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28 April 2022

Ten Percent, the British Call My Agent!, has lost the je-ne-sais-quoi of the original

Cut-price cameos (Kelly Macdonald? Phoebe Dynevor?) make this series less glamorous than its French counterpart.

By Rachel Cooke

When I heard that the French series Call My Agent!, a show I practically inhaled during the first lockdown, was to be remade in English and set in London, I was seriously put out. Mais pourquoi? I know the US isn’t keen on subtitles, but in the rest of the world, people cope perfectly well with, er, reading half a dozen words at a time; the show, acclaimed and beloved, has been a hit just about everywhere. More to the point, isn’t its particular chic – its essential ooh-la-la – almost entirely reliant upon its Frenchness? There’s something deeply sexy and a tiny bit transgressive about Call My Agent!, qualities born of a culture that still regards proper restaurant lunches and les aventures amoureuses extraconjugales as the oxygen of life. Replace these things with Pret sandwiches and blokes moaning about the traffic and – pff! – the magic is going to evaporate.

Was I wrong about all this? Now I’ve seen a couple of episodes, I don’t particularly feel that I was. If Amazon Prime’s facsimile – the plot and character are very close indeed to those of the original, whose French title (Dix Pour Cent) the new series has also nicked – isn’t bad, it’s not especially good either. Though I suppose my verdict might be clouded in the sense that I know, more or less, what’s going to happen next; those who’ve never seen the French version may be in a better position to judge.

But still, there’s something about its tone I don’t get along with. Ten Percent’s script is by John Morton, who wrote the satirical, fake fly-on-the-wall shows W1A and Twenty Twelve, and it feels similar to both, every line delivered (muttered) in a clipped, supposedly ultra-realistic manner that begins to grate in a longer format. Add to this the slight sense that everyone is trying too hard – the cast has admitted to being painfully aware the shoes it has stepped into are vertiginously high-heeled – and it’s all a bit wearying and claustrophobic.

The action revolves, as you’ll know, around an actors’ agency (the ten per cent of its title is a reference to an agent’s cut of his client’s fee). It’s basically a show about creative egos: those of its staff, and those of the talents they represent, who guest star as themselves. I’m not sure about the team substitutions. Everyone adored Camille Cottin as the bolshie, brittle and sexually rapacious Andréa in Call My Agent!. In Ten Percent, there’s an almost identical character, Rebecca Fox, who’s played by Lydia Leonard, an actor I like a lot, but who is somewhat less swoon-inducing than Cottin (she’s Penhaligon’s Bluebell to Cottin’s Chanel No 19). Jack Davenport is Jonathan Nightingale, now running the agency following an unexpected death, and I think he’s miscast. We’re watching Miles, the character he played in This Life, in charmless middle-age. Certainly, Davenport isn’t a patch on Thibault de Montalembert, the Roger Allam-lookalike who played Mathias in Call My Agent!.

I could go on making comparisons like this, but I will resist: it could be tedious. Suffice to say that my favourite performance so far is that of Maggie Steed, pitch-perfect as Stella Hart, an agency veteran (the voice is like a newly unfurled red carpet, plush and utterly inviting), and that I cannot stand Tim McInnerny as a ghastly, failed luvvie called Simon Gould.

It may not be Paris, but London looks good and glamorous in this series: a real place, not a postcard. But, of course, we – the British, I mean – are quite rubbish, too: a touch cut-price, sometimes. I don’t want to sound mean, but there’s no way around it. In Call My Agent! the guest stars include impossibly sultry meteors such as Monica Bellucci, Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert. In Ten Percent, we get Kelly Macdonald, Helena Bonham-Carter and Phoebe Dynevor (she’s in Bridgerton, if you’re wondering). And what’s more, there’s no jeopardy involved for any of them, their brilliant French counterparts having already prepared the ground. Oh, well. I must admit to looking forward to Dominic West’s upcoming turn (will anyone dare to say the word “scooter?”), and that I will, somewhat grudgingly, be sticking with Ten Percent. It’ll just have to do until – dépêchez-vous – season five of Call My Agent! finally arrives. 

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