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In this blog I have often referred to British people, both celebrated and notorious, who I have learned about solely through my telly viewing. From Mrs. Mills and Tommy Cooper to Fred West and the Cambridge spies, telly biopics and mini-series have taught me about the real people behind some faintly familiar names. This week I got to know two such people- a beloved entertainer and a convicted wife murderer.

Cilla Black

The real Cilla Black

Cilla Black in 2014

I’d heard of Cilla Black but knew virtually nothing of her story. I decided to watch Cilla purely based on the casting of lead actress Sheridan Smith. I saw her prior BAFTA-award winning performance in another biographical series, Mrs. Biggs wherein she portrayed train robber Ronnie Biggs’s wife. I also read that she did all her own singing for the Cilla Black role.

I found Cilla’s story fascinating – a Liverpool girl with big dreams and a big voice who found herself in the right place at the right time. A teenager when the Beatles were first becoming a sensation in their hometown, Cilla already knew Ringo Starr and was a sought after “girl singer” with many of the Merseybeat bands of the day. According to the show, she was given two chances to audition for the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein; during the first one she choked but the second time Epstein showed up unannounced and Cilla impressed him enough to offer her a contract.

The one who made me sit up and take notice in this series was Aneurin Barnard who played Bobby Willis, Cilla’s manager and love interest. Bobby was loyal, hardworking, supportive and apparently musically talented as a songwriter and singer in his own right.

 

He also tolerated being strung along for what appeared to be years since Cilla had to put on the facade of availability for her fans.

One can never be sure of the accuracy of series such as this, but at one point Brian Epstein offered Bobby his own recording contract. Upon consulting Cilla, she reportedly told Bobby in no uncertain terms that he was forbidden from accepting the offer. She was adamant he not become a competitor for attention from Epstein. Bobby appeared to be stung more by her total lack of happiness for him than her demand that he not accept the contract.  I can’t say I agreed with his devotion to Cilla in putting her career first; however, in hindsight, Epstein died not long after this incident so Willis’ performing career might have ended as quickly as it began.

I probably don’t have to tell you Cilla transitioned from a chart topping singer in the 60’s to a television presenter and actress in the 70’s and beyond. Bobby and Cilla married and remained together until his death in 1999, very rare in show business especially these days. Watching Cilla just left me hoping Bobby got the respect and attention he gave so freely to Miss Black all those years before their marriage.

Malcolm Webster

Malcolm Webster jailed in 2011 for killing his wife

Malcolm Webster jailed in 2011 for killing his wife

The other mini-series I watched recently was a true crime drama called The Widower. It told the story of Malcolm Webster played by Reece Shearsmith. This was a murder case I hadn’t heard of, but if Shearsmith was involved it was sure to be creepy. Indeed I found the actor’s appearance more unsettling without all the customary prostheses, make-up and costumes I was used to seeing from his work on The League of Gentlemen, etc.

According to the story, Malcolm Webster married Claire Morris (coincidentally portrayed by Sheridan Smith) in Scotland. Shortly after the wedding, he began to drug her tea and drinking water with the sleep-inducing drug temazepam when she starting nagging him about his extravagant spending habits. As a nurse, he had ready access to such medications and for a while was able to convince his wife that she had a virus and therefore had no reason to go see a doctor. When he found out she had consulted a physician who wanted to run some toxicology tests, Malcolm knew he had to prevent them from finding the drug in her system.

He took a nearly comatose Claire out in the car, faked an accident he claimed was caused by a motorcycle driving on the wrong side of the road and then, after splashing petrol under the hood of the car, set the engine alight with Claire inside. Predictably the car blew up and Malcolm played the devastated spouse who was too dazed from the accident to rescue his wife.

In the course of the series, Malcolm married a second wife, Felicity, in Australia, embezzled her money, set up insurance policies and drugged her as well. He didn’t succeed in killing #2 before her family got suspicious so he had to make a run for it back to the UK leaving his baby son behind in the process.

Mr. Webster’s downfall was falling for Simone Banerjee (Archie Panjabi) who worked in the same Scottish hospital as Malcolm. To earn her sympathy and attention, he pretended to have leukemia even resorting to shaving his head and eyebrows to simulate the symptoms of chemotherapy. After gaining her affection and trust, Simone undergoes IVF in hopes of giving Malcolm a child to carry on his name assuming he will succumb to the cancer sooner rather than later. Thankfully the procedure is unsuccessful.

