Twenty years of Our Friends In The North

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It has now been a full two decades since the start of one of the most acclaimed British dramas of all time, Our Friends In The North. Peter Flannery’s hugely ambitious nine part series depicted British life between the years 1964 and 1995, through the eyes of four Newcastle friends as they progress from youth to middle age.

Opening on the eve of the October 1964 General Election, which saw a rejuvenated Labour Party reclaim power after thirteen years of Tory misrule, the series ends in 1995, with New Labour seemingly poised to do much the same thing. In the meantime, the series touches on a whole range of issues including corruption within the police and government, the decline of the Left, the Miner’s Strike, homelessness, the failure of high rise housing and rising crime. The show includes a huge supporting cast too. Even today, it is hard to watch TV for long without seeing someone from it crop up.

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The four main players have all enjoyed huge success since, one (Christopher Eccleston) subsequently becoming Doctor Who, another (Daniel Craig), then unknown, subsequently becoming James Bond and a huge star. The other main actors Gina McKee and Mark Strong have been prolific stars of TV and film in the years since. Only Eccleston, who had appeared in Danny Boyle’s debut Shallow Grave and the TV series Cracker and Hearts and Minds amongst other things could claim any real fame at the time.

The series required the four actors, in reality then all around the thirty mark, to age from their early twenties to their fifties. It is odd to reflect that, odd as they look in the final 1995-set episode, they are actually supposed to be about the age the actors are now. Ironically, the excesses of 70s fashion mean that even when playing their own age, in the fourth and fifth episodes set in 1970 and 1974, they still look a bit odd.

This is nevertheless a classic series. If you’ve seen it, watch it again. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to seek it out.

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Is there Life After Who?

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At thirty, Matt Smith is the youngest ex-Doctor ever. He was generally well liked as the Doctor, acted in political drama Party Animals beforehand and played gay writer Christopher Isherwood in one off drama Christopher and his Kind in 2011 and 1948 Olympic Games drama Bert and Dickie last year.

But what about all the previous Doctors?

How did they find life after leaving the Tardis?

Is there life after Who?

William Hartnell

Life: 1908-1975. 1st Doctor: 1963-1966

Before: Hartnell appears in the title role in the  first Carry On film, Carry On Sergeant, crops up in Peter Sellers’ The Mouse That Roared and comes to a nasty end courtesy of Richard Attenborough in Brighton Rock.

During: Hartnell was the first to establish the role but was forced to retire on health grounds. He died in 1975.

During and after: Despite a career stretching back to the 1920s, Hartnell will always be primarily remembered as the First Doctor.

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Patrick Troughton

Life: 1920-1987. 2nd Doctor: 1966-1969.

Before: A Second World War veteran and an experienced character actor appearing in everything from Z-Cars to Jason of the Argonauts.

During: Troughton’s stint is fondly remembered as the man who saved the series once Hartnell retired but he quit after being overworked by a punishing schedule.

After: Troughton was far more than just the Second Doctor. His most famous non-Who role was as the unfortunate priest in horror classic The Omen. He was a regular on TV (A Family at War, the Box of Delights) before his death in 1987. His sons David and Michael are distinguished actors today.

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Jon Pertwee

Life: 1919-1996. 3rd Doctor: 1969-1974.

Before: A veteran of comedies such as The Navy Lark and small roles in Sixties Carry on films, Pertwee was seriously considered for the role of Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army before Arthur Lowe got it. By coincidence, Jon’s cousin Bill Pertwee was cast as Warden Hodges in the same show,

During: The first Doctor Who to appear in colour. Boosted the series after it was once again left at low ebb by Patrick Troughton’s departure. He is still a favourite amongst older Who fans.

After: Pertwee is as famous for his role in the sinister children’s series Worzel Gummidge and for voicing Spotty on the cartoon Superted.  He died in 1996. His son Sean Pertwee is known for roles in the films Dog Soldiers, Event Horizon and slightly more macho roles than his father.

