Call My Agent! crosses the channel

Call My Agent! crosses the channel

By Shilpa Ganatra,
Thursday, 10th March 2022
From left: Prasanna Puwanarajah, Maggie Steed, Jack Davenport and Lydia Leonard in Ten Percent (credit: Amazon Prime Video)
From left: Prasanna Puwanarajah, Maggie Steed, Jack Davenport and Lydia Leonard in Ten Percent (credit: Amazon Prime Video)
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How do you transfer the very French global hit Call My Agent! from Paris to London? Shilpa Ganatra explains.

'It’s easy to just take the piss out of showbusiness. In many ways, it’s laughable: we’re not saving lives, it’s a distraction, we’re like shadow puppets on a cave wall,” says Jack Davenport (This Life, Coupling), star of Ten Percent. “But John Morton’s evocation of the world of showbusiness in the UK in the year 2022 shows tenderness. These are real people with real vulnerabilities.”

That’s encouraging; as a comedy-­drama series that probes the dynamics of the entertainment industry as seen through the prism of a talent agency, we’re certain to have a vested interest in how the players are portrayed in Ten Percent. Airing on Amazon Prime Video, the production is the UK version of Call My Agent!, the Emmy-winning French series that became a global success on Netflix during lockdown. It follows four top agents as they imperfectly tussle with the business, talent and personal aspects of their lives. Alongside are a supporting cast of assistants who drop any semblance of work-life balance in favour of the bright lights of showbusiness – plus a revolving cast of famous faces, around whom the weekly story revolves.

Reworking a known and successful premise is a strategy that has delivered mixed results. At its best, it can match or emulate the original, as with The Office and What We Do in the Shadows. But it often loses the magic of the original. Are we able to refer to the US version of Kath & Kim as a car crash yet?
Call My Agent! is transferable enough that the format has already been adapted in territories as far-ranging as Turkey, India and Malaysia, allowing each to inject their own cultural ­speci­ficities and cameos.

Call My Agent! has already been adapted in Turkey, India and Malaysia’

In 2019, Headline Pictures and Bron Studios brought in John Morton as the showrunner of the UK version. He is an expert in teasing out the idiosyncrasies of British culture, as shown in People Like Us, Twenty Twelve and W1A. “Looking at it objectively, I think that’s what I was hired to do,” he says. “One of the things that’s so beguiling about the French show is that it’s so French, and if you’re not French, that’s so attractive. Paris looks fantastic, the French look fantastic. But London and the UK are different. London’s much more chaotic and diverse in every way, architecturally and ethnically.”

Once Morton was on board, Amazon Studios soon joined – even though, with Call My Agent! being a Netflix series, one might have expected Netflix to snap it up. Thomas Drachkovitch, ­Amazon Studios’ development executive for UK originals, says: “I can’t speak to people’s expectations, but I know that [with] the package of John, the producers and the talent in front of and behind the screen, it was more of an issue of how could you say no to it. We absolutely wanted it.

“Our commissioning goal is to be hyper-local, to commission content that our customers in the UK are going to love. So, with Ten Percent, we have a great show with a proven track record, but set in London, with John’s unique British writing and humour, and the biggest actors in the market here. It was an absolute perfect fit for what we’re after. I had the best and probably easiest job ever working with John, Bron, Headline and the entire cast.”

When it came to reworking the ­original, you can clock how Morton ­balances that line between respect for the French show and works to find a different voice for the British one. In addition to the haggles and deals of the screen industry, he zeroes in on the importance of the West End and the UK’s relationship with the US entertainment industry. This is crucial because Ten Percent acts as the mainstream adaptation for the US, as well as other English-speaking territories.

Call My Agent! (credit: Netflix)

Having already seen Call My Agent!, Morton watched it again with a professional eye. “And then I put it away,” he says. “I’ve not been measuring our stories against the French. We had a writing room and we cherry- picked our way through things that might map on to our world. The first episode is the one that follows the French show most closely but after that, you will find further and further divergence.”

An example is Davenport’s character, Jonathan, a main agent at fictional agency Nightingale Hart. In the UK version, he is also the son of the ­agency’s recently deceased owner, adding another layer to the interplay. It means that, from the end of the first episode, the subtext of conversations between Jonathan, and Maggie Steed’s character, Stella – a veteran at the agency – is about who is best placed to run the show. 

Joining Davenport on screen is a multitude of talent, established (the aforementioned Steed and Rebecca Humphries) and emerging, such as Hiftu Quasem, who plays an assistant and Jonathan’s secret daughter. “The rough palette of the French show is visible. Roughly where people are in their lives and the look of the main characters are similar,” says ­Morton. “Like the character who was played by Camille Cottin in Call My Agent! is also someone who is gay in our show. We’ve done that because that’s a really interesting component to have. But what we do with her story on our show is very different to how it plays out in the French series.” 

Then, there is the revolving door of guest stars. Ten Percent boasts the likes of Dominic West, Helena Bonham Carter and David Oyelowo, which is where it all went a bit meta. “Most of our guests, weirdly, I’ve either worked with before or have known quite well through the years,” says Davenport. 
“I’ve done most things in rooms full of cameras at this point, but I’ve never had the experience of having scene partners who are playing themselves and I’m not, but I know them personally. It was quite vertiginous in a way. For a second, it was like seeing things through the wrong end of a telescope.”

The series was filmed under Covid-19 protocols, which added to the complexity of matching the schedules of in-demand guest actors and Ten Percent’s own schedule, but Davenport says the cast was united around Morton’s vision. “I’m glad it’s turned out as good as it felt when we were doing it. I’ve learned over the years to be quite ­suspicious of that feeling because this business will only ever break your heart, but it felt really good in the room,” he says. 

As Call My Agent! reaches its fifth and final season, the way is paved for Ten Percent to continue into a second season.

Will that happen? “I won’t get into the process,” says Drachkovitch. “But I will say, watch this space.

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