Jonathan Owen – Dixie from Svengali

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We are living in a day and age, where success is achieved by a five-year business plan-well that is what corporate culture would like us to believe. A  belief system has been  emphasised that if you follow a certain set of guidelines then you will be a success and an upholding member of society.  However if you fail to follow this procedure then you will be an outcast, therefore deemed a failure.  

We do not live in a commercial dictatorship, that would be a highly dramatic statement. However there does to seem be a lack of encouragement in terms of pure passion in the world of commerce and art, because those in power, want us to believe they know what is best, now that is Totalitarian.
 
This train of thought is further reinforced by the media with programmes such as Dragons Den and X Factor. Where the public are led to believe that these judges are the only true experts in this chosen fields. Therefore what they state will be a success, is 100 per cent guaranteed. But what would have happened if The Dragons Den Team had invested in the Rubik’s cube or Simon Cowell had backed U2 , we will never know, but more then likely Ernő Rubik and Bono would have been called crazy dreamers. But the crazy dreamer is a pioneer, and pioneers change the world.  It might take years for their dream to come true, there might be rejection upon rejection and heartbreak upon the journey. 

Yet their dream might come true and en route to fulfilling their ambition, the pioneer will use whatever free resources they can, to show the world their vision. In today’s climate with the rapid growth of the Internet and more people switching to the web to watch films, listen to music, gain information , gather news and even downloads books, we are set for a whole new generation of pioneers (young and old), that do not need the backing of capital investors, just the people to listen-and the people are listening. We are witnessing a creative and commercial revolution, which is giving the world something to think about.

With this in mind more and more people are turning to the Internet to produce their own TV programmes and music. Using YouTube, MySpace, FaceBook, their own websites, and emails shots, to promote their work and bring brand awareness, a process known as Viral Marketing is alive and well. In addition, there is a new production company Burn After Listening who have seized this new form of creativity and marketing, to bring the world Svengali.

 Svengali is a new internet comedy show, written by Dean Cavanagh  and directed by Phillip John, that centres  round Dixie (Jonathan Owen) who have moved from Wales with his girlfriend Michelle (Sally Phillips) to London with the  dream to  break the band he is managing. As Dixie embarks on his journey, he gets aid from music mogul Alan McGee (playing himself) and hostility, from coke sniffing A & R man Horsey (Roger Evans).

Svengali is filmed on location around the streets of London, with the likes of  The Foundry  EC2  and Boogaloo N6  used as sets  with cameos appearances from the likes of Bonehead (Ex Oasis) , Carl Barât (Libertines/Dirty Pretty Things ) and other credible musicians and artists.   The vignettes roles and actual locations all help Svengali to produce an authentic comedy drama of the ruthless world of the music industry and the obstacles Dixie faces, when all he is trying to do is make in it the world as a pioneer.

And it seems that the Internet viewing public are warming to Dixie and his passion. So at  ZANI, we thought it  would be a good idea talk to Jonathan Owen, as he and Svengali seem to be creating one hell of a buzz on the web.

Jonathan Owen is a talented actor who brings charm and empathy to his characters, all enhanced with his Saturday Matinee idol looks. With an impressive CV, that includes the Channel Four comedy Shameless.

So one summer’s evening in a bright and breezy bar ZANI decided to catch up Jonathan to chat about Svengali and other things.

ZANI - How did the concept of Svengali come about ?  

Jonathan Owen – From our experiences of being in bands, Dean Cavanagh was in Glamorise Hooligan, I was in the band called The Pocket Devils and Phil John was in a band called Reptile Lounge.

So myself, Dean and Paul who formed the Production Company Burn After Listening, are all causalities of the music industry.  So we thought we could all write a drama around the absurdism, idiotism and the characters of the music world.

This makes it quite fascinating, as the music industry is a huge state of change, because of the Internet. So we thought it would be a bit like life imitating art, in a sense that we would do an Internet drama series not really knowing how it will be received after putting it out on the Internet.  

ZANI -   Well it is going down well. Svengali  is about breaking into the music business, the people are caricatures of that industry, however would you say it is a pretty good indication of what goes in that world?  

Jonathan Owen – I would say it is probably the most accurate portrayal of the music industry you are ever going to see, simply because of our backgrounds.

ZANI – You play the lead role, Dixie, is he based on a real life character?
 
