French comedy “Call My Agent!” was a domestic hit after it launched on France’s TF1 network in 2015 but it wasn’t until later, when it got picked up by Netflix, that the series about a fictional Parisian talent agency found a global audience.
Christian Baute, whose company Headline Pictures has produced a U.K. version of the series alongside Bron Studios (“Joker”) for Amazon and Sundance Now, spotted the show’s potential during its original broadcast. “I thought, this is brilliant,” he recalls.
Partnering with David Davoli, Bron’s president of television, Baute reached out to the producers of “Call My Agent” as well as TF1, which owns the format, in a bid to snap up the English language rights.
“It was a bit of a niche format in terms of its popularity when we secured it,” Davoli acknowledges. “It wasn’t until we had greenlit our show and we were casting [that] it was almost like a perfect storm. Because that’s when we took it out into the U.S. market [and] all of a sudden, everybody’s going, ‘You have the rights to that format?’”
The next challenge was figuring out how to create an English-language version, which they did by bringing on board writer and showrunner John Morton, who is best known as the creator of popular BBC mockumentary “W1A.” “Christian and I sat down with [Morton] and he said, ‘I’ll only do this if I can find a way to do it so that it’s as good as or better than the original. Because otherwise, what’s the point?’” recalls Davoli.
“We knew we needed to keep the essence of what made the original so beloved but we also knew that we had to do something different in order to create our own audience,” the Bron Studios exec continues. “Otherwise, we felt that there was a risk that we would just be seen to be copying something. In art, there’s people who copy and then there’s people who create impressions. And for us, this was more of an impression than a copy.”
Which is why the U.K. version, set to bow in spring per Amazon, keeps the broad arc of the original, with the lead characters loosely based on their French counterparts, while introducing its own storylines. Morton set out to make the series even more of a multi-generational family affair by writing the owner of the agency as being the father of senior agent Jonathan (played by “Pirates of the Caribbean” star Jack Davenport).
One of the trademarks of “Call My Agent” is a celebrity cameo in almost every episode. The French version has featured Monica Bellucci, Juliette Binoche and even Sigourney Weaver and the U.K. series has lined up an equally A-list roster that includes Helena Bonham Carter, Dominic West, David Oyelowo and Phoebe Dynevor, all of whom will play fictionalized versions of themselves.
For Davenport, playing opposite actors playing themselves was “truly one of the strangest experiences of the whole job,” he says. “I’m going to say 70% of our guests stars I have worked with before but I’ve never shot scenes where my scene partner is playing themselves, and I know them, and I’m playing some other guy.”
Many of “Call My Agent’s” storylines are also based in reality. “It’s all inspired by true events,” Baute says of the French version. To ensure a similar level of authenticity for the U.K. series, the creative team set up a database to amalgamate the wackiest industry anecdotes they’d come across, while Morton also spoke to some real London agents to get the inside scoop.
“There are times when as an audience member, you’ll be like, ‘Jesus, this can’t be real,’” says Davenport. “I’m afraid it is.”
Davenport also embraced the opportunity to delve into the world of agencies and he took his own agent out to lunch to get more of an insight into the role. “It’s like you’re part accountant, you’re part psychiatrist,” he quips. “As Christian says to me, ‘One of the worst things about the job is you’re either Father Christmas, or you’re the Grim Reaper. And there’s nothing in between.’ And that’s tough. You’re either making someone’s year or possibly their career or breaking their heart on a pretty much hourly basis.”
“We’re an odd breed,” Davenport says of actors. “And helping us succeed in our careers is a complex job that involves a lot of very different skill sets. [Agents] have to be killers in the negotiation phase but they also have to be, depending on what kind of an actor you are, somewhere between a kind of nursemaid and someone you can bounce something off.”
“I mean, my agents don’t think of themselves as my nursemaid,” Davenport jokingly clarifies. “But I try not to be too needy.”
More “Call My Agent” remakes are expected to go into production this year in South Korea, Indonesia, West Asia (also known as the Middle East), Philippines, Malaysia and Poland.
Elsa Keslassy contributed to this story.