As far as we know, he never drugged Simone but later she discovers Malcolm tampered with the life vest in her sailboat so he may have planned on pushing her overboard at some point. By now the police have caught onto Webster’s spree of fires, cons and murder and warn Simone that she may be in danger. His lies finally catch up with him and even Malcolm can’t charm, wiggle or run his way out of it.

It’s difficult to know if Malcolm Webster intended to harm these women when he first got involved with them. It may have been financial circumstances and his great aversion to being told what to do which prompted the drugging and plans to do away with these women he claimed to love. Regardless he remains in prison today despite several appeals and the women who survived their involvement with him can count themselves, if not fortunate, at least wiser.

 

Oddly enough both these mini-series were penned by the same writer, Jeff Pope. He seems to have a knack for true stories as he’s also written the screenplays for Philomena, Appropriate Adult,  Lucan and the aforementioned Mrs. Biggs. I’m glad someone adapts these compelling lives for the screen and makes them entertaining in the bargain. They boost my awareness of British public personalities and,even better ,they increase my chances if winning if I ever enter find myself competing in a pub quiz in the UK. You wait, it is gonna happen one of these days.

Did you know today is National Siblings Day? No, neither did I until I heard it mentioned on The Today Show. But apparently there is such a thing so I’m taking advantage of the internet searches that will inevitably be undertaken to find out what this needless public recognition of our brothers and sisters is all about.

My complaint with a day commemorating this relationship is do we really need to be reminded? Siblings are our first playmates and our first adversaries as well. We’re unlikely to forget the injustices and pranks we survive at the hands of our closest relatives after all, are we?

That’s not to say siblings don’t bring positive things to our lives as well. They are the people with whom we share our formative years and, if all goes well, the ones who we know the longest. I have had an interest in birth order for some time and studied psychology in college so of course this makes me totally qualified to talk about the impact TV siblings have on one another.

Just look at the example of poor Martin Moone, the only boy and youngest child of four children in his family. His three older sisters ignore, belittle and abuse him at every turn. Sinead is probably the worst because she seems to delight in causing her baby brother pain and embarrassment. Take for example the time she painted Martin’s face with make-up in his sleep and he ran off to school without realizing he was sporting a slightly more feminine look that morning.

Martin Moone upon discovering his sister Sinead's prank image credit Baby Cow  Productions

Martin Moone upon discovering his sister Sinead’s prank
image credit Baby Cow Productions

Childhood experiences are usually quite vivid and so we carry them forward into our adult lives. If we are fortunate enough to get to see our siblings much as grown-ups they are often our best friends. That closeness, however, doesn’t come without some emotional baggage. Here are a few telly examples of brothers and sisters who despite their love for one another tend to dwell on childhood bones of contention.

 

Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes (Sherlock)

There must have been quite a lot of competition in the Holmes house seeing as their mother was a eminent mathematician and both the boys could be described as bright to say the least. This sort of youthful antagonism is bound to have residual effects in adulthood with one sibling feeling to need to dominate the other.

 

Del Boy and Rodney Trotter (Only Fools and Horses)

In the case of an older sibling raising a younger one, often a surrogate parent-child relationship develops. The problem is that in adulthood the older sibling, in this case, Del Boy, can tend to interfere in his brother’s life more than in a more traditional nuclear family scenario. Also long buried resentments can bubble to the surface revealing the pain of a childhood cut short out of necessity.

 

Connie and Clarence Emsworth (Blandings) 

Children of privilege are expected to grow up to be upstanding, decisive administrators of their estates. Unfortunately for Connie Emsworth her older brother Clarence shirks all family duties and only wants to spend time with his prize pig, The Empress. As a result, Connie has become a nagging and bitter woman who knows in her heart she could run the affairs of manor if only she were a man.

 

Edith and Mary Crawley (Downton Abbey)

I’m not exactly sure why Ladies Edith and Mary don’t get along. Sure, Edith is the plain middle daughter who never gets a second look or any of the good marriage prospects. (Sort of the Jan Brady of the Edwardian upper class). But why Mary is always so mean-spirited and condescending to her less fortunate sibling, I’m not sure. If she showed just a bit of patience and sisterly kindness, perhaps she could have avoided a scandal like this one.

