When I studied French at A level, and later as part of my degree, teaching staff would always say “watch French TV and listen to French radio if you want to improve your French”. I never did, really, except during my third year at university, when I lived in a grim town in northern France called Bethune, chosen solely because of the “easy” journey back to Londres, via coach and ferry, to visit my then boyfriend. I worked in Bethune across two local secondary schools as the “assistante Anglaise”, teaching classes single-handed without the benefit of any training or the required fluency.
You can see I didn’t really throw myself into the opportunities I was offered back in 1995, though I did learn that I hated working in schools and that I should under no circumstances go into teaching. My thick eyeliner, platform boots, fluffy coat and skin-tight leggings probably didn’t help. I thought I looked glam, but it probably didn’t give an impression of professionalism and maturity, and strange men were always trying to pick me up during my walk to and from school.
In the evenings, lonely as hell, I would stare fixedly at dubbed episodes of Beverly Hills 90210, desperately trying to make sense out of them. The other TV shows I watched were equally dreadful: weird multi-animal circus shows, a “name that tune” style quiz show, chat shows in which women competed to produce the longest single potato peeling from an individual potato in order to prove themselves the best example of potential wife material…
A quarter of a century later and things have changed – a bit. Several high-quality French TV shows have found success outside France, including the well-regarded crime drama Spiral. However, comedies have remained few and far between. Call My Agent (known locally as Dix Pour Cent, or Ten Percent), a comedy drama set in a fictional Paris talent agency, ASK, is an outlier.
Based around the experiences of former talent agent Dominique Besnehard, the series was first released in 2015 on French terrestrial station France 2. It soon made it onto Netflix, and has been a word of mouth success ever since. Its slow burn popularity reached a crescendo this year, with the UK release of the fourth and final series. Having “completed” English-language Netflix, perhaps people are finding foreign-language fare more appealing than in pre-pandemic times. Or perhaps its attraction is simply that it’s really really good.
One of the most appealing and consistently funniest features of Call My Agent have been the cameos in each episode by well-known and sometimes iconic French actors, who are willing to send themselves up for our entertainment. Stars have included Isabelle Huppert, Monica Belluci and, in the latest season, Sigourney Weaver.
One of the funniest early episodes features the actor Jean Dujardin going totally feral after a draining role, which prompts him to relocate to his garden and refuse to wash.
More recently, I enjoyed the Sigourney Weaver episode hugely and it made me realise that as a UK viewer we are missing out on quite a few in-jokes, simply because the French actors are inevitably so much better known in their native country. But you certainly do not need to be an expert on French cinema to enjoy this show, which is a mix of soap opera and high comedy.
The regular cast members have become hugely successful in their own right, if they weren’t already. Beakily sexy actress Camille Cottin, who plays the ‘work hard, play hard’ predatory gay agent Andréa, was recently cast as the lead in the French adaptation (Mouche) of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s fabulous Fleabag.
Other regulars include the suave, lupine Mathias (played by the excellently named well-known French actor Thibault de Montalembert); puppy-doggish Gabriel (Grégory Montel); the hilarious, camper-than-camp Hervé (Nicolas Maury) and Mathias’s secret daughter and upcoming agent Camille (Fanny Sidney).
Screenwriter Fanny Herrero was involved with the first three seasons, but the final season was developed without her input (though she apparently has a new development deal with Netflix). It shows, to a degree: in the final season some of the characters feel inconsistently drawn, and others are underdeveloped, while it sometimes takes the credulity-stretching too far. However, the characters never rely on basic stereotypes, and the oh so Parisian tales of professional and sexual intrigue provide plenty of thrills and spills.
All four seasons are available to stream on Netflix UK now, and the Season 1 trailer is below.