The English Channel is only 21 miles wide at its narrowest point, but France and Britain may as well be on different planets when it comes to comedy.
Producers who have remade the smash-hit French series, Call My Agent!, which satirizes actors and their managers working for a fictional acting agency called Ask, said doing so involved more stiff upper lips than Gallic shrugs.
While the breakout star Camille Cottin won global acclaim for her portrayal of Andréa Martel, the agent known for her bedroom conquests, penchant for Camembert and exquisite nose, her UK equivalent is more reserved to chime with British audiences.
Christian Baute, the new show’s executive producer, said the British characters were only loosely based on their French counterparts.
He said: “It wouldn’t quite work culturally [if they were the same]. Camille is very exuberant. In a workplace, you wouldn’t necessarily find that exuberance in the UK. They are not the same. They wouldn’t be as candid in their judgment. It would be more polite. You wouldn’t say things in the same way as the French character. Andréa, if she doesn’t like something, she would just say she doesn’t like it.”
Lydia Leonard, best known for playing Anne Boleyn on stage in the Royal Shakespeare Company adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels, plays the Martel-style character in the new version.
“She’s very different. She has this stiff upper lip thing; she wants to be in control of herself, in control of other people as well,” said Baute. “Which is not different to Andréa, but she’s doing it differently. She’s doing it more quietly.”
The original show, known locally as Dix pour cent for the 10 per cent cut of their clients’ takings that agents take, became a global smash during the pandemic. Locked-down viewers were attracted to the spectacle of some of the starriest names in French cinema playing exaggerated, fictionalized versions of themselves.
A different actor appears in each episode. In one, Juliette Binoche gets drunk at the Cannes film festival after being forced to wear a haute couture dress she does not like. In another, Isabelle Huppert satirizes her workaholic tendencies as her agent ferries her between two different film shoots on the same night. Another episode shows the Oscar winner Jean Dujardin getting so far into method acting that he gnaws the head off a rabbit.
The new version, which will be released on Amazon Prime in the spring, has been written by John Morton, best known as the creator of the BBC mockumentary W1A, who had “complete liberty to do what he wanted”, Baute said.
Viewers were attracted to the spectacle of some of the starriest names in French cinema playing exaggerated, fictionalized versions of themselves.
Celebrity cameos will be provided by Helena Bonham-Carter, David Oyelowo and Dominic West. The Line of Duty star Kelly Macdonald and Phoebe Dynevor of Bridgerton are also slated to appear. The Pirates of the Caribbean star Jack Davenport will play the senior partner Jonathan, while Jim Broadbent and Tim McInnerny will also have regular roles.
Fanny Herrero, the writer and creator of the original series, said that there were fundamental differences between what French and British people think is funny. “Traditionally we say that we have a humour that is more ironic and more directed towards other people. In Britain, your sense of humour is directed towards yourself. Maybe you have a sense of absurdity that is more fierce than we have in France. We don’t really usually like that.”
Baute, who splits his time between Paris and London, saw the first season soon after it aired in France in 2015, and immediately bought the option to remake it. He found it difficult to get studios and broadcasters on board but this changed after lockdown when it shot to the top of many people’s Netflix lists.
While the original version was focused purely on France, much of the British series will focus on transatlantic tensions created by American industry executives. Britain and America are “two countries divided by the same language … that leads to a lot of nice comical misunderstanding”, according to Baute.
Other key differences with the French version is the fact that the celebrity stars are not just film actors, but in theater, TV and so on. “There are a variety of issues beyond the pure issue of vanity, issues that we debate in Britain today — cancel culture, diversity. These things will come through in the show,” said Baute.
Other foreign versions have been commissioned, including in India, South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines.
While many viewers of Dix pour cent were hooked by the glamorous outfits worn by the likes of Cottin, the British stars will be more casually dressed. It is the one aspect that Baute said was not true to the real-life difference between France and the UK. “You have this idea that Paris is glamorous, but I always thought London is much more glamorous, really,” he said. “If you take the Tube at 9am in Paris, you wouldn’t see as many glamorous people as you see on the Bakerloo line in London.”
Liam Kelly is an arts-and-entertainment correspondent, covering everything from books and TV to film and theater for The Sunday Times of London