 

Adam and Jonny Goodman (Friday Night Dinner)

These two young men have only recently moved from the family home so when they reunite weekly for family dinners, they tend to bring some lingering sibling rivalry and brotherly horseplay along with them.  Also Adam is still a chronic tattler, a strategy that he probably employed to make up for the fact that he is significantly smaller in stature than his brother Jonny.

 

So do any of these relationships remind you of you and your brothers or sisters? Did I miss one of your favorite sets of telly siblings? Make sure to tell your siblings you appreciate them and then thank (or blame) them for making you the person you are today!

Sitcoms are full of archetypal characters and the fool is but one. Yet what better time to celebrate the silly, the slightly dim, the individual that marches to a different drummer than April Fool’s Day? So without further ado, a short list of telly twits.

Not Going Out – Daisy

 

 

Father Ted – Father Dougal McGuire

 

 

Up the Women – Eva

 

 

Blackadder – Baldrick (admittedly there are more fools than not spread throughout the this series)

 

 

And the Fool of the Hour – Mr. Jeremy Clarkson

Jeremy Clarkson

image credit Mark Kehoe

SPOILER ALERT for any show listed below especially Bluestone 42!

So it’s tatty bye to Bluestone 42‘s Captain Nick Medhurst. The bomb disposal detachment’s charismatic Ammunition Technical Officer played by Oliver Chris has finally run out of luck.

Tower Block and Nick running from yet another explosion image credit BBC

Tower Block and Nick running from yet another explosion
image credit BBC

 

He was critically injured while trying to free a fellow soldier from a booby trap and though he survived, Medhurst did lose a leg. Looking back over the past series I suppose there were clues; the tricky Taliban bomb maker who seemed to be targeting the Captain specifically, the IED and ambush that resulted in a tense situation for the team and a serious concussion for Nick. He was definitely on his way out though we couldn’t know exactly when or how.

Anyhow, an amputee explosives expert just won’t do so, of course, Nick will be sent home to Old Blighty. Meanwhile  his replacement has already arrived in Afghanistan. We’ll have to see how new ATO Ellen Best (Laura Aikman) fares in his place.

So why is this television event significant, you may ask? Well, for those who don’t know, Bluestone 42 isn’t a war drama or even a “dramedy”. It’s a proper 30 minute sitcom. And while it’s not unheard of to dispatch a character from a comedy, it seems more jarring than when a crisis is encountered in a more straight forward drama.

For example, after suffering a miserable forced retirement you’d hope that One Foot in the Grave’s Victor Meldrew (Richard Wilson) might be granted a happier ending in the series finale.

 

Considering the cantankerousity of the man and his constant state of misfortune, perhaps the writers believed killing him off in a hit and run accident was the kindest thing they could do for him. RIP Mr. Meldrew.

Derek, on the other hand, breaks the mold. It disguises itself as a traditional sitcom with its format and the presence of its creator, director and star Ricky Gervais. The thing is Derek has as many touching, sad moments as funny ones. It is set in a retirement home after all so illness and death are a daily occurrence. Many of Derek’s friends succumb to old age and infirmity and every time, he is grief-stricken.

But for me the most shocking exit on the series was the episode when Ivor, a dog that was brought to the home to visit with the residents, was euthanized on-screen. Not “Say goodbye, Derek. Ivor’s going to sleep now,” then fade out. They re-enacted with painful detail exactly how it is to have a beloved pet put down. It was more devastating, by far, then when Derek’s own father died a few episodes later.

Derek and Ivor saying goodbye image credit Derek Productions and Channel 4

Derek and Ivor saying goodbye
image credit Derek Productions and Channel 4

 

Finally, tragic comedy is stunning even when you know something bad is coming. However, because you’re watching a comedy you think there’s a chance the characters will cheat their fate. Blackadder Goes Forth is a perfect example of this. As we watch one cunning plan after another fail, the viewer wants to believe that there is no way this band of misfit WWI soldiers will be sent over the top to their inevitable deaths.

