Ep 24 | Duncan Hayes - Agent: Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, Sharon Horgan

Credit: BBC


Note: Please be aware this transcript is generated by AI, there may be small inconsistencies with the published podcast.

Duncan: 0:00  I probably saw Steve Coogan do his very first open spot and people like Eddie Izzard, Lee Evans, literally starting their careers.

Mike: 0:12 Hello and welcome to Red Carpet Rookies. My name is Mike Battle, a screenwriter and production team member working for studios in London. Each episode I bring you advice and stories from film and TV professionals to help educate and empower the next generation of filmmakers and crew. Thanks for joining me. Let's get started. With beginnings running clubs within London's late night comedy scene, Today's guest has weaved his way through a multifaceted career becoming senior partner at United Agents where he shepherds the careers of none other than Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, Sharon Horgan many more. In addition to his agenting, he has executive produced projects including Emmy nominated hit Derek and a multitude of high profile stand up specials. I'm very excited to hear from the rarely heard perspective of one of the people behind the scenes holding the industry together. So please welcome to the show. Duncan Hayes, how're you doing today?

Duncan: 1:10 I'm good. Thank you very much for the big ups.

Mike: 1:13 That's quite all right. Now Duncan,  I ask all my guests the same first question. And that is, what did your parents do? And did that affect your career choices moving forward?

Duncan:1:22 I come from a difficult background and my dad had many jobs and sort of challenging mentally challenged mental health and, and so we had quite a difficult childhood as a family. That is the answer. My mum would looked after the four of us so for us, so you know, coming from relatively humble North London roots with quite ttricky upbringing, really is the answer.

Mike: 1:56 So you're at Goffs grammar school next, I'm sure with a few O levels in hand, I doubt the guidance counsellor said to go and run comedy clubs next. What was the transition from school to that?

Duncan: 2:07 Yeah, well, I mean, that you're absolutely right. I'm a sort of a child of Margaret Thatcher's youth training scheme, which was something that was it was called a youth opportunity programme at the time. And oh, God, what are we talking? 1985? So when I was 17, I got offered a two week placement in a cassette copying place in judge street place that basically just copied cassettes for bands, and demos and that sort of thing, when cassettes were all the rage. And, and so I went straight from 16, from from O, levels to that. So straight into the workplace. And then from there, I got a permanent position from there.

Mike: 2:50 And that was at Jongleurs comedy clubs right?

Duncan: 2:52 Now, now, no, there's a very big gap. But the person that I was working with when I was 17, he did the sound and lights at the first Jonhleurs comedy club in Battersea. And so I got into the comedy scene very early through through him. And so by sort of 19, 20, I was aware of comedy clubs and the comedy scene, which was just breaking at the time. But I didn't actually start working there until I was 25 - 26.

Mike: 3:22 Amazing. And to be a great agent, of course, you need to be able to spot talent, and therefore understand the genre that you're working in. I can imagine that watching all those stand ups night after night was quite an education for comedy. Is that right?

Duncan: 3:34 That's right. Yeah, I do feel I got an awful lot of research. People like, you know, I probably saw Steve Coogan do his very first open spot. And people like, Eddie is Arden, Lee Evans and Jerry literally starting their careers, and they used to be a slot in the second half, just before the main act where the open spot would come on, you know, you've watched them progress, and you watch them develop their material and eventually become finishes, and then quite well known. And so I was there through that period. And and that was the period just after Alexa sale and the Comedy Store and that early 80s stuff. And I think it was the the period where comedy was sort of moving into into the mainstream, but comedy clubs were very, it was still considered alternative, but it had much a broader appeal.

Mike: 4:23 So did you agenting start from being able to sit back and watch those did you start to wrap some of those guys that you're watching it on the stage every night, or girls.

Duncan: 4:32 know, at the time, I was doing a&r for hitting right for music publishing company called hit and run music, which was Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel's company and, and doing working at Jonas at the weekend. So there's only open on Friday and Saturday, but I got fired from that job in a&r for actually not spotting the right things. But you got fired quite quickly in music a&r And I got fired for not signing right said Fred. And who was Friends of mine time. And so So anyway, so that's, I guess I sort of had a grounding in, in trying to find talented people in music, and I had a grounding in comedy. And also I grew up with an awful lot. The comedy was very big in our house. You know, we used to watch Bilko and the two Ronnie's and all that stuff which we, which we absorbed a lot. So I did feel I was quite always quite experienced in it. And I would have always had a love for it.