Jonathan Owen -  Yes, it is based on the manager of my old band, whose name  was Paul Dixon AKA Dixie, he was  and still is a terrific guy. He always believed in us, and he never had a bad day. We were your typical band, as we were always moaning. “Why aren’t being offered a million pound record deal”, or “we are not on the front page of the NME.”  

Bands tend to blame everything around them, rather then themselves. Whereas Paul, never had a bad day, and I wanted to bring that positive energy that he had into the character, Dixie. I think managers do a thankless task.

ZANI – That’s true about managers, as all they want is for their band to succeed. I understand you used your redundancy money from ITV Wales to kick off Svengali?

Jonathan Owen – I did, so Eleanor, my wife, and me decided to move to London, and chuck all in our money in a pot. Eleanor has taken a sabbatical and decided to write a book, and I decided to put everything I had into Svengali. People may say we are stupid in these current economical times, but you can be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.

ZANI - It’s already attracted a number of good actors such as Bridget Jones and Smack the Pony actress Sally Phillips, and musicians like Maggot Goldie Lookin Chain. I know this is the sort of question that would steam from a gossip magazine, but how did you manage to get these people involved in Svengali ?  

Jonathan Owen – When we did the first one, Sally Phillips saw it, really liked it and asked if she could get involved. So Dean Cavanagh wrote a part for her, as Dixie’s girlfriend, and the rest seem to follow.

ZANI -   Another main actor in Svengali, is Alan McGee, how did he get involved?  

Jonathan Owen –We have  a mutual friend called Peter Jones, who is Rob Brydon’s younger brother, otherwise known as Welsh Pete.

Welsh Peter was in a band called CityKilled, who were signed to Alan McGee’s old label Poptones. I knew Pete well, and I knew Pete knew Alan McGee, and I wanted somebody in the series who would play the Svengali. The idea was that Dixie learns from a Svengali, and I thought the best person who possibly in the world to play this part, would be Alan McGee, completely pie in the sky. But this is how it works, luck.

ZANI – I agree.

Jonathan Owen - I sent one email off to Pete, saying do you know Alan McGee? he said yea, so I sent Pete with a the link to episode one , asking him if he could ask Alan McGee if he wanted to be in episode two, and in half an hour, Alan McGee emailed back , saying he wanted in.

ZANI – That is a positive sign. Sounds like everything is falling into place,  OK why is the show called Svengali ,  because I thought a  Svengali is somebody who wanted to control someone with evil intent?

Jonathan Owen – Ha, Well there are many adjectives you could use to describe Dixie but evil wouldn’t’ be one of them. No, it’s Svengali as in a musical Svengali, like an Andrew Loog Oldham, Gordy Berry or Malcolm MClaren. Dixie sees himself from a long line of movers and shakers that believed in the bands they discovered and were absolutely doing it for the right reasons. To change the world and not for money or fame. It was Dean Cavanagh that came up with the name Svengali.

Dean Cavanagh came to London, as we were doing some press for the ITV 4 comedy Good Arrows, that he had written and I had starred in.  Dean walked into a pub in London called Hip, and he said he has got the idea for the Internet viral comedy, called Svengali, all about a music manager. Straight away, I thought it was a great idea, as we batted some ideas back and forth, I told Dean Cavanagh about Dixie. Dean Cavanagh said let’s make him the central character, and his journey into the world of Rock and Roll, and learning to become a Svengali, and that is where Alan McGee comes in.

ZANI – What ever happened to the real Dixie ?

Jonathan Owen – He’s still around, he  has appeared in episode two. He is the big guy sitting down at the pub, he has been down for all the filming, he is absolutely made up with Svengali.

ZANI –  Well I think it’s brilliant that you are paying homage to him. Is he still an optimist?

Jonathan Owen – Very much so.

ZANI – He will be now be remembered as the key influence to the show. Just like the real Neal Cassady who was fictionalise and immortalise as Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.

Jonathan Owen – The Welsh press are already are starting to ask around who is Dixie, and I think the main stream press will start tapping into him soon.

That is a nice comparison to Neal Cassady, but he is more like a Kit Lambert to me, because Dixie is a massive fan of The Who. So I guess that makes me Pete Townsend, but obviously not as talented. 

ZANI – Not Jack Kerouac?   

Jonathan Owen – No , I do find it interesting that  Pete Townsend says “That Kit Lambert is  the most important person in his career” Even though Kit Lambert mismanaged The Who financially, but Pete Townsend says he locked him in a room and told him to do stuff.

I think this is the biggest thing I have ever done, and he is the biggest influence on Svengali.