 

And yet they do, in stiff upper lip, dark British humor style, they do what they must. I still shed a tear every time I watch that scene. I believe it has such emotional impact precisely because it’s placed in a comedy framework.

So next time you’re watching a UK sitcom, don’t let yourself get too comfortable with your favorite on-screen friends. Appreciate them while you have them. Their chances might be better than soap opera or Game of Thrones characters, but no one is ever completely safe in the harsh and sometimes fickle world of British comedy television.

 

When I realized Mothering Sunday was approaching, I wondered if I might give the annual mum-themed post a pass this year. I’ve written about TV matriarchs several times now and I figured I’ve covered that ground rather thoroughly.

But recently I watched Game of Thrones with my son and have wanted to write about it in some capacity. Granted it’s not a British series. However, with the number of UK actors in the cast and a substantial amount of it being shot in Northern Ireland, I think it’s fair game for my blog.

One thing I noted about this show from the start was the relatively large number of strong, powerful female characters featured in it so it occurred to me that marrying Mothering Sunday with this epic fantasy might just be the way to go this time around. That being said, strength is a relative term which can bring out the best or the worst in a mother. Let’s take a look at how the following characters chose to utilize their tenacity and internal fortitude, shall we?

In my book, Cersei Lannister one of the most hated characters in all of Westeros and environs. The only thing worse than this heartless, unforgiving woman is her son, King Joffrey, an alarmingly sadistic monarch with an exaggerated sense of self-importance (or as he’s known in my house, that little weasel-faced bastard).

And while the creation of a demon child can not always be attributed exclusively to the parents, I think we know that Joffrey learned much of his narcissistic attitudes and disdain for his subjects from dear old mom. But Cersei’s not blind to her son’s cruelty and I’m sure she’s smart enough to fear the child despite her love for him. To her credit her other children seem to be adequately normal human beings at this time.

I believe Cersei’s problems date back to the loss of her mother (she died giving birth to Cersei’s younger brother Tyrion). Her lack of a maternal figure and the presence of a domineering, power-hungry father molded her into a vindictive, calculating Queen who seeks “solace” with her brother and doesn’t truly know how to use her heart.

Cersai Lannister

Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) image credit HBO

 

 

Catelyn Stark, on the other hand, is an exemplary mother who truly knows what it is to sacrifice for your children. After the execution of her husband Ned for treason, her oldest son Robb resolves to dethrone Joffrey and bring the justice his father sought to the Seven Kingdoms. While Catelyn supports her first born’s intentions, she has five children to protect. Her instinct to save her daughters Sansa and Arya from the Lannisters forces her to go against Robb’s orders and secretly has their prize prisoner, Jaime Lannister, released in hopes his family will free her girls as well.

In the end, Catelyn does what all mothers are certain they would do if in the same situation. When her family and cohorts are ambushed at the infamous Red Wedding she first takes their attacker’s wife hostage and then heartbreaking pleads with him to let her son go and offers to remain a hostage in his place. Her heroics alas are all to no avail, but we all felt a twinge of recognition as she attempted to save her own flesh and blood.

Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) image credit HBO

Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley)
image credit HBO

By her own admission, Catelyn could not find it in her heart to love her husband’s bastard son, Jon Snow, thus proving no mother is perfect.

 

Even the most uneducated and unworldly of women have motherly instincts. Gilly Craster is no exception. Forced to live in an incestuous, wildling cult, Gilly and the other women have learned that male babies are not part of the family, but instead are given up as a sacrifice to the terrifying White Walkers. While her father/husband is providing lodging to the men of the Night’s Watch, Gilly has the sad misfortune of giving birth to a boy.

Luckily for her, she finds a protector in watchman, kind-hearted Samwell Tarly. She risks everything she’s known by first hiding her son from Craster and then escaping with Sam at an opportune moment when a battle has broken out in the compound. When Sam sends her away to Mole’s Town to keep her and the baby safe, Gilly uses her wits to hide from a band of wildlings who attack the village. She then finds her way back all on her own to The Wall and to her trusted friend, Sam.