Mike: 5:27 It's interesting hearing you talk about it? Because do you think that being able to spot it talent like that in one genre means that you can necessarily do all of them? Because maybe someone be incredible comedy agent on manager, but not really your music? I don't know.

Duncan: 5:39 Well, I don't know. I don't know, I wouldn't, I wouldn't necessarily say those skills are transferable. I think sometimes, some people are better at spotting star quality than others, you know, possibly my instincts there are stronger than others. Maybe.

Mike: 5:55 Now before we get into the depth of your agency and time doing it, it's a job that's been seen on TV and movies quite a lot, you know, but I imagine it's not all like Jerry Maguire, which is obviously sports agent anyway. But in your own words, how would you describe the job?

Duncan: 6:08 I would say it's 70%, psychology and 30% business, I often say in that working out how your clients think and how to keep them positive and keep them creative and energised is very much a part of it. Part of the reason I agreed to do this is I think sometimes the portrayal of agents as as creeping around in the background very being very difficult people is kind of quite unfair. And I wanted to see if I can do something about that to an extent. But at the same time, we do have to do some quite unpleasant things on behalf of our clients quite often. So if that's not too long an answer, it's quite a difficult job to describe, which is why you haven't had any other agents on here, I guess. You know, it is a bit of a thorny one. It's not as if defined. I mean, I tried to get my car insured the other day. My job's not on that list.

Mike: 7:07 Yeah, I've been there as well. I like when they asked me how many miles you're gonna drive? And you're like, I don't know, it depends where I'm filming the film. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Yeah, it's interesting. You talk about it, because my perspective on it, you know, you're you're part producer part marks part confidant. And I think that the word I kind of used to describe to somebody that you're almost like quite entrepreneurial as well, because you have your own list. It's quite a bizarre world where you're often working for a company, but you have your own list. And then often that travels sometimes famously with the agents around and so it's almost like you're running your own company, isn't it?

Duncan: 7:43 Yes, correct. Mines, mines moved with my key clients three times from different agencies, quite large agencies. And if you do the job well enough, the clients will follow you and not the company, which is quite odd to quite unique. But also quite nerve wracking, because they can leave at any time as well, quite often, there's no contractual, there's nothing binding the client to the agent. So that keeps you awake.

Mike: 8:09 Yeah, well, I'm sorry. Therefore, you're so relationship heavy, does it suit a certain type of person? And what kind of skills would that person ideally have? I guess?

Duncan:  8:17 Yeah definitely. It does, it does. And it doesn't suit all and having done it for 25 plus years now I've seen I think I've got a pretty good handle on the sorts of personality you need to do it properly. And it's a strange mixture of sorts of making sure you put your own ego in a drawer when you come in. But still having enough ego to be able to get what you want on behalf of your clients and seem forceful without being unpleasant and just pressuring people leaning on people being quite subtle and mental chess about the whole thing. So if you naturally have those those things the job the job is a lot easier if you're very rigid and and if you're easily angered by trivial things, then it's not it's not it's not really for you you have to be you have to be super patient with talented but very highly strung people and that's the producer and the client.

Mike: 9:20 Yeah, I recently read Michael Ovitz memoir.

Duncan: 9:24 Who is Michael Ovitz!

Mike: 9:26 Who is Michael Ovitz! Yes.

Duncan: 9:27 It's good. You like it? I read it.

Mike: 9:30 Did you think that was a fair portrayal?

Duncan: 9:32 I thought it was pretty good. Very different in America. But I have a I have a lot of respect for how he did what he did.

Mike: 9:38 You know? Yeah. It's incredible how he's moved through the business. But one of the descriptions that struck me in it, I want to ask you about is he described being an agent as being like a fireman running from one fire to the next? Yeah. All right, basically.

