With episode 9 just completed, Carl Stanley sat down with Jonathan Owen, star and creator of online comedy cult hit ‘Svengali‘ to find out where his budding rock star persona came from, and how he attracted a host of star names, including Alan McGee, Carl Barat and Boy George, to become involved in the project.
CS: What’s the score with you then Jonathan, how did you get the part of Dixie in Svengali, what have we seen you in before?
JO: Well, I co-created it with Dean Cavanagh one rainy night in Soho. We were in a bar chatting and Dean said we should do something about a manager of a band. I christened him Dixie (after the manager of my old band) who was a great guy…still is! We decided it should be one man’s journey trying to get his band signed in the murky world of the music business which is currently in a complete state of flux as the internet destroys the traditional industry. The irony of course being that we are using this very medium to go out, ha!
I’ve done a few things. Films like Little White Lies (which is currently winning the Amazon International Film Competition) and ‘A Bit of Tom Jones’ (the biggest grossing Welsh indie film ever, and recently won the Welsh Bafta for Best Film), I was the lead in those. I’ve also done lots of TV from My Family to Being Human to Torchwood. I’m most well known though from Shameless and I recently finished filming opposite Minnie Driver in ‘Hunky Dory’.
CS: What’s the story behind Svengali? There’s some great names in there, but who wrote it and put it together, is the idea based on actual person, if so who?
JO: As I explained earlier it was Dean Cavanagh and myself. Dean is Irvine Welsh’s writing partner. We also got our old mate and director Phil John on board. He’d done Ashes to Ashes and Wedding Belles amongst others so it was a good team. It’s loosely based on Paul ‘Dixie’ Dixon, the old manager of my band The Pocket Devils. A beautiful spirit who just never took no for an answer and was permanently positive. There aint many people like that in the world so we thought it would be ripe for that kind of person in the music world, only this time we can make it what we want. That’s the magic of Svengali – we control it, ha! We can make them the biggest band in the world.
CS: You have just finished series 9 and I for one am looking forward to it. Who’s in this series?
JO: I got Eddie Webber from The Firm. Paul Gallagher, James Endecott, Lena Corner, Jamie Fullerton and Tim Lovejoy. It’s all based on a true story, supplied again by the real Dixie. It’s a hilarious ending and I wanted a real ‘cockney villain’ type and there’s no one better than Eddie for that – he’s the best out there. It all takes place in Acid Jazz offices with the wonderful and ever young Eddie Piller looking after us all.
CS: The story of Dixie, this Welsh boy from the valleys who goes to the big smoke looking for his fame and glory in the music industry is one that is played out on a daily basis in the capital. I suspect many in the industry identify with it. Have you in real life been through the same situations as Dixie has, do you identify with the character?
JO: I do. It’s an age old story isn’t it, the modern day Dick Whittington. Even a touch of the Don Quixote in there too. I think it’s fair to say that London is still the world’s capital of Rock and Roll. The set is London itself, very much like LA is the set for Entourage. So I’ve been keen to use the streets of Soho and Shoreditch so that kids across the world can see London. The thing with Dixie is that he kind of kills them with kindness. Naturally, Svengali has been most popular among the music industry. I don’t think there’s anyone from that world who hasn’t mentioned it to me and they all love him, because we were all that guy who just was in it for the love of music once. He’s that kid we all once were who would tape John Peel or the Chart Show or queue up for the NME, and god bless him for it too.
CS: How has Svengali the series been so successful in getting the likes of Carl Barat, Boy George, and of course Alan Mcgee involved? Was this a case of these people loving the project and wanting to be involved, plus it’s all filmed round the West End so it’s not like you have had to drag them to some mad location, I suppose that helps?
JO: I just asked them all to be honest, and ever since we’ve had a 100% hit rate, which is important. I didn’t just want anyone, they had to be right. Some have actually approached us and that’s great. Boy George, for example, was taking some photos for a charity, and they asked me and he was talking about Svengali and I just said “would you like to be in it George?” and he laughed and went “I thought you’d never ask!”
He was great on set too. I’d never been with anyone of that level of fame. Martin Freeman (who filmed that episode and has become a close mate) was on about it too. George is so ridiculously recognisable, probably one of the most recognisable people on the planet and even in London literally everyone stopped and shook his hand or gave him a kiss. This was while we were having a ciggie outside Fopp in Cambridge Circus. He’d be talking and practically every person either shouted ‘hello’ or asked for a photo, and he took it all in his stride. I thought after, he’s been that famous for decades now, it must be just like breathing, the way you react to people on the street. He was brilliant I have to say.