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Tom Baker

Born: 1934, age 79. Fourth Doctor: 1974-1981.

Before: Like Troughton, Baker crops up in a Sinbad film.
During: The famously eccentric Baker played the Doctor for longer than anyone else. He is usually ranked alongside David Tennant as the most popular of the Time Lords.

After: He has one of the most recognisable voices in the UK and his narration on comedy series Little Britain was crucial to its success. Despite numerous roles (Blackadder II, The Life and Loves of A She Devil) it may be that Baker’s eccentricity have denied him true stardom. He remains much better known for the Doctor than anything else.

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Peter Davison.

Born: 1951, age 62. Fifth Doctor: 1981-1984.

Before: Best known as vet Tristan Farnham in James Herriot TV drama All Creatures Great and Small. He was also the “dish of the day” who briefly appears in TV’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and was married to Sandra Dickinson who played Trillian in that series.  The couple wrote and performed the songs on children’s show Button Moon.

During: Davison had a tough act to follow in Tom Baker, particularly as Davison was the youngest ever Doctor (by some way) at the time. But he was a popular Doctor in the end.

After: Had a healthy career in the Eighties on All Creatures Great and Small, A Very Peculiar Practice (alongside David Troughton) and remains a likeable presence on TV today. Davison Is also the father in law of David Tennant strengthening his ties to the Who empire still further.

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Colin Baker

Born: 1943, age 70. Sixth Doctor: 1984-1986.

Before: Baker is the only previous actor (before Peter Capaldi) to have appeared in a previous episode of the series as another character. He played Colonel Maxil in the 1983 Peter Davison story Arc of Infinity.

During: An unhappy spell as the Doctor. Baker was so annoyed after being sacked that he refused to participate in the traditional regeneration sequence forcing Sylvester McCoy to use a curly wig and hide under special effects. Some have suggested a link between Baker’s firing and his first wife Liza Goddard’s relationship with BBC 1 controller Michael Grade.

After: Baker was recently on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!

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Sylvester McCoy

Born: 1943, age 69. Seventh Doctor:

Before: A regular presence on children’s TV in the Eighties appearing in Eureka (a sort of Horrible Histories about the origins of inventions), Jigsaw and Tiswas.

During: Initially criticised for being too comedic, McCoy was Doctor when the show was cancelled in 1989. Few blame this solely on him, however. The show was in decline throughout the Eighties.

After: Enjoyed perhaps his biggest role ever this year as the eccentric Radagast in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films.

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Paul McGann

Born: 1959, age 53.

Eighth Doctor: 1996.

The most famous of the McGann brothers, he was the unnamed “I” in Withnail and I (1986), World War I deserter Percy Toplis in The Monocled Mutineer.

The 1996 TV movie was a disastrous flop. Few blame McGann for this although his career probably hasn’t benefited from talking the role. He remains a busy actor though.

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Christopher Eccleston

Born: 1964. age 49.

Ninth Doctor: 2005

Before: A well known name from roles in Cracker  and Our Friends In The North on UK TV in the Nineties and film parts in Danny Boyle’s debut Shallow Grave,  as the rebellious Earl of Essex in Elizabeth and the villain in Gone In Sixty Seconds (alongside Nicholas Cage and Angelina Jolie).

During: Eccleston’s Doctor was popular and successfully revived the series in 2005. But Eccleston seems never to have intended to be a long running Doctor and announced he would step down after one series following the screening of his well received first episode.

After: Has played John Lennon  in Lennon Naked on TV and remains buy in film and TV but it’s hard to tell if he benefitted from playing the Doctor or not.

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David Tennant

Born: 1971, age 42.

Tenth Doctor: 2005-2010.

