Zut alors! Ten Per Cent is no Call My Agent
The remake of the French original is rather merde
If you haven’t seen the French sitcom Call My Agent, stop reading this piece now and go and watch it. Then we can continue. Enjoy it? Bon. It’s one of the rare contemporary comedy shows that is blessed with almost ineffable brilliance, until a rather muted and disappointing final series took some of the shine off its otherwise excellent achievements. The premise is a relatively simple but hugely effective one, as a group of mutually antagonistic (and occasionally supportive) Parisian talent agents attempt to obtain the best film roles for their clients while faced with actorly egomania, company backstabbing and their own personal peccadilloes.
It established the actress Camille Cottin, who has the stand-out role as the brilliant, chaotic lesbian agent Andréa, as a bona fide international star, but she is more than matched by the excellent Thibault de Montalembert, as the agency’s suave but duplicitous senior partner Matthias and Stéfi Celma, as the company’s receptionist with her own thespian ambitions, amongst others. With cameos from leading French actors such as Isabelle Huppert, Isabelle Adjani and Jean Dujardin — gleefully sending themselves up with a vim that they’re seldom allowed to exhibit in more “serious’ cinema — it’s one of the most purely entertaining series in recent memory. And so an English-language remake was soon inevitable. We have it now, and, alas, it was really not worth the wait.
Scene after scene passes by with no jokes
To describe Ten Per Cent as “disappointing” is to put it mildly. It might instead be more accurate to cite the old remark of the Oxford don to his student. “Your essay was both good and original. Unfortunately, what is good is not original, and what is original is not good.” The series follows the basic template of Call My Agent with a plodding fidelity that does it little credit, bar one (eccentric) major addition. But the characters are much the same. Here is Jack Davenport, greyer and sterner than his This Life heyday, as Jonathan Nightingale, the Matthias stand-in, and there is Lydia Leonard as the Andréa substitute Rebecca, exchanging the screen-consuming charisma of Cottin for a more laid-back, shrugging presence. There is nothing especially wrong with the principal casting, in fact, although it is hard to improve on the superb ensemble of Call My Agent. Instead, the problems lie in more existential directions.
The new creator of the show is John Morton, who many may remember fondly as being the creator of the spoof documentary series People Like Us. Alas, its star Chris Langham’s much-discussed fall from grace has meant that it is nigh-on impossible to find the show now. Morton was also responsible for the BBC sitcom W1A, which is one of those comedies that many find themselves saying how much they enjoyed it before realising that it was woefully low on proper jokes and took refuge in the broadest and simplest stereotypes; after all, no show that is funded by a public broadcaster is ever likely to do more than gently nibble at the hand that produces it.
I was astonished that the performers obtain paid work pretending to be other people
But Morton is at least an accomplished veteran comic screenwriter, which is why the profound lack of amusement attached to Ten Per Cent comes as a surprise. Scene after scene passes by with no jokes and no lines that could be construed, even generously, as amusing. It’s too silly and unserious to be taken remotely serious as straight drama, but lacks anything that makes a viewer laugh. The characters come across as irritable and not especially bright; star cameos from the likes of Olivia Williams, Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West are hobbled by their essential ridiculousness. There is a subplot in the first episode about the actress Kelly Macdonald being offered a superhero role as Bird Woman, which fails to be either funny or believable, and instead becomes tedious long before the episode has finished.
Ten Per Cent might have been redeemable if there was any overarching point to it. From Sheridan’s The Critic to Withnail and I, there is a rich British tradition of humour about acting and its practitioners. If Morton had taken the show in a different direction to Call My Agent, it might have at least managed to be a distinctive programme that fell into a great line of poking fun at both actors and the absurd mummery that can accompany their self-serious and often tone-deaf pronouncements. But Ten Per Cent has nothing to say about the film industry, or about any other form of screen entertainment. Most of the jokes, such as they are, feel like weak retreads of W1A situations, or poor imitations of Call My Agent. And some of the supporting performances are truly awful. It would be unfair to single out the actors and bring shame on their families and their names, but I was astonished that at least two of the performers in this obtain paid work pretending to be other people.
The sole major innovation that Morton has brought is a character of a washed-up, drunken actor, as played by Tim McInnerny, whose long-standing friendship with the now-deceased head of the agency (and Nightingale’s father) has seen him uneasily kept on the company’s books, even though his personal habits have seen him become more or less unemployable. McInnerny is a fine actor, and the opportunity for him to play a character potentially rich in both pathos and humour could undeniably have been an appealing one. But the problem with Morton’s conception of the character is that his arc is such a predictable one that his (many) appearances come to lack any sort of resonance. There is far greater poignancy in Withnail’s miserable realisation that “Look at me, I’m thirty in a month, and I’ve got a sole flapping off my shoe” than in the lengthy travails of this figure. And yet it’s a major, increasingly tiresome part of the show.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with translating a popular programme from one language and culture into another. Ten Per Cent could have been a show like the American version of The Office or the Anglo-French adaptation of The Bridge, The Tunnel: inspired by an excellent original but its own dynamic beast. But instead this is the thinnest, most histrionic of gruel, the kind of immediately forgotten sitcom that is about as much fun to watch as a tracheotomy. And, alas, everyone knows that no self-respecting agent would ever restrict themselves to ten per cent these days, but that fifteen per cent is the minimum commission that anyone would take: a literal translation from the French series’ original title that somehow encapsulates this show’s dogged failure at being any good whatsoever. Alas, it’s merde.
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