Duncan: 9:51 Yeah, exactly. Yeah, that's pretty much it. Yeah, I don't think I don't think I don't think I've switched my phone off in 25 years. Well, a little easier. A little a year now, but but certainly for the first 15 it was it was all. It was always I would. I wasn't always working. But I was always able to if I needed to,

Mike: 10:10 I guess it's a blessing and a curse because it means you're in demand.

Duncan: 10:13 Correct. And of course, being the guy that fixes the problem is addictive. So that attracts a certain sort of person as well.

Mike: 10:21 Hmm. I can imagine. Yeah, quite a lot of game theory really? Isn't it a bit like playing chess? As you said?

Duncan: 10:27 Yeah, it is. It is. Yeah, yeah. But you know, there is something quite appealing about being the person that someone calls when they've got a problem, you know.

Mike: 10:36 Given there isn't exactly a university course for agenting are there any top tips for any listeners who were interested in becoming Film TV agents? I know, it's quite difficult question. But are there any steps that you would recommend them doing?

Duncan: 10:47 Well, there's the obvious step, which is the clear route, certainly in America, which is post room assistant, associate agent. And we're working up that way. There's a similar route in the UK, we have, you know, we have we have Junior runners here, we have people that start in office management, and then make a sideways move, getting to know the ropes. I didn't do it like that, I did it by starting very, very small, calling myself a manager and taking on some people, you know, and saying I was their manager, but I did have a long list of I did have quite a good Rolodex at the time, you know, to, to work with so. So there was some trust there from the fact that the people knew me. But I'd say if you're not going to go the route of wanting to be start off as a junior system and work through, then go to a very, very small agency, with some clients that they can't say no to, you know, there is an aspect of fake it till you make it in an agency. You know, when I started, I really didn't know what I was doing. I had no idea I learned as I went along. Yeah. And you comedy. And I knew, I mean, I had an entrepreneurial spirit. And I was quite self sufficient, and made some good decisions. But I didn't have any knowledge of contracting and how not to lose all the rights to your clients work and all that stuff. That was all just learned on the job.

Mike: 12:10 Yeah, all the amazing people I've spoken to yourself included, one of the meta themes is definitely a bit of fake it to make it just not too much. Yes, that's right.

Duncan: 12:20 Yeah. Well enough. Yeah. That's enough to be convincing, but not enough that gets that gets too many questions.

Mike: 12:28 Yeah, it's like fake it to make it built on talent. From what I find. It's like there was, you know, an Oscar winning costume designer who was incredible clothes or decent clothes, who then just when I am that there was a basis for it.

Duncan: 12:38 That's right. Exactly. I was talking to someone just this morning, who called me for advice, who was a production executive, and a line producer, who wants to become a producer and was saying to me, how do I come? How do I become a comedy producer? And my simple answer was, you're a comedy producer, call yourself a comedy producer, stop calling yourself an ex line producer. That's the first step is in your first steps in your head, you know? And that's really Americans have got it? Right. Sometimes they struggle around calling themselves what they want to be not where they are.

Mike: 13:11 Yeah, I like that. I I agree. That's, yeah. Traditionally, you kind of imagine the notion of someone being discovered by someone like yourself, is that really the case? And how would someone categorise to be signed as like an actor these days?

Duncan: 13:25 Well, for me, I still go to comedy clubs, and I still say, people still do catch my eye in comedy clubs, people do still do catch my eye on YouTube and, and in shows, you know, so there is an element of of discovering talent, for sure. Still, yeah.

Mike: 13:42  And do you yourself sit around on YouTube? Or is it would it be like an assistant job to look around and sort of pass up things that look perhaps interesting.

Duncan: 13:48 These days, it's both I was had to do I didn't did another interview, actually, last week. I did a guardian piece last week. So I actually did do some catching up on new Netflix stuff. And it's quite nice to be forced into looking at brand new stuff because I don't have 10 years left to break another record race, you know, kind of, towards the back end of my career. Now it takes quite a long time to make someone famous. And so but but I still do get energised by by new new comedy coming through. And I have a young team that I work with, and I'm sort of feeding people to them. So and I still do get a lot out of it. Good comedy, still makes me laugh. So you know, it's a it's quite easy for me. But yeah, I still do, but I don't do as much trawling YouTube for the next act. But these people that are sitting around me, that's exactly what they're doing.