Gilly (Hannah Murray) image credit HBO

Gilly (Hannah Murray)
image credit HBO

 

Olenna Tyrell is the matriarch of an influential family and the grandmother of the future Queen Margaery. Technically that means she is a mother even though she doesn’t speak very well of her son Mace or any other man for that matter. Lady Olenna is the Game of Thrones’ equivalent of  Downton Abbey‘s Dowager Countess – both are witty, sarcastic and feel they’ve earned the right to speak their minds. She is an expert on court politics and knows how to manipulate the system. She is also fiercely protective of her granddaughter and has taken some rather extreme measures to see that Margaery is safe and well-placed in the power structure of Westeros.

Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) image credit HBO

Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg)
image credit HBO

 

Lysa Arrryn could not be more different from her sister Catelyn Stark. Both have lost their husbands to the Lannisters’ treachery yet Catelyn soldiers on for her children while her sister has retreated into madness, which is putting it politely. The woman is batshit crazy, if you like.  She still breastfeeds her beloved son Robin despite the fact that he looks to be eight or nine years old. The boy’s a bit touched as well to say the least. She caters to his whims and encourages him to delight in their special form of execution, pushing people to their death through the Moon Door. Another entitled sadistic nobleman; that’s just what is needed in the Seven Kingdoms…

Lysa Aaryn (Kate Dickie) image credit HBO

Spoiler: We find out later that Lysa was in cahoots with a lover and killed her own husband so she can’t blame her irrational behavior on the grief after all.

 

Daenerys Targaryen, while not mother to a human child, is known as The Mother of Dragons. In fact, it is an official part of her extremely long and quite pretentious name. How did she earn this unusual title you might ask? She walked into a fire with three dragons’ eggs and came out the other side unharmed and with a trio of dragon hatchlings. As you can imagine, even in a fantasy world, dragons are the stuff of legend yet this remarkable young wannabe queen had the power to bring mythical creatures into reality.

For a while, the dragons are like her children. She dotes over them and they adore her. But just like a human offspring, the adolescent dragons become more and more uncontrollable as time goes on. The reptiles’ aggression moves from rowdy fire play to stealing livestock. It isn’t until one of the dragons incinerates an innocent child that the sanctimonious Khaleesi realizes how truly difficult it is to be a mother even to children of another species.

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) image credit HBO

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke)
image credit HBO

 

In the Game of Thrones world, being a mother isn’t about baking cookies, carpooling, or attending soccer games. It’s a deadly serious business what with rival houses partaking in poisoning , birthing demon assassins, and throwing children out of tower windows. Survival of your family line is of utmost importance and a courageous, smart and selfless mother is key to that goal.

Tell your mums you love them and appreciate their sacrifices today! Even if they didn’t have to kill, lie, scheme or die for you, you can be sure that they would.

Happy Pi(e) Day!

I’ve been told that math-minded people get very excited for Pi Day because the first sequence of digits of a mathematical constant which expresses the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter corresponds with the numbers in today’s date. Coincidence or one of those mysterious laws of nature that binds our world together? I’m not really bothered either way. What is more interesting to me is a sciencey man resembling Michael Palin (in profile only) who sets out to solve for pi using actual pies as visual aids.

 

More fascinating still is trying to guess who the winner of my Favorite Pie Poll will be. Please vote below and if your preferred pie isn’t on the list, simply tick “other” and type in your choice. Vic and Bob clearly favor a pork pie but don’t let those fools sway you.

House of Fools Vic, Bob and gigantic pie image credit BBC

House of Fools Vic, Bob and gigantic pie
image credit BBC

 

 

The series five cast of Downton Abbey image credit ITV and Masterpiece

The series five cast of Downton Abbey
image credit ITV and Masterpiece

Please beware, there might be a mild spoiler below if you have not already watched series 5!

Yes, you read that right. I didn’t watch Downton this time around. I realize this admission may well put my reputation as a British telly fanatic in question, but I had to come clean. How can I claim to be an aficionado of this medium when I didn’t even bother to watch the show that is probably the most popular UK series ever broadcast in America?  Basically, it comes down to the fact that I just don’t enjoy it anymore.

I used to be one of those people who felt if you started something you had to finish it. Take books – classics, best sellers, what have you.  They’re deemed great literature or enjoyed by the masses so there must be some merit to them; therefore, I muddle through despite that little bit of resentment building in the back of my mind. These days I readily abandon a novel that struggles to enlighten me in any way. With time I’ve learned that there are way too many things you have to see through to the end (if you’re a responsible adult) so when it comes down to things you do for enjoyment, why make a chore out of it?