Before: Best known for his roles in TV’s Blackpool and Casanova before being cast as the Doctor at about the same time as being cast as Barty Crouch in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

After: One of the most popular Doctors, Tennant has benefitted from the role more than any other actor. He is now a hugely acclaimed star of stage (particularly Shakespearian roles) and screen (Broadchurch, The Politician’s Husband, Munich air disaster drama United! and many more).  Yet to achieve film star status, he is nevertheless hugely successful and has escaped typecasting.

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The Regeneration game: who will be the new Doctor?

ImageMatt Smith’s replacement as the Doctor will be announced in a special programme broadcast on Sunday. But with the show enjoying its fiftieth birthday celebrations in November, who will get the top job?

It is actually virtually impossible to say but here are a few guidelines based on past regenerations…

It is unlikely to be anyone famous.

Be warned: even after the new Doctor is announced on Sunday, your first question on hearing the name in question may well be appropriate: who???

For if history has taught us anything about the Doctor Who selection proves, it is that generally less famous names tend to get it. As with James Bond, those casting seem to prefer seasoned relatively familiar actors for the role rather than household names or out and out unknowns. Very famous and successful actors are also less likely to want to be tied down by the role.

Who, after all, knew Matt Smith well, when he was selected as the youngest ever Doctor (at 25) in 2010?

The actor was a familiar face to fans of TV’s critically acclaimed drama Party Animals (which also featured rising stars Andrea Risborough and Andrew Buchan). But that series was never a ratings hit and few had Smith down as a potential timelord.

The same might be said of David Tennant who was booked as the second of the new Doctors in 2005 once Christopher Eccleston quit soon after his first episode had been screened. Tennant was making a name for himself in shows such as Dennis Potter-eque musical drama Blackpool (alongside future Who co-star David Morrissey). He had also starred, more tellingly, in Casanova, a series written by Russell T Davies, who had, of course, revived the science fiction franchise. Tennant was immediately mooted as a possible successor to Eccleston. The role has probably boosted Tennant’s career more than any other actor. He is now a household name and has escaped typecasting.

Christopher Eccleston , who was picked to star in the series on its return in 2004 was, in fact, more famous than most new Doctors, perhaps explaining why he relinquished the role so quickly. He had already starred in Our Friends In The North and on the big screen in Gone In Sixty Seconds.

Yet he was still less famous than Alan Davies, Richard E Grant and Eddie Izzard: all names thrown into the rumour mill as possible Doctors the time.

It is unlikely to be anyone who has already been in the series already.

Oddly, a consistent feature of speculation is that someone who has already appeared in the series before will be picked as the next Doctor.

This explains why names such as David Morrissey (who did play a sort of alternative Doctor in one Christmas Special, Paterson Joseph (best known as Johnson in Peep Show)  and Russell Tovey are sometimes mentioned.

Even more bizarrely, John Simm, who played the Master was strongly mooted last time as a successor to David Tennant have been the likes of Alex Kingston, Billie Piper and Jenna-Louise Coleman.

Ignoring the fact, only Morrissey, Simm and Joseph on this list would really fit the bill anyway (and the first two were probably too successful to want it), I’m prepared to bet having appeared in the series before would generally count against you being picked as the new Doctor.

Although it should be noted Freema Agyeman was picked as assistant in 2006 soon after playing a small role in the show.

A female Doctor?

This has never happened before but this is the fiftieth anniversary year so why not? The Daily Mail has also stated its opposition to this occurring which seems as good a reason for having a female in the Tardis as any.

The element of surprise

Several plausible names have been mooted in recent days:

Peter Capaldi:  Probably a little bit too famous for the role since The Thick of It and with too much to lose. Recent Doctors have tended to be younger too (he is 55) although he would doubtless be great in the role.

Ben Whishaw: In theory ideal, but perhaps unlikely as his film career is taking off.

Ben Daniels: Possible.

Rory Kinnear: Possible.

Alex Kingston: No.

Jenna-Louise Coleman: Unlikely.

