking about sex. And what a lot of teenagers are telling me, absolutely directly, is that they want to know stuff like ‘Does it hurt, the first time?’ ‘What about the emotional side of it?’ ‘What if I get hurt?’ They just don’t know. They want to know about relationships, and they’re not getting that, they’re getting the biological facts.

What do you think of the argument that, by teaching our young people about sex, we’re encouraging them to do it?

I think the converse is true. When we were teenagers, we went out and did it regardless of whether we were taught it or not. I think arming kids with the knowledge about sex and relationships is not going to encourage them to have sex, it’s going to make them more secure about the decisions they make. In Holland, for example, they’ve got a really low level of teen pregnancy, because they talk about sex as a matter of course. I was talking to my make-up artist earlier on, who’s Dutch, and she was saying in Holland, if you go out as a teenager, you’re mother’s more likely to go ‘You’re going out dressed like that? You’re not going to wear something more sexy?’

Was part of the motivation for making the series the desire to help our young people learn a bit more of the information they crave?

Absolutely. The motivation of the show is to get Britain talking about sex, whether you’re 17 or 70. Obviously when you go to the older end of the spectrum, we’re looking at what are their sex lives like, what was it like when they were younger, what did they get taught? If you’re looking at teenagers, we’re holding a mirror up to them, looking at what they’re experiencing right now. They’re massively over-exposed to pornography on in internet, and in magazines and over their mobile phones. That’s where they’re getting their sex education from. So the motivation of the show is to get us all talking, and to give us the correct information and facts.

You mention getting people talking about sex - you actually do that in the programme, stopping people in the street to quiz them about their sex lives.

Oh yeah, there’s plenty of ordinary people talking about their sex lives, loads of interviews with couples. But I also undergo all the journeys myself as well, so I would never ask anybody to divulge anything that I’m not prepared to talk about or experience myself.

We have the image of being a buttoned-up, reserved society. How did people react to having a complete stranger, and a camera crew, pounce on them and ask them about intimate aspects of their lives?

We’re such odd people, the British. There’s such a paradox that goes on within our nature. On the one hand, we don’t really know a great deal about sex, and aren’t willing to talk about it with our children, and sometimes with our peers. But at the same time, if a stranger stops you in the street and asks you, ‘How often do you have sex?’ people are really happy to talk about it - with a stranger. It’s really peculiar. We really do contradict ourselves.

Your approach to presenting - for example in Supersize vs. Super skinny - is very much to throw yourself into the subject matter. Do you take the same approach in this series?

Absolutely, 100 per cent. If anything, even more so than in previous programmes. It was a journey I wholeheartedly embraced, but wasn’t quite prepared for, actually. It’s extremely personal. I undergo many, many different tests and screenings and experiences, all in the name of sex education.

What kind of things did you undergo?

What we cover across the series are things like STIs, fertility, pregnancy and childbirth, contraception. So I had to undergo stuff to do with all of those. For example, I had a full STI screening on camera, so I was tested for everything, had blood and vaginal swabs taken, had to wait for the results, and I did worry about what the results would be. I had a fertility test on camera, I attended a live birth up at Chester Hospital, which was quite traumatic. I tried out different methods of contraception as well - legs in stirrups, I’ve been fitted for a cap, I tried the Femidom, my other half has been involved in all of these experiments, so I put myself out there in the name of research.

The Femidom? Do they still exist?

Yeah. It’s become a dusty old museum piece due to lack of popular demand, but they still do exist. My other half said it was like having sex with a cagoule.

How does your partner feel about having the more intimate details of your life together relayed to the nation?

He’s been really good, but he’s been very strict with me. He’s said ‘I don’t mind if you’re doing this for the benefit of the nation, or the benefit of our sex life. Fantastic. I just don’t want to be included on camera. So he’s fine about me talking about our lives together, as long as it’s done with respect, and as long as he does not have to appear, which indeed he doesn’t, ever.

What was it like being present at a birth?

Amazing. We went up to a hospital in Chester, and the labour ward said it was fine for us to be there for the next couple of days, but we obviously didn’t know if any women would let us film them. So we were chancing our arm a bit. We went up on a Thursday. 8 o’clock that morning, a lady came in who had been induced, and who was amazing. She was happy for us to follow her labour and to be there when she gave birth. We had a sweepstake, me and the crew, about what time she’d have the baby. Most of us thought it would be that evening. We waited and waited. And 8pm came and went, 10pm came and went, midnight came and went, and eventually I realised we’d have to all sleep on the labour ward. We were lying in the labour ward with women all around us screaming. It was like being stuck in a hideous medieval chamber of horrors. She had the baby at 9:30am the following morning. I’d been up for 36 hours when she had it, and I cried tears of relief when she had it. I was so knackered.

Was it quite an emotional experience as well?

I’d never quite understood why people do get so emotional at births. Obviously it’s your kid being born and everything, but I’d never quite got it. And actually, watching this little baby, called Willow, being born, I got very emotional, because you’re so knackered, and you’re so thrilled because this woman who’s been in such abject agony is finally okay that it’s actually really powerful. I was on a high for about three days afterwards.

You don’t seem to get easily embarrassed. Did anything embarrass you making this series?

No, not really. I’m not entirely sure why I don’t get embarrassed, because I imagine that the entire nation is going to cringe on my behalf. Maybe it’s got something to do with having been to an all-girls boarding school, where we dressed together, bathed together, did everything together. So I think I’m not particularly shy or bothered by things in the series.

There’s also a studio-based discussion in each show, isn’t there?

Yes. It features contributors from other sections of the programme, and a lot of members of the public. The series is a magazine format, so there are lots of different strands in each show, from short films to interviews, and the studio element brings it all together with some debate and comment. So, for example, we’ll see me go and get a full bikini wax on camera, then we’ll go to the studio and ask ‘Who here does that? Has it improved your sex life? Is it important? Guys, do you like it? What turns you on?’ Or it might be something a bit more serious we discuss, like fertility.

Was the waxing the worst thing you had to do for the series?

It was the first thing I did, back when we were shooting the pilot, and it was in a tiny room. I thought I was being sent to have a little bit of a bikini-line wax, and the cameras would wait outside. Actually, I was having it all off, and the cameras were there the whole time. I actually laughed my head off doing that, it was really funny. It was incredibly painful, but the woman doing it said to me I’d never go back to not being waxed, and you know what? She was right. It makes a massive difference - like you wouldn’t believe.

I gather there’s quite an interesting photo-shoot for publicity images to accompany the series.

Yes. Last week, we did the publicity stills for the series. I was told we were going for the Eve in the Garden of Eden look, holding an apple and a snake, naked apart from a couple of fig leaves. I rocked up to studio, and thought I’d be okay with the python when he came out of the box, but hew was six foot-long. I was naked and feeling a bit vulnerable anyway, and apparently pythons are burrowers. I was wearing these long black hair extensions, and all he wanted to do was go and hide in my hair. At one point he went round my neck, and came back round to my face. I was having to be stock still for the camera, and he was at my face, and his tongue was going in my mouth. I freaked out!

So what’s your state of the nation report on our attitudes to sex, and what were the biggest surprises you encountered in making this programme?

I mentioned it earlier, and I think my biggest surprise is how over-exposed our young people are to pornography and deviant sex, and yet totally under prepared for sex. And I’ve been astonished at how willing people are to discuss their sex lives, and how greedy people are for information. I think people have generally made me laugh about what goes on behind closed doors, as well. It’s been great fun to be part of.

The Sex Education Show starts on Tuesday 9th September 2008 at 8.00pm.