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Samuell Benta: Man on a mission

BIG AMBITIONS: Samuell Benta

HE DECLARED his car off the road to fund the first series of award-winning web series All About The McKenzies, so it’s ironic that when I catch up with Samuell Benta he’s happily driving between appointments in the city. How times have changed for the 26-year-old.

In 2010, and after what Samuell describes as a “difficult year”, the actor took a trip to Hollywood where he met the founder of the LA Web Festival who encouraged him to put pen to paper and return with an online product that he could enter into next year’s ceremony.

Samuell, who had starred in Eastenders spin-off E20 and hit series Hotel Babylon, admits he “never knew web series’ existed” until he was in Hollywood, returned to the States a year later with All About The McKenzies, a sitcom about a black British family, and took home the award.

“I basically threw myself into the project. We filmed for about five days. No actors got paid, none of the crew got paid, the composer was fresh out of university as was the camera operator – they had never done anything on screen in their life. Just goes to show that I can take someone brand new and make a good show.”

In the year since its creation, All About The McKenzies has racked up over one million hits on YouTube, seen Samuell featured in The Guardian newspaper and named as More magazine’s ‘man of the week.’

But for the hard-working entrepreneur, this, it seems, is just the tip of the iceberg. “I don’t mind man of the week, but I need to be man of the century,” he jokes.

Despite the success of his online series, which he wrote, produced and directed, Samuell has faced a number of knock backs when trying to convince the mainstream that it’s worthy of their attention.

“I received a lot of good response online and I was phoning around TV networks and had a few meetings. I’ve proved there is an audience, but still people don’t seem to holler back.”

He explains: “I look at the shows we’ve had in the past like Desmond’s and The Crouches and I think, ‘why have we stopped doing this?’ I’m so going to change stuff up. I’m going to make a show that is universal.”

For the new series, due in mid 2013, Samuell has joined forces with popular online youth broadcaster SBTV, hoping to reach new audiences.

He is also aiming to launch the careers of new British talent who he says have been “shunned by the industry.”

He says: “Now that I’m going through SBTV, I’m sure that it will make a lot of people sit up and say something whereas before they gave me air.

“I’m going to use talent who were shunned and make them grow through my own show. For instance, our comedians are big, but they’re doing it on such a low scale underground that the mainstream don’t know who they are. I know through my show, things can happen differently,” he adds.

“People are scared to invest in new talent. In productions, [using new talent] costs a lot of money and producers want to keep production prices down. But on a subconscious level what they are actually telling young black people who are aspiring to be something bigger is, ‘hey guys, this can’t happen.’ It really does take one person to change a whole paradigm and I’m hoping to do that.”

Asked whether he thought a glass ceiling was in place when it came to black comedy in the UK’s mainstream, he said: “It’s much bigger than that. There are massive comedians like Lee Evans and Michael McIntyre who have a huge following and support, but when it comes to black talent, the only person who springs to mind is Lenny Henry. He has had major success, made attempts for TV and they have shut him down.

“To get All About The McKenzies on TV has been my intention from the start. I want a universal show that everyone is going to love, it’s just that online we have the freedom to do things for free.”

Despite his own setbacks, Samuell is full of admiration for fellow online series Meet The Adebanjos, which has succesfully made the change.

He said: “Meet The Adebanjos is an inspiration to me. They are a great example of independence. They did what I did, but on a TV level. They’ve met with TV networks and they were turned down. ‘Oh the show’s too black,’ or ‘It can never do this’. They had more results with a foreign market and they’re doing their thing. It’s not mainstream television, but they’re still getting what they want out to the people."

On the new series, for which he will hold public auditions in January, Samuell promises a “fleshed out” storyline with more “references to black history”.

“I understand that the youth are heavily influenced by what they watch and listen to so I understand what must come from my show. They’re not going to listen to ‘Mr Stevenson’ at school, they’re going to listen to someone who is young like them, who looks like them and has the content that will actually make them pay attention.”

As our conversation comes to a close, and Samuell nears his destination, I ask what might come of our conversation if this interview happened in 10 years. He laughs, thinks for a second and says: “I would say, ‘you’ve seen all of my blockbusters, right? Well, I’m just in talks with Denzel [Washington] at the moment and we’re going to be doing a film soon and I’ve also got my own drama school. It’s been a good few years.’”

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