I doubt it will be any of these, however. The one certainty here is that the new Doctor will be a total surprise.

 And even that isn’t certain.

 

The 11 Doctors

1. William Hartnell (1963-1966)

2. Patrick Troughton (1966-1969)

3. Jon Pertwee (1970-1974)

4. Tom Baker (1974-1981)

5. Peter Davison  (1982-1984)

6. Colin Baker (1984-1986)

7. Sylvester McCoy (1987-1996)

8. Paul McGann (1996)

9. Christopher Eccleston (2005)

10. David Tennant (2005-2010)

11. Matt Smith (2010 – 2013)

Top 5 finest British political TV dramas

Political thriller Secret State has now come to an end. But what other series deserve a place amongst the best British TV political dramas of all time?

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The Deal

Year: 2003

The plot:  It’s 1983 and when a newly elected young Labour MP Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) finds himself sharing an office with a hardworking Scot, Gordon Brown (David Morrissey), he soon recognises his dour companion could one day be a future Prime Minister. But as the next decade rolls on it is Blair, not Brown whose populist instincts gradually put him ahead and by 1994, the two friends are forced to make a tough decision concerning their own, their party and their nation’s future.

The series: The first of Peter Morgan’s “Blair Trilogy” starring Sheen, before the film The Queen and the later (somewhat inferior) Special Relationship. At the time, critical attention focused more on David Morrissey’s uncanny portrayal of Brown than on Sheen’s Blair. Other interesting casting included Dexter Fletcher as Charlie Whelan and Frank Kelly (Father Ted’s drunken Father Jack) as Labour leader John Smith.

Remade?: No. Peter Morgan’s next project The Audience will focus on the different relationships the Queen has had with her various PMs during her long reign.

Basis in reality?: Clearly based on reality. Although Blair and Brown have both denied any deal (namely that Blair agree in advance to stand down in favour of Brown after an agreed time lapse) was ever made.

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A Very British Coup

Year: 1988

The plot: Former Sheffield steelworker Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally) has been elected Labour Prime Minister in a landslide. The Establishment (the Civil Service, media, MI5 as well as the CIA) do not like this one bit and soon conspire together in the hope of triggering Perkins’ downfall.

The series: Based on the novel by onetime Labour MP Chris Mullin and discussed more thoroughly in my recent blog entry. The excellent McNally tragically died soon after playing Perkins.

Remade?: In the UK as The Secret State starring Gabriel Byrne. Author Chris Mullin enjoyed a brief cameo as a vicar but the plot – which centred on the aftermath of the disappearance of a Prime Minister as his plane flew over the Atlantic – was very different.

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GBH

Year: 1991

The plot: Charismatic Trotskyite Labour politician Michael Murray (Robert Lindsay) has taken over the council of a northern city and soon calls for a “Day of Action”. This soon turns into a very personal battle with local schoolteacher Jim Nelson (Michael Palin) who resists. But Murray has more than a few skeletons in his closet, notably a traumatic childhood incident and various figures on the Right are soon seeking to frame him for a series of racial attacks.

The series: Alan Bleasdale’s series initially portrayed Murray as a clear villain, then a figure of fun (a sequence in which a twitchy, over-stressed Murray attempts to acquire condoms is hilarious) before ultimately becoming a very sympathetic and somewhat tragic figure. Julie Walters, who played Lindsay’s wife in their next Alan Bleasdale drama Jake’s Progress, here plays his elderly Irish mother. In reality, Walters is slightly younger than Lindsay.

Basis in reality?: Derek Hatton, the former Militant deputy leader of Liverpool  City Council criticised the series claiming it was based on him, a charge Bleasdale fiercely denied. Although ultimately an attack on the Right and the extreme Left, many critics at the time seemed to think (wrongly) that Bleasdale had turned his fire on the Kinnock Labour Party.

