The bar for any adaptation of Call My Agent! (Dix pour cent) is high. Producers who’ve taken it on in countries including India, South Korea, Poland and Turkey would testify to the fact that the beloved French series (available on Netflix) has fans well beyond its borders. And, since he embarked on his own adaptation, it’s something English writer-director-producer John Morton knows only too well.
“One of the tropes for me for the last few years,” he explains via Zoom, “is running into someone I haven’t seen for a while, and they say, ‘What are you working on?’ I tell them, and they go, ‘Oh my God. I love that show.’ And I think, ‘Yeah, I know it’s great and shut up.’”
His main concern in taking on a London-based production, he admits, was simply “not to mess it up”. His version is called Ten Percent (a literal translation of the original French title), referring to an agent’s take of a client’s fee, and, like the original, it’s set in a talent-management agency handling actors, writers and directors.
The main pleasure of Call My Agent! is that it’s a sparkling comedy about the machinations of the entertainment industry that accomplishes the admirable juggle of being simultaneously knowing and warm-hearted. It provides us with a peek into the behind-the-scenes dark arts: the negotiations, manipulations and deceptions involved in keeping productions on the rails and “the talent” satisfied. Yet, as the perpetually stressed agents and their assistants scheme and jockey for position, they somehow remain likeable, the series managing to keep us on their side. An additional treat is the appearance of actors – including Cecile de France, Juliette Binoche, Fabrice Luchini and Jean Reno – playing spoof versions of themselves.
Set at Nightingale Hart, the English adaptation also focuses on perpetually pressured professional lives and private entanglements, with the early episodes featuring guest appearances by Kelly Macdonald, Olivia Williams, Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West. Yet even as the agents ricochet from crisis to crisis and the actors fret, the show’s tone remains upbeat.
“There could’ve been a version of this show, and of the French one, that could’ve been very different,” Morton says. “It would be super-cynical about the entertainment industry and its insincerity. It would be about intelligent, ambitious, adversarial people crawling all over each other.
“That would be a classical satire where the pleasure is in watching everybody get their just desserts. But I’ve seen that. I think the French version, and – touch wood! – ours, is more interesting in human terms. The French chose to present a group of people who actually care about what they’re trying to do. They’re not all perfect all the time and there is a spectrum of integrity across the characters, as there is in any world.”
Chuckling at his notion of a “spectrum of integrity”, Morton is seated alongside actor Jack Davenport, who plays Jonathan Nightingale, a variation on Call My Agent!’s Mathias (Thibault de Montalembert) and the son of agency founder Richard (Jim Broadbent). And while he happily acknowledges that the praise will make Morton squirm, Davenport observes, “As a writer, John has a world-view which has a real tenderness about human frailty. He doesn’t judge, he’s incredibly compassionate, but also very funny. And what that produces is much more interesting than the kind of down-the-line satire where they’re cynical, amoral shits clambering over each other. The tone of this show is constantly shifting, and I think that, as an audience member, you’re surprised and hopefully delighted because it shifts from comic to tender to sad. So we’re able to operate with a lot more colours by not going down that hard satirical route.”