ZANI – So maybe without realising it, was Dixie was your mentor?

Jonathan Owen – Good question, it’s taken me a few years to realise what a profound effect he has had on me. When I was in band, and before I got into acting, he always believed in what I was doing. So in that respect, he probably was the biggest influence in my life in the sense of a career. I have never meet anybody before, who was absolutely convinced that I would do something with my life.

ZANI –Another thing I love about Svengali is the theme tune, who is it ?

Jonathan Owen – Starmaker by The Pocket Devils

ZANI – Isn’t that your old band?

Jonathan Owen – I actually wrote it in 1994. I wrote it about Don Arden as I was really into the Small Faces at the time and had read how he told them they had blown all their money on clothes, so it stuck with me. I think the lyrics are more relevant today than ever, what with Simon Cowell etc. The chord is obviously very Stonesy but I wanted a real bubble gum chorus, like The Turtles or Hello Goodbye by the Beatles, really joyous, while the lyric is actually pretty dark.

ZANI – Nice one,  so you didn’t write it especially for the show

Jonathan Owen – No

ZANI – Synchronicity, because the lyrics are so relevant to the show, like you were predicting your future.  

Jonathan Owen – Wow, you are going deep, but I know what you mean.

ZANI – Any plans to release it, you have to, it has number one written all over.

Jonathan Owen – We going to put it out through iTunes, do a little video and see where it goes. It would be very funny if we had a hit all these years later and would great for the series
 
ZANI - Good luck and I hope it charts.  Dean Cavanagh, who you have worked with him before on Channel Four’s Wedding Belles and ITV 4’s Good Arrows writes Svengali. I presume there is a good chemistry between you and him.

Jonathan Owen – Yes there is, I’ve known Dean for a few years, and he has become a good friend

ZANI – How did you meet Dean Cavanagh ?

Jonathan Owen – We met in Great Portland Street London seven or eight years ago through a mutual friend of ours the writer, Irvine Welsh. We hit it off straight away, and I would say for the last five years we speak to each other every day.

ZANI – I think that is important that you speak to your creative and business partner daily, it keeps the ideas flowing.  Concerning the filming of Svengali, is the shooting done over a weekend, if so it must be forty-eight hours of total creative mayhem?

Jonathan Owen – We do it a day, we have too, because we only hire the equipment for one day. So it is twenty hours of creative mayhem, and stress.

ZANI –Very Dogma.  I understand that a lot of Svengali is adlibbed, a bit like Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Jonathan Owen – Svengali is hugely influenced by Curb Your Enthusiasm, as both Dean and I are huge fans.

People like Alan McGee, Bonehead and co don’t really work off a script as I want the people from the Music Industry to be completely relaxed and say what they want to say, so I can work off that. It is more interesting and funnier.  

ZANI – Method acting, big fan of method acting me. Apart from Curbs Your Enthusiasm and the music industry, what are the other TV shows that influence Svengali?

Jonathan Owen – Entourage is a huge influence on it, I have put that into the mix, like Curbs it is a HBO series. I love the fact that Entourage is set in Hollywood, the home of filmmaking, using real people from the industry, and I thought if we could possibly do a British version about the music industry.

Svengali had to be set in London, as it is the world’s capital of Rock and Roll, from Abbey Road to Soho, to where the old Marquee was.

ZANI – Well you are right London being the capital of Rock and Roll.  A slight change of subject, I seriously believe in the next few years, people will not be watching TV in the traditional sense, but via their laptops.

Therefore, your production company Burn After Listening might have hit the Internet at the right time, and be seen as pioneers in this new media revolution. 

Jonathan Owen – Thank you, I feel a bit like those hippies in 1967, with their happenings. Svengali is a modern happening, we do them, it costs us money, and we put them on the Internet.

The most the important thing is getting it out there on the Internet, because nobody yet, and that includes ZANI knows how the Internet is going to make money.  

ZANI – I agree, the commercial aspect of the Internet is still very much in it's infancy. As is the marketing and the growth of social network sites, such as MySpace, FaceBook and now YouTube, if you put something that  is good out on these sites, it will spread very quickly via link exchange.

Also I can now watch any football match in the world for free or very little money, with the growth of P2P websites.   But with these sites, and YouTube there is still a problem with the buffering. In five years time the technology will be far superior and people will take to it.

Jonathan Owen – You like to say your say (Laughing), but thanks for the tip on the free football games, email me the link later.