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House of Cards

Year: 1990

The plot: When scheming Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (the late Ian Richardson) is passed over for promotion by the lightweight new post-Thatcher Tory PM Henry Collingridge, he soon decides to use his own insider knowledge and an attractive young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) to plot for the leadership himself. A gripping story which benefits hugely from Richardson’s brilliant performance and his character’s tendency to speak directly to the camera as well as elements of Shakespearian drama incorporated into the action.

The series: Adapted from Tory insider Michael Dobbs’ novel (which ends differently to the TV version) by Andrew Davies, this spawned two slightly inferior sequels, To Play The King, in which Urquhart clashes with a Prince Charles-like monarch (Michael Kitchen) and The Final Cut.

Remade?: A US TV remake starring Kevin Spacey will appear early in 2013.

Basis in reality?: The timing of the first series was uncanny, with Margaret Thatcher being challenged and overthrown by her old rival Michael Heseltine and being replaced by John Major almost exactly in parallel to the progress of events in the four-part series on TV. Later series got so popular that Urquhart’s evasive catchphrase, “You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment,” was soon being quoted in parliament. The last outing was criticised by some for featuring Lady Thatcher’s funeral, many years before she had actually died in reality.

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Our Friends In The North

Year: 1996

The plot: Four friends travel from youthful optimism to middle age over thirty years from the era of Harold Wilson’s first victory and the Beatles in 1964 to the advent of New Labour and Oasis in 1995.

Nicky (future Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston), a keen Labour supporter drops out of University to assist local politician Austin Donohue (Alun Armstrong), but becomes implicated in civic corruption, then later counterculture terrorism before enduring a horrendous stint as a Labour candidate in 1979.

Geordie (future James Bond Daniel Craig, then largely unknown), flees a broken home only to find an ill chosen surrogate father figure in East End gangland boss Benny (Malcolm McDowell).

Tosker (Mark Strong), seeks pop stardom, has an unhappy marriage before becoming, despite being in many ways the stupidest and least likeable of the four,  the most successful, establishing himself as a keen Freemason and Thatcherite.

Mary (Gina McKee, who is also in The Secret State), is caught up in an awkward love triangle between the unsuitable Tosker and true love Nicky. She later becomes a New Labour MP.

The series: A wonderful sprawling series this had a long gestation period, originally as a play with the action only going up to 1979.

Remade? No, although there has been talk of a US remake.

Basis in reality?: Although fictional, this drew heavily on real events. Austin Donohue’s character was based on real-life city developer T. Dan Smith, while a character played by future Downton Abbey author Julian Fellowes owed a lot to Tory Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling. Revelations concerning police corruption, 1970s anarchist movements and events during the Miner’s Strike of 1984 also played a major part in the story.

James Bond vs Doctor Who

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Two great national institutions celebrate their fiftieth anniversaries this year and next: James Bond and Doctor Who. On the face of it, the two franchises could not be more different. One is a sci-fi TV series arguably aimed at children, the other a serious of sexually charged action films. But beneath the surface, the two are more similar than they seem. Consider:

