John Morton is a Francophile. “Everything in Paris is so effortlessly beautiful,” he says, eyes wide. “The French even argue in style. London is not like that.”
We discuss them W1A the latest tv series from the creator, Ten percenta London-based adaptation of Call my agent!, the French drama comedy about a group of talent agents in Paris. Launched in 2015, the series became a word-of-mouth hit on Netflix during the pandemic (Ten percent was created by streaming competitor Amazon). The original was scheduled to end after its fourth season in 2021, but given its newfound popularity, both a fifth season and a movie have been commissioned.
Morton was a fan from an early age. “I loved it,” he says, recalling snapping the whole series. “There was no point in repeating the French show; We don’t move that way in our cultural and professional lives in the UK. The energy is different. Putting it all on new ground was the challenge.” One of the key differences, he adds, is communication. “What makes the French show so appealing is that the characters tell each other how they feel. But we Brits are very bad at saying what we mean; Part of growing up in the UK is understanding that. And that passion and emotion is in our show, but it’s buried deeper. It’s a different rhythm.”
That said, some characters and storylines are included Ten percent are imitated directly Call my agent‘s originals. Some of them also look strikingly alike – Rebecca Humphries, who plays agency boss Jonathan Nightingale’s (Jack Davenport) doe-eyed assistant, is a dead colleague to her French colleague Laure Calamy. It would be easy to dismiss Morton’s show as a mere repeat, especially since its first episode is almost identical to that of Call my agent, with Kelly Macdonald taking on Cécile de France as the actress who has grown “too old” overnight to play certain roles. However, Morton explains, imitation was the highest form of flattery.
“That was one of my favorite episodes,” he says of the French version. “It feels so true yet so ridiculous that she was told to have plastic surgery to get parts. Why not tell that story?” There was also an accidental benefit. “Having a big gulp of what loyal fans remember from the French show in the first episode takes them in instead of offending them. So practically it felt like it wasn’t a bad thing.”
But from there Ten percent differs quite a bit from the original. Different dynamics. New nightmares. And many, many more meltdown actors. Novelty also comes through celebrity appearances, with Helena Bonham Carter, Dominic West and David Oyelowo all joining the cast of actors playing themselves.
Then there’s the added twist to the father-son relationship between Jonathan and the uncle Richard Nightingale (Jim Broadbent), who, as in the French version, dies early in the show and quickly plunges the agency into financial turmoil. Hence the American company rushing in to save the day, one sickeningly serious platitude after another.
And then there’s the cast. Davenport, Maggie Steed, Lydia Leonard and Prasanna Puwanarajah form the central quartet of agents. “I absolutely loved Camille Cottin,” says Leonard, who plays Rebecca Fox, the snarky, high-profile agent who closely resembles Andréa von Cottin on the French series. “I had to stop watching because I was nervous [Call My Agent!] because Camille is so brilliant,” she adds. “You must make it your own.”
The scripts – clever, full of farce and unmistakably British – made that pretty easy. “They just had this unmistakable John Morton authorship,” says Puwanarajah, who plays Dan Bala. “When I read them, I wasn’t thinking about the French show; it wasn’t really on set with us.”
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However, Puwanarajah got the blessing of the French cast to remake the show. Type of. “A friend of mine ran into one of the actors in the original series and told him he knew one of the guys from the remake. The actor hugged him and said, “I give him all my love.” how nice is that Would Brits be like this? Or would we just panic and be like, ‘Oh, well, I hope they’re not very good.’”
But back to the celebrity guests, who Morton says have one of the toughest jobs on set. “They don’t really make parodies of themselves,” he explains. “What we ask of them is something different and unselfish because their job is to convey credibility. Your job is to bring all that authenticity to the show instead of making a weird twist.”
Thanks to the unpredictable nature of the business, none of the featured guests were chosen specifically for their roles. “The only option was to slap a name in the script as a placeholder and say, ‘This story needs to work for a bunch of actors at about this stage in their careers,'” explains Morton. “Because if you’re loyal to a certain character and he can’t, you’re at a loss. You have to trust your luck a bit; we were lucky eight times.”
All guest performers are established British talent. It’s not out of the question that among them might be Davenport himself, whose credits include Pirates of the Caribbean, The talented Mr Ripley and coupling. “I remember talking to our casting director and asking him, ‘Is Jack too famous?'” says Morton. (“The answer is ‘no,'” adds Davenport.) “But we thought fuck it, he’s right for the role,” says the writer.
Nonetheless, the process of actors playing roles alongside other actors playing themselves is odd, especially for Davenport, who says he knows 80 percent of guest appearances. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I’ve done most of the situations that actors have to face. But I’ve never been in a scene with a friend playing himself, but I’m playing another guy. It was like dizziness.”
Playing an agent turned out to be an enlightening experience for all, despite the obvious fact that each of the actors involved has their own agent and would probably have understood the role better than most. “I have an even greater admiration for agents now,” says Leonard, who has been with her since drama school. “There’s quite a bit of comedy in the white lies that are told to grease the behind-the-scenes gears of this industry. A lot has to happen there.”
Davenport, who admits he’s usually “not much of a researcher,” took his agent out to lunch to quiz him about the job when he landed the part. “He said one of the hardest parts is that you make someone’s career all day and seconds later you destroy someone else’s dreams. It’s very hard to keep those two things in one day at the same time.”
However, the hardest part seems to be managing multiple egos at the same time. “All customers think their agent is only thinking about them,” says Davenport. “You have to make it look like this. It’s a quality of attention that doesn’t really exist in nature. So I found that really interesting.” He pauses. “Even this poorly researched actor was able to steal some good stuff for once.”
To anyone outside of the industry, the various messes that happen on the show — actors being pitted against each other for the same roles, playing love interests while secretly having a crush on each other, agents sleeping with potential clients — might seem far-fetched. But this, though elevated, is the nature of acting.
“It’s the confluence of time and financial pressures on people whose job it is to be vulnerable in public,” explains Davenport. The stakes are huge, and when that goes awry, unusual and fun scenarios can ensue. None of the dilemmas on the show felt like a reach.”
I ask Puwanarajah if he has any anecdotes that are ripe for fictionalization. “Yes!” he replies so quickly that Leonard, who is sitting next to him in a suite with Morton and Davenport, has to laugh. “A strong yes,” he continues. “I think the show is at its best when a personal thing breaks into an important cultural or societal issue around representation or age. I had moments where an agent I was trying to get to sign me said, ‘The scene you’re in was very dark, and obviously you’re very dark, so I couldn’t really get you see.'”
Much has been said about success Call my agent!. If Ten percent fits, it won’t be for the obvious reason that it gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the film industry and all its glittering celebrity intrigues. That, Morton says, is exactly what sells the show. What gets people to see it is something else entirely.
“I think what makes you want to see the next episode is that there’s something recognizable about each of these characters, and you don’t have to be a talent agent to see that.” Indeed, there is sadness. There is romance. There’s even an inappropriate office bang. Human experiences not limited to agents, A-listers or anyone else.
“The first principle of writing is that people are only people, after all,” adds Morton. “They are agents, yes, but they are fallible people first and foremost. On the whole, despite living in a rather controversial world, they mostly try to do the right thing. And you want them to get it right eventually.”
‘Ten Percent’ comes to Prime Video on Thursday 28th April
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/call-my-agent-ten-percent-b2066553.html Like Netflix Call My Agent! morphed into the UK remake Ten Percent