Mike: 14:39 You can hear your passion in your words when you when you speak, which is really cool. Yeah. Is it different for writers because there's the dreaded unsolicited script banner that people often have to quarrel with?

Duncan: 14:50 I mean, my speciality is writer performers. That's what I've had most of my success with. Ricky, Steven ,Sharon Horgan are all people that came as writers, but very much writing characters that they have, you know, they're writing their own characters or in Ricky and Steve's case writing, Brent. But I have got,  just writers as well. And it's quite a different discipline. And we do struggle as an agency with unsolicited scripts, because we have to say, we can't take them all we would do nothing else, but read scripts. But again, there's a way of getting it through somebody who knows somebody just put the right name at the top, find my email address, not that difficult, make something up. It's it's just, you got to find a way to cut through really, and if someone's cheeky enough to find my email and come up with something amusing. I'll usually go fair play. You know, if I've got time, I'll put it in a pile.

Mike: 15:51 No, I appreciate the honesty. Speaking of Ricky and Stephen, your credits will then go back 20 years to your PFD days. Can you describe how you first came into contact with Ricky perhaps?

Duncan: 16:01 Yeah, of course. It was actually before PFD I was working for a company called Amanda Howard associates and Amanda Howard was Caroline Quentin's agent, she'd started a very small agency represented Caroline and some others. And they were in Holborn, Ricky lived around the corner. And his girlfriend, Jane Fallon was a producer. She produced things like cops, and various other things in the 90s. And her agent gave me a VHS saying, oh, this clients by friend is a comedian, will you take a look at this. And it was him doing a demo of what was then called Seedy Boss, which turned in to David Brent, it was a thing that Stephen Merchant had shot for his...he had done a BBC producers course. And they had to shoot a film at the end. And Ricky was working at a University London, University of London Union at the time. And so they shot it in that office. And that's what I saw.

Mike: 17:04 That's really cool. I've seen Seedy Boss.

Duncan: 17:05 Have you? Yeah, I think it's on YouTube. I think someone's someone's uploaded it.

Mike: 17:10 One question I'm intrigued about that whole period is, you know, it went from Seedy Boss to suddenly being The Office, which is obviously testament to the writing everything involved. But how did the BBC react, given that they were first time kind of everything when they?

Duncan: 17:25 Yeah, they were. And I mean, there's a really good book, of course, because I need to remember I can't, but it's a red covered book. And it's published by the BFI. And it describes in detail how this process worked. But if you want the king of fake it to make it, then Ricky Gervais is your man from that point of view, he just absolutely insisted that they direct it. And, and hats off to the BBC, because I don't know of many other channels in this country that would have that would have taken that risk, you know, but he was in the room. It was his script. They were both clearly very, very talented. And it was worth it was worth the chance. And, you know, John Ploughman, at the time, who was the decision maker at BBC Two, took a took a chance on him because he could see something and well done him, you know.

Mike: 18:24 It's often difficult one to spot. Some guests say, say it others don't. You know, I've spoken to people who've worked on the most famous films ever, and some of them say yet we knew, is it one of those ones that you did? Or you just like, Oh, God, I don't know.

Duncan: 18:36 I've been asked this many times. I knew it was good. And I knew Ricky was really good. I knew it was really funny. And I knew it was something that, you know, I'd grown up on the swing as Spinal Tap, Larry Sanders Show. And so I knew that comedy quite well. And I hadn't seen it done like that in this country. So, but I didn't realise it was that, you know, I didn't know it was the new Fawlty Towers, you know, so, and I'm not sure they did either, you know, until, until series one was finished, and everybody realised, and I'm not even sure then because it didn't go down very well, when it was first released. But it took it took I think it took a few months for people to realise how special it was. But I certainly as I said before, I certainly saw something my instinct was was good. So yeah, I knew it was good. But I didn't know it was like a kind of landmark piece of comedy.

Mike: 19:34 Yeah. Amazing and brilliant to be a part of it.