ZANI –  Yeah I do, sorry I get carried away, too many coffees.

Jonathan Owen -   Have a Peroni instead.

ZANI – Like it. The Internet is really starting to shake up the corporate companies, and the media.

Jonathan Owen - I suppose you could call this  the big bang of the Internet entertainment  and Svengali are at the start of all, and so is ZANI. I agree with you in what you said earlier, we will be watching TV on our Laptops, and the style of Television will face a complete death.

ZANI – Exactly, and with a bit of fine tuning, people will not be buying DVD’s, they will be downloading new releases from a specific date as you do with a DVD rental shop.  The shops that try and stand up for traditional way of renting, will fall by the way side. Even the postal rental market will continue, but they won’t flourish.

Jonathan Owen – I agree, and that is what has happen with downloads.  

ZANI – The great thing about Svengali is the DIY culture, like the early Punk movement of 1976.   This is brilliant, because you don’t have to go to production companies, on bended knees, and have meeting after meeting. That is great, but on the flipside, anybody can make a film.

Jonathan Owen – What happened before, when you went to someone who I would call the gatekeeper with a concept or an idea, ,  it was  down to someone’s personal opinion if something got made. But now you can go to the gatekeeper, and say I know this going to be a hit because we get 50,000 unique visitors a day, and they can’t argue with that.

What this has done is that it has completely by-past the commissioning process, and this is why the broadcasters are all panicking; because we are now proving that you don’t have to go through the traditional processes to get a TV show made.

This is exactly what happened in the music industry with bands like the Arctic Monkeys, they didn’t needed an A & R man,  they got a huge fan base from the Internet, and they got  in the charts, without getting a  record company involved. That is exactly what is going to happen with drama, but it just going to take a little bit  longer,  that’s all.

ZANI – What you are doing, by getting an audience first and cult status, which you have done via good old fashioned hard graft, and modern day Guerrilla Marketing.  You are simply saying to the production companies, this our product, this is our success, now do you want to give us any money so we can make some more?

Jonathan Owen -  True, I feel it is the only way to achieve things these days.

ZANI – I love it.  I understand you want to keep Svengali as a mini eighteen part five minute episodes?

Jonathan Owen – Yeah we do want  keep it as a mini series on the net, but we have been speaking to a few production companies. And Apple, who love Svengali, have put it out as a Podcasts.   The idea is we will continue to look for sponsorship, and see where we end up.

Also a few television production companies have spoke to us, as they want to make into a film. Even if that is the case, we want to keep on with the virals, keep on plugging it on the Internet, as much as possible. Keep casting it,  and writing it  as exactly as we want.  Fund it yourselves, until we have to sell your children I suppose.

ZANI – Well that is dedicated and that’s a nice touch with Apple and Svengali, I bet you are excited.

Jonathan Owen -  I am really excited about that, Adam the main guy at Apple, had me in his office, saying “I get it, love it and find it hilarious.” Without sounding like a Punk or a Hippy, at this moment in time the podcasts for Svengali on Apple are free, but maybe in time we might have to charge a pound.

ZANI – There is nothing wrong in charging money, you have to eat, pay bills and fund other projects. Ok, let’s talk about Jonathan Owen, what significant moment in your life made you want to become an actor?

Jonathan Owen – That’s a good question, do you mean when I was a kid?

ZANI – No not really, I know most success seems to stem from childhood dreams,  but I believe we live in day and age when you can find yourself at 35 or 42. It just becomes harder when you get older.  

Without getting spiritual , I believe that every man or woman has a significant moment in their life, when they can change it forever and for the best, it just depends whether the individual follows it through. Concerning you, as a younger man, you wanted to be a musician, then something happened, and changed direction. To be honest, I believe it was the right choice.

Jonathan Owen – I always liked acting, my grandfather bought me up, and he was a massive film buff. He was great man, he got me into the traditional black and white classics, Casablanca, Angels With Dirty Faces and the great actors like Charles Laughton and Spencer Tracy. So I grew up as a kid, watching all those films and actors, and developed a great love of films from him.

ZANI – A good pedigree of films and actors.

Jonathan Owen - As you know, I was in a band and we were signed to Warner Bros in the mid nineties. A drama series  had just started in ITV Wales, and there was a character in the show, who was in a band. The casting director, had seen him doing a Pop program in Wales. He noticed I was comfortable in front of the camera, he rang up and asked if I was interested in acting. I said I don’t know, then I went for a screen test, got casted and then got myself an agent. And as they say the rest was history.