  1. Both began at a very similar time. The first Bond film Dr No was released in October 1962, the same month as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Doctor Who first graced British TV screens on November 23rd 1963: the day after President Kennedy’s assassination.
  2. Both fizzled out in 1989: Timothy Dalton’s second Bond film License to Kill turned out to be the last for a while. Some blamed the end of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall had fallen: who should Bond fight now? In fact, the success of Die Hard raised the stakes as far as action film budgets were concerned and with the British film industry then in the Thatcher-era doldrums, Bond couldn’t compete. Doctor Who’s end, meanwhile, is sometimes blamed on the malice of BBC controller Michael Grade. Grade freely admits he disliked the series. But in truth, like Bond, Doctor Who had been in a state of decline for some time.
  3. Both came back in the mid-Nineties (sort of):  Bond returned in style with Goldeneye in 1995 and a new Bond, Pierce Brosnan.  Brosnan would star in three more Bond films. Doctor Who’s “comeback” in a 1996 TV movie starring Paul McGann was widely seen as a flop. Although ironically the show did see the Doctor behaving more like James Bond.
  4. Both came back AGAIN about six years ago: Brosnan was replaced with Daniel Craig and the whole franchise got a reboot with Casino Royale in 2006. The year before Russell T. Davies finally re-launched Doctor Who properly with Christopher Eccleston enjoying a one series run as the Doctor and ex-teen pop star Billie Piper as assistant Rose Tyler. The Doctor has regenerated twice since then but has been with us ever since.
  5. Both franchises replace their star every few years: The Doctor famously regenerates whenever the lead actor fancies calling it quits, something that first occurred when the elderly first Doctor William Hartnell left early in the series’ life in 1966 and transformed into the physically dissimilar Patrick Troughton. The “regeneration” device has proven very handy over the years. Matt Smith became the Eleventh Doctor in 2010. As there is no obligation for the Doctor’s different personas to physically resemble each other, this has led to some wide ranging choices. Generally the actors seem to have got gradually younger over time, although all have been male. Bond, in contrast, doesn’t regenerate and is supposed to be the same character. Casting directors have generally gone for reasonably well known but never exactly famous thirty something British actors for the role: Craig is more different than any of the others, simply because he’s blonde. There is only a slight sci-fi element to Bond, of course, but it is odd that we are expected to believe the same man has stayed roughly the same age for fifty years.
  6. Doctors on average change at a faster rate than Bonds. Assuming Matt Smith is still Doctor in one year, there will have been on average one doctor for every four and a half years. Bond actors usually last for an average of just over eight years. There have been six so far.
  7. Iconic music and title sequences: The haunting Who theme has changed gradually over time as the floating head has (until recently) changed from one Doctor’s into another during the title sequence. The main Bond theme has remained unchanged through the decades although each film has, of course, seen a range of different themes by artists as diverse as Nancy Sinatra, Duran Duran, Tom Jones and (on three occasions) Shirley Bassey. The Bond title sequences have also grown increasingly imaginative and, at times, eccentric.
  8. Girls: Bond girls have ranged from Ursula Andress, Barbara Bach, Kim Basinger and Halle Berry. The Doctor, in dramatic contrast seems almost completely asexual. Yet his “companions” (who are occasionally male) have included Bonnie Langford, Katy Manning and many others.
  9. Taking the piss: Bond has been parodied extensively. The 1967 Casino Royale (an overblown mess starring Orson Welles, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen) mocked Bond from within. Since then Austin Powers and Johnny English have done so more effectively. Rowan Atkinson interestingly has parodied both Bond (in Johnny English and the TV ads which spawned it) and played a comic Doctor Who in a Comic Relief spoof alongside Julia Sawalha. Filmed in 1999, it was “The Curse of Fatal Death” was the closest thing to a new Doctor Who anyone had seen in years.
  10. The Cleese connection: At the height of his late 70s post Life of Brian/Fawlty Towers fame, John Cleese appeared in the Tom Baker Doctor Who saga City of Death in 1979 (Cleese’s friend Douglas Adams was Script Editor on the story). Much later, Cleese appeared as “R” assistant to “Q” in the Bond film The World Is Not Enough. He actually took over for another “hilarious” turn as the new Q in Die Another Day in 2002. He hasn’t appeared in any Bond films since.
  11. Our Friends in the North: As author Alwyn W. Turner has pointed out, the groundbreaking Nineties BBC drama Our Friends in the North saw both future James Bond Daniel Craig and future Dr Who Christopher Eccleston playing side by side. Eccleston played Nicky Hiutchence, a bearded University drop-out who during the course of the series ran for parliament in a bid to become a Labour MP before becoming a photographer. Craig played his childhood friend “Geordie” Peacock, who falls in with the London criminal element and ultimately faces a bitter struggle with alcoholism and homelessness.

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