Duncan: 19:37 Yeah. I mean, what a journey. Yeah, it was a, as I say, a good day in the office for me that I had to see that tape on that day. But you know, a lot of work done. Post that and it went from there to script second script, pilot, and then series so the you know, there was a year and a half, two years from then Before it became anything,

Mike: 20:01 Well, thank you that was a brilliant answer. And something that aspiring entertainment professionals often get confused by is the variety of producers that you see in credits. And as being an exec producer, yourself of the agent variety. What does your type of producing entail? Because I imagine it you know, it's obviously very different to line producing etc.

Duncan: 20:21 Yeah, that's right. I mean, it's, it's, it's relatively unique still in this country that an agent will exec produce. I mean, don't throw down Richard Allen Turner, do it at Avalon. Know that they always get EP screen credits. And there's, there's a few others. But essentially, Ricky wanted to produce his own work. And Derek Productions is is Ricky's company, and I run the company, on his behalf, he makes all the decisions that he wants to make, and we liaise. And that's where my executive producer credit comes from really making decisions on budget spend. You know, the liaising between Netflix or channel four and Ricky. And, you know, being the conduit between the talent he's doing enough things he can't actually physically exec produce as well because it would just be too many roles. So essentially, I'm, I'm standing in understanding him for him if that doesn't sound too modest

Mike: 21:24 Now, at the end of red carpet rookies, I like to do my own Quick Fire question round, which is an ode to in the actor's studio. So, Duncan, if you could just say what comes into your head straightaway, that would be amazing. So number one, what is one of the best pieces of advice you've ever been given?

Duncan: 21:38 Don't take no for an answer. Number two,

Mike: 21:40 I know you're not a fan of this one. But do you have a favourite film?

Duncan: 21:45 I couldn't answer this one. But you know, I'd say I would wouldn't be able to choose but I would say in Bruges, Swingers, Withnail and I, Spinal tap, and a lesser known film called American movie, which is from 1999. I don't know if you know. So, you know, fairly, fairly sort of purist comedy films.

Mike: 22:06 Yeah. Love swingers. It's a film those people my age haven't seen, but it's brilliant. Early Favreau.

Duncan: 22:13 Terrific. In fact, I like I like showing people your age Swingers, because it's fairly timeless. And still, the comedy notes are so good.

Mike: 22:24 It's still very money. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Fine. Number three, what gives you a reason to get out of bed for a day of agency slash producing?

Duncan: 22:32 It's never occurred to me not to. I like doing a good job for my clients. And I'm always inspired to do that. I don't I don't, I don't suffer from not getting out of bed.

Mike: 22:42 This one's my favourite one. Which job would you do in the industry if you weren't doing yours?

Duncan: 22:46 Now? I'm gonna answer honestly. And if it was, in my dreams, I'd probably be a stand up comedian. I probably want to do it. But in reality, I'd probably produce.

Mike: 22:55 number five. If you could work. This is really hard. If you could work with one person living or dead. Who would it be?

Duncan: 22:59 Donald Fagan? Because I'd like because musics my other passion, and I love Steely Dan.

Mike: 23:04 Awesome. Number six, what is a book that everyone should read?

Duncan: 23:07 If I had to pick one, I'd probably say blackbox thinking Matthew Syed. I'm a big Matthew Syed and big. Malcolm Gladwell fan. I really like those books about how to think rather than how to succeed in business, the books about how to think differently,  have been quite inspiring for me. So outliers, talking to strangers, those sorts of, blink, those sorts of books.

Mike: 23:34 Yeah, I love those as well. Yeah. And finally, if you want an Oscar, who would you thank

Duncan: 23:38 My mum and dad for my sense of humour, because you can't get far without one.

Mike: 23:42 lovely and on that note, our time my sadly come to a close. Thank you so much to Duncan, for joining us and for your advice, wisdom and stories.

Duncan: 23:49 No problem at all. Thank you very much.

Mike: 23:54  Thank you for listening to another episode of red carpet rookies to help us grow and be able to interview more amazing film and TV professionals. Please do subscribe and drop us a rating on the Apple podcast store on your iPhone or online if you're an Android user. If you're interested in regular updates, the best thing you can do is join our mailing list at red carpet rookies.com. Alternatively, find us on Instagram at Red Carpet rookies or on Twitter at RC rookies pod. I also tweet regularly about my own learnings in the business at Mike battle on Twitter. So please do come and say hi, thank you again for listening. We'll see you next time.