ZANI – So a lucky break, the influence of your grandfather, your good looks and your natural charm got you into acting ?

Jonathan Owen – You are too kind

ZANI – I am a charmer, I know. What actors are your influences (past and present)?  

Jonathan Owen – The clichés, De-Niro is an astounding actor, as is Brando. Massive fan of Steve McQueen  and Paul Newman,  both  incredible actors, and  of course Pacino.

In modern context, Mark Strong is a terrific actor.

ZANI – He was great in Our Friends from the North,

Jonathan Owen – The last great BBC series.

ZANI – OK, I know you mention De-Niro and Pacino, but what about the new generation, like Christian Bale and Edward Norton

Jonathan Owen – I think Ed Norton , is very serious about his craft, and I think Christian Bale is of that ilk, and I love that line when Richard Harris said “They should stop taking themselves so seriously”, I think the great actors, have great personalities, like Marlon Brando and  Richard Burton. I am a big fan of Richard Burton.

ZANI – A welsh boy like you, born and bred – please tell us about your love for Wales and the people.

Jonathan Owen – The people are brilliant nosey bastards, which is the complete opposite to West London. You can be private and do what you want, but in Wales, you couldn’t have a pint in a bar , without somebody asking you what is going on. There is definately a closeness in the community, and I can always go back there. They certainly bring me back down to earth in Wales.

ZANI – I understand  you are big Cardiff City supporter, are you part of the famous Soul Crew, their ardent supporters ?  

Jonathan Owen – Ha, I am in the book about The Soul Crew, by Tony Rivers who is one of their top boys, who is a really good friend of mine. We are both Valley boys who met on the train on the way to a game at the age of fourteen. We became close friends, and are still close friends.  When I got to eighteen, I dropped out of the football thing to join a band. I’ve got to be honest, and say I did used to jog along the side, but I would let the big hairy bastards do the fighting.

ZANI – So you were into the causal clothing thing, as the Soul Crew are notorious for being well dressed.

Jonathan Owen – I was really into the casual look, to the point it became quite obsessive.

ZANI – I know you are into C17 jeans, which are very hard to get hold of these days.

Jonathan Owen – C17 are great jeans, the Scousers and the Mancs who can be incredibly snobby, were still buying Levis, between 1985 to 1989, and they missed the fact, that  C17  were the bee knees.

ZANI -  I donned a few pair of C17 jeans in the past. OK, final question  what song do you reckon sums Jonathan the best ?

Jonathan Owen –Hello and Goodbye by the Beatles, because it is contradicting itself. Sometimes it is happy, (hello) sometimes it is sad (goodbye).  I think that song sums up every human being, up and down, light and shade, ying and yang

ZANI – Cool answer, I like it.

Jonathan Owen – I try my best

Well Jonathan Owen certainly is trying his best and succeeding. As we say our goodbyes, knowing that one day we will say hello again,  Jonathan Owen strolls  off in the evening on a beautiful summer night, I am left overwhelmed with a sense of optimism and belief.

Jonathan Owen is a determined and focused individual.   As well as being intelligent, talented, caring, funny and very similar to the character he portrays in Svengali Dixie, he refuses to let rejections stand in his way and is full of this amazing  and breathtaking  optimism.  Jonathan uses the Internet to promote his work, so really who needs the likes of Dragons Den to tell you are going to be a success, because if you believe you are going to be a success, and really believe it, your lucky break will come.

Jonathan Owen like the rest of the Svengali team are driven by one thing, and one thing only, to live out their dream and by their own rules. And in this day and age of five  business year plans, this is so refreshing and inspiring, because who really knows where they are going to be? As long as they pushing forward and are  having fun surely, and Jonathan Owen is certainly doing that. 

© Words – Matteo Sedazzari/ ZANI Ltd




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ZANI was conceived in late 2008 and the fan base gradually grew by word of mouth. Key contributors came from those of the music, film and fashion industry and the voice of ZANI grew louder. So, when in 2013 investor, contributor and fan of ZANI Alan McGee* offered his support to help restyle and relaunch the site it was inevitable that traffic would increase dramatically and continues to grow. *Alan McGee co-founder of Creation Records and new label 359 Music..

 

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ZANI is an independent online magazine for readers interested in contemporary culture, covering Music, Film & TV, Sport, Art amongst other cultural topics. Relevant to modern times ZANI is a dynamic website and a flagship for creative movement and thinking wherever our readers live in the world.