I actually watched the first episode of series five and made a start on the second before I said enough. I was annoyed with Mary, fed up with Robert and creeped out by Edith’s awkward visits to spend time with her secret love child. Telly watching should be an entertainment, not an obligation (unless you’re paying me to write about it, of course). So I decided then and there I will not bow to the self-imposed pressure of feeling I must watch it because it’s expected of me.  Downton Abbey had ceased being and doing the things I liked about in the beginning so I just needed to tell myself it was okay to stop watching.

Like many of you out there, I found the first series a revelation and each Sunday night our schedule included watching the next engrossing episode. In meeting the Crawleys and company I discovered a world of tradition, class and downstairs scheming that was fascinating. Learning about the family’s unfortunate entail predicament, Matthew and his mother being dragged into aristocratic life and the loss of a hoped-for heir transitioned into the breakout of WWI and a whole new series of challenging sacrifices at the estate.

I trace my waning interest to series three where I stopped caring about the upstairs contingent to any real degree; probably once Lady Sybil died.  With the exit of the only likeable Crawley sister, the rest of the family became more unappealing to me.

Lady Sybil shortly before her demise image credit ITV and Masterpiece

Lady Sybil shortly before her demise
image credit ITV and Masterpiece

 

You can’t be indifferent to roughly half the characters and still expect the stories to hold your interest. I enjoy Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess as much as the next person, but she’s not enough to keep me coming back week after week when I know that Mary will always be priggish and unemotional, Robert will always be stubborn and Cora will always have that annoying, affected baby-talk voice.

You see, I didn’t want to dislike these characters because, once upon a time, I was invested in them. Sadly, what I perceived as increasingly drawn-out melodrama had already tainted things in my mind despite the fact that some stories and characters were still engaging. Take Mr. Molesley and (Miss) Baxter. I could get behind them as a couple, but then you start to think, “Oh they’ll never be allowed to be happy. Look what happened to Anna and Mr. Bates after all.”

Baxter and Molesley in the first flushes of "like" image credit ITV and Masterpiece

Baxter and Molesley in the first flushes of “like”
image credit ITV and Masterpiece

 

The deciding factor for me was that I’d read on British entertainment websites about the tragic demise of Lord Grantham’s beloved Labrador. I become a blubbering mess when animals die on screen. Much more so than when people pass away, for some reason. The time Thomas kidnapped Isis and hid her in a shed was bad enough, I wasn’t going to watch this loyal, beautiful dog die. I planned to skip that episode all along, but it was in the back of my mind even when I was watching the first few installments so I couldn’t help noticing she seemed to be featured in a lot more shots than normal. They were playing with my emotions and I wasn’t having that!

Isis in happier days image credit ITV and Masterpiece

Isis in happier days
image credit ITV and Masterpiece

 

Call me a middle-aged hipster if you want and you might be right. Once the papers were writing about people having Downton Abbey viewing parties and the marketing of DA wine and jewelry started popping up, I was already losing interest.

Believe it or not, I didn’t write this to be mean-spirited (well, maybe just a little). I definitely do not wish to engage in a debate about the merits and faults of Downtown Abbey. My main purpose for sharing this journey of sorts is that it felt very freeing to decide not to watch something I’d decided was required. The point is life is short and when you get some well-deserved “me” time, you shouldn’t feel pressured to catch-up on every pop culture trend of the moment. How often are we told, “You should watch Breaking Bad, Mad Men, House of Cards, The Walking Dead?” The buzz can be deafening.

Watch what you like and never apologize for it.  And when what you liked isn’t what you fancy anymore, don’t feel compelled to finish it. Keep your good memories and don’t let shark-jumping tactics or stories that don’t move you ruin your good opinion of what used to be. I learned the hard way by feeling that being a blogger meant I must be up on the details of all popular shows at all times. It’s impossible, of course and a waste of energy. Perhaps someday I’ll go back and watch that fifth series, but it will be because I want to not because I feel I must.

I wish you nothing but joy in your telly viewing and if Downton brings you happiness then that is a very good thing indeed.

 

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