Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Johnny Cocktail: A History

In recent weeks you may have been following the blog progress of Robert Follen as he produces models for an upcoming sport-themed episode of Johnny Cocktail. Who is this Johnny, I hear you ask, and what can he teach us? Let's have a look at his cases thus far...

The character of JC first popped up in July 2004, during a band get-together one weekend in south-east London. A trip to the supermarket was called for; I had a new digicam (the so-light-it-almost-floats Mustek DV4000) and we had the faintly-amusing idea of filming our trip. It could be a sketch about a trolley dash, as if it was one of those stupid lifestyle advice shows. What do you need for a stupid lifestyle advice show? A gurning host! By the time we exited the bus on Lewisham High Street, bits of Johnny's character were coming together. He was an East End wide-boy, with brainpower and chutzpah somewhere between Del Boy and Alan Sugar, always on the lookout for a bargain, and whose clients would be utterly clueless in order to make him look good. He evidently had a bruised heart, the sight of a packet of sanitary pads bringing on a burst of manly tears. I remember Robert suggesting Cocktail as a suitably ludicrous surname. We made a little postscript to the episode, with Johnny answering a viewer's query about how he spends his nights (answer: he dresses very oddly). A nice jokey way to spend a Friday night.

A few weeks later we went to the independent music Truck Festival in Oxfordshire (this is when it was about a quarter of the current price), and after sundown on the Saturday evening Johnny came to life again, presenting his guide to festivals that seemed to concentrate on discussions of sugar intake, whether sitting down aided musical appreciation, and how to put traffic cones down the right way. All very fun to record, and as the weeks went by, more and more ideas for the Cocktail character came out. It seemed Johnny had legs, as well as a gutter mouth. Ideas for a whole series followed, eventually settling on "Johnny's Quest For The Truth", an intended six-part serial starting with Johnny recovering from an off-screen breakdown and finding his way again through exploration of art, food, religion, nature etc. We filmed lots of sections for each part in a semi-improv style, the series taking shape through occasional brainstorming of plot beats or scraps of dialogue, but collectively we had so little regular contact in this period that the series, despite much goodwill, neither died outright, nor made it up to the top of the already vast projects list.

For instance, around Halloween 2004 a five-day get-together was used to film sections for at least three episodes, none of which had proper scripts (we were just relying on remembering any good ideas, and working up any dialogue on the spot). On the Saturday we filmed Johnny visiting the Museum of Childhood, cooing over Action Men; on the Sunday he was in the City of London talking about architecture and then running around SoHo in a karate outfit; on the Monday he went on a head-clearing walk along the Regent's Canal and did an improbable stunt for a diet episode; and on the Tuesday there was more karate suit action around the Barbican and Liverpool Street station.

The series was to start with Johnny returning home, necking several handfuls of the pills he was addicted to, then dropping to the floor convulsing. We would cut away to an ambulance, and then return to Johnny waking up several days later, fresh out of hospital. At some point it was decided he should have a dream sequence whilst unconscious. This was to prove a fateful decision. In late 2005 we started getting scraps of footage for this dream sequence, only meant to be maybe 90 seconds long... and the ideas just kept coming. Characters, visual metaphors, dialogue... we kept filming more and more for the dream, whilst the series around it ground to a halt. Eventually there was an awful lot of random dream footage. Clearly it wouldn't fit into 90 seconds any longer. The dream went dormant, and you'll have to follow a forthcoming blog entry to read what happened next.

The major dilemma in arranging an episode of JC is that his characterisation pulls in two directions at once: he's given to long moments of reflection, relatively dramatic territory; but this is contrasted with a fair amount of slapstick and quite dumb humour. In trying to make both approaches sit together in each episode, particularly when added to the scripted/improv dilemma, we probably leave everyone unsatisfied, but we still hope to nail the perfect episode of Cocktail one day. The first proper evidence of Johnny's reflective side is in the only finished episode from the Quest series, which is mainly JC chatting to camera about his failures with women.

It was in the unused Quest footage that we found the germ of what became our "fake guru" episode. This is a prime example of my stitching unwieldy elements together with an after-the-fact script and a few additional scenes. "The Race For Enlightenment" used some bits we'd filmed with Robert in a child's karate suit, plus a chance encounter with a real-life karate star, and welded them in with a narrative alluding to a certain infamous celebrity crackpot "church" that maintains bizarre traction even in this day and age. Johnny was investigating a murky organisation, ZenZen UK (U.K.), peddlers of self-help schemes that involved financial donations, diet restrictions and endless running around. The guru behind this scheme, an ex-pulp author, was responsible for a glut of telephone directory-sized course books available at extortionate prices. We enjoyed the ideas behind this episode, and would happily go back for a big-budget remake if the funds ever become available.

Most of the other episodes are single-location improv affairs just to keep up the output. Johnny's Art Contest Results speaks for itself, and as for Johnny's Guide To Sex Pt 1... well it got suppressed for a reason.

Anyway, a question to finish on: where would you keen film-watchers recommend for posting Johnny Cocktail clips? YouTube isn't generating many (or in some cases, any) hits. Specifically we're looking for people who might warm to the lo-fi, pixelated, compressed audio and picture.