CS: I’m also guessing the out-takes are quite funny. What’s it like when Maggot or Bonehead struggle remembering their lines, was there plenty of ‘Tom foolery’ going on? Which artist surprised you with their acting talents? Alan McGee seemed really comfortable delivering his lines, has Svengali given any of them the wanting for more of the screen?
JO: Well, it’s very difficult to get those kinds of people to learn lines, haha!! So I just tell them there’s going to be a certain situation (like I’ll try and give you a tape) and then I’ll act off them. Some it is improvised, and I’m a huge fan of Curb so you’ve got to be on your toes and there’s lots of takes. The best stuff is usually off the cuff, although Dean does a great basic script.
All of Ep 3 for instance is improvised, where as Ep 1 is all script. So we can move it around how we want. The latest is about half and half. Broadcasters are obviously scared of this kind of work as they like it rehearsed to death (often over rehearsed) but the actors absolutely love it. I think because it’s so different to what they usually do, Alan McGee is a joy to work with, the bloke’s a born natural. He’s better than most actors I work with.
CS: Plus names like Martin Freeman, it must have been great to work with such actors?
JO: Martin Freeman is one of the coolest people I’ve ever got to know. His music and fashion sense is perfect and I was very very keen to get him involved. I was lucky enough to have a good mutual friend (Paolo Hewitt) and he got him the series and he loved it. We met in Wagamamma’s in Soho and spoke for hours about music, film and fashion, it was pretty obvious we were kindred spirits in that world, and of a similar age.
I was delighted when he said he wanted to do it as I was a massive fan and he was great to have on set. He’s also fiercely intelligent and really brought that to the part. I was delighted he got the Jackson film. Other actors like Matt Berry, Michelle Gomez and Ciaran Griffiths are close friends and I just asked them if they’d like to do it and they all said they’d love to. It was about creating a Svengali family really. Sally Phillips was another, just great fun to have around and brought so much to the part.
It’s been my favourite thing about it all, seeing great actors really take on the part. Matt, South African, Ciaran Mancunian Jew and Michelle as the company boss. I also have to remember my co-star Roger Evans as Horsey, without whom there would be no Svengali, he’s that important and many people’s favourite character.
CS: I have to ask, since Svengali have you been hounded by any Dixies looking to break into the industry? You do realise you will now be seen as the patron saint of ‘industry lost causes’, yet Dixie’s grit and blind faith is quite commendable. McGee actually says in the last series about Dixie: “He’s relentless, I reckon he’ll make it,” and though it was in jest there are a lot of positives about Dixie’s character, wouldn’t you say?
JO: Haha! Well, the honest answer is yes. Lots of people email, send tapes and often say ‘I’ll keep nagging like Dixie.’ What can I say to that? In Soho especially people often shout ‘alright Dix?’ which is quite funny. I think it’s pretty big among the ‘meejha’ as they say. I try to listen to everything people send and I reply to actors, photographers, bands – all the people who get in touch. I wish I could employ them all! But I can’t alas, otherwise I’d be like Beatles’ Apple!
CS: So what little ditties have you got from filming Svengali? What about trying to film as I can imagine plenty of by-standers in the West End doing a ‘Dixie’ half way through a scene to ask for an autograph while you are trying to film. What’s the funniest thing that happened on set, off camera that is?
JO: There’s a huge group on Facebook who are pretty fanatical. We do little comps offering the bag he carries and the t-shirt and stuff. We got lots coming along to shoots so it becomes like theatre really. I also insist there’s beer on set and a major party afterwards. I mean, we’re doing something about Rock and Roll so the least we can do is try. It tends to be a bit boisterous, but that’s the point isn’t it?
Svengali is meant to be something new and different, a child of a new medium, the internet. So we’re basically making this up as we go along, which is great, but it means that sometimes you’re thinking ‘fuck me, we’d better strap ourselves in here’, when we’re filming in the street without any permission and with people flying around. But do you know what? I’ll be old one day and I won’t have the guts or energy to do it, so while I’m still young enough I’ll take the chance.
Funny story? Yes, we were filming a scene with Boy George and Martin Freeman in Fopp and the store was open (we couldn’t afford to ask them to shut it) and this guy goes ‘do you mind! I’m trying to get to the Jazz section.’ So we had to wait while he picked his way through Miles Davis, me, Martin Freeman and Boy George all standing there waiting for this grumpy fuckin Nick Hornby lookalike to finish browsing, wouldn’t get that on anything else I can tell ya, ha.
CS: Where next after this series for ‘Svengali? What’s next for yourself, will we be seeing more of you now in new projects?
JO: I’m doing a Rachel Trezise play in Cardiff that starts next week, and then there’ll be Svengali the Movie – watch this space…
Catch up with all the Svengali episodes, as well as the latest updates on Myspace.