Fast approaching 50 and fed up after two exhausting decades at Artmedia, the top talent agency in Paris, Dominique Besnehard decided, one day in 2005, that he would quite like to turn his hand to producing something of his own.
“At the time,” Besnehard told Le Monde, “Desperate Housewives was all over the telly, a huge success. I just thought, with a couple of colleagues, we could maybe make a series a bit like that, but about the job we do for a living.”
Call My Agent, whose fourth series starts on Netflix this week, is now a huge hit – and has, along with Spiral and The Bureau, two other acclaimed series, fully and perhaps finally disproved the dictum that France is as bad at TV drama as it is good at cinema.
“France is really benefiting from a global trend in TV series towards strong, original, local stories, anchored in their territory and free of American and British norms,” said Laurence Herszberg, director of the international Series Mania festival.
The show, she said, was so big because it was “set in a milieu we don’t know well but would like to; because the agents are sympathetic and passionate and people like them even more than the guest stars; because it’s very French – it’s in Paris, it has office love affairs … And because it’s on Netflix.”
Call My Agent, whose French title is Dix pour Cent (for the 10% fee French agents charge actors), draws between 3 and 4 million viewers on public broadcaster France 2 and is available around the world on the streaming service.
Successful remakes are now airing in French-speaking Canada and Turkey, with more in development in India, China, Vietnam and the UK, where the series will be produced by the team behind the popular BBC mockumentaries 2012 and W1A.
Versions are also being negotiated from Germany and Italy to South Korea, according to France 2. “It is,” Thibault de Montalembert, one of the French show’s stars, said recently, “one of those rare French series that foreigners love.”
It is not hard to see why. The premise is simple but fertile: a talent agency in Paris, ASK, coping with the imaginary caprices of an impressive coterie of A-listers, who each play a believable version of themselves, mostly for just one episode.
Jean Dujardin, best known for 2011 silent movie The Artist, appeared in the show to be hysterically unable to shake off his previous role as a survivalist army deserter, while Juliette Binoche went catastrophically off piste at the Cannes film festival.
Isabelle Huppert was seen as a workaholic shooting two films at once, while Monica Bellucci was dying for a date with anyone who wasn’t famous. In the new series, Charlotte Gainsbourg is stuck with an unwanted part and Sandrine Kiberlain gives everything up to try standup.
Series four also features Dix pour Cent’s biggest non-French star to date, Sigourney Weaver, who told Variety last year that she had said yes to the show “without even reading the script – the first and last time I’ve done that in my life.”
Weaver described the show as “a love letter to the business” that “goes behind the scenes to show the problems of actors in dealing with different directors and mood scenes. It has a lot of affection for the business, and for the job of being an agent.”
Dix pour Cent has, at any rate, catapulted its regular performers – ASK’s engaging, and endlessly inventive, agents and their assistants – to domestic stardom. From careers in regional theatre and art movies, several have since starred in considerably bigger-budget, and bigger audience, French films.
Camille Cottin, the series’ standout star, will be seen co-starring with Matt Damon in Tom McCarthy’s Stillwater later this year, and is about to start shooting Ridley Scott’s biopic Gucci, featuring Adam Driver as Maurizio Gucci and Lady Gaga his ex-wife.
Cottin also starred in Mouche, a not particularly successful adaptation of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag: by the time the French series had been made, the original had already aired on French TV, with subtitles.
While series four has been billed as the show’s last, its unexpected transatlantic success – Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Aniston are both on record as saying they love it, while Besnehard has said “quite a few” Hollywood names have called him personally to offer their services – means it probably won’t be.
“There will certainly be a film, in any case,” the producer told Europe 1 radio recently. “And France Télévisions have said they are keen for some kind of fifth series. We’re thinking about it. We may even try to make it in the States.”