Darrol Blake Interview Part II: Directing for the BBC and Thames Television in the 1960s and 1970s

Untransmitted episode of 'Doomwatch' (BBC1, 1972)

Untransmitted episode of ‘Doomwatch’ (BBC1, 1972)

In July 2011 Leah Panos and myself had the good fortune to interview veteran television director Darrol Blake in his Barnes Bridge home. In a career that spans fifty years, Darrol started as a Design Assistant at the BBC in the 1950s, going on to become a Production Designer and then direct for the BBC, before becoming a freelance director for both the BBC and a range of ITV companies from the 1970s onwards. In Part One of our interview Darrol talked about working as a designer at the BBC in the 1950s and 1960s, working on a diverse range of programmes made in several different studios. In Part Two he discusses his experiences as a director for the BBC and at Thames Television.

Directing for the BBC: 1960s

BS. Which jobs as a designer were you especially proud of?

DB. Perhaps Take a Sapphire. I did several things with Ned Sherrin, because what he wanted to do was musicals, and the fact that he directed Tonight and talks programmes was for money, what he was really doing was writing musicals with Caryl Brahms. After That Was The Week That Was Ned Sherrin could write his own ticket and he could use anyone in the Corporation who he liked to work on the show. So he was my patron. Somebody like Ned would actually see potential in somebody who was in an inferior position and would work to help them. I’d worked a bit on That Was The Week, did the whole of Not So Much A Programme, More A Way of Life, which was the Friday-Saturday-Sunday version of the satire bit, and then he said, “We’re doing these big one-off musicals in between series” and that was very enjoyable. We were walking down Lime Grove where his office was and he said, “Oh, I’ve asked for you for the autumn again” because the BBC were making him go around again with the satire bit, so I said, “Ugh! Not as designer, you haven’t” He said “Oh yes, you’re the one who wants to be a director. What do you know about it?” So a piece of paper went very high up the BBC and landed on Dick Levin’s desk and it said, “You will loan Darrol Blake to Ned Sherrin for six months’ attachment”. And I was directing the pilot of BBC-3, which was the third attempt at the satire bit. Ned wanted to call it Its All Been Done Before and we said, ‘No, I don’t think that’s a very good idea’. Because That Was The Week That Was had been called TW3 and because BBC2 had just started and because Ned was working virtually straight to the governors because it was such a hot potato it was like having his own channel so we called it BBC3. And people used to say, “Oh, I can’t get that” “No, its on BBC1” “But you said it was BBC-3” And that was patronage but thank God, because it got me out of the design department.

 But then I was away attached for six months and then I had to go back to the design department, and that awful man I pointed out, James Bould said, “We are short of designers! We are six short, come and be three of them!” And we decided to get married at this point and everyone in the department knew that I was getting married and I thought, ‘Oh I’d better put in for some leave’. And I wandered in to the design manager’s office, looked at the thing on the wall and there was a show for me to design about three days after I was due to get married. I said, ‘That is a joke isn’t it?’ ‘No’ so I went in to see James and he said, “Leave is a privilege, not a right!” “I’m getting married!” “Doesn’t affect me.” So, we had a weekend in a friend’s house in Surrey somewhere and I came back and sat there on a tiny design job in one of the smallest studios, Jury Room it was called, and my assistant could have done it, but he insisted I do it. So I got through the dress rehearsal and there was a fairly new director doing it. I said, “Are there any notes for me?” he said “no” and I thought “I’ll go to Venice, then”

BS. So how did you finally become a staff director?

DB. I was never a staff director. One – When Ned got me onto directing BBC-3 – which was an official attachment for six months – I was still under contract as a designer. I was only a year or at most 18 months into this three-year contract. So we’d been doing this show live for quite a while, six or eight weeks and of course Ken Tynan said that word, and the audience leapt up from about four or five million to nine million and there were questions in the house. And I suddenly thought, ‘I wonder if I’m due for an ERR?’ which was an extra responsibility reward, which in any part of the BBC if you were acting in a post above your station you got ERR, as I’d been directing a live show every week. So I went in to the AA, the admin assistant of the current affairs department who were producing it, I said who I was and what I was doing. He said, “I’ll look into it”, so I didn’t hear anything. Then I happened to see him in a corridor and he said, “God! You’re being paid far more as a designer than you would be as a PA director in telly current affairs – stay where you are!” Dick Levin was very good at both getting credits on screen and paying designers.

 Then I was ordered back into the design department for three months in 1966. The BBC decided to go around again with more BBC3 even though Ned had gone off to the movies, bought the entire team together without Ned and we were a riderless horse. The put a man in that had never previously done anything faster than one programme every nine months and he was a complete disaster, a nice man, very nice sense of humour, but not a clue. We were live every Saturday but he was still having postmortems about the previous show on the Tuesday. No! You should be commissioning writers to do material by then. So John Bird, John Fortune, John Wells and Eleanor Bron used to meet at my flat in Hampstead to decide what to do, and then we’d go into the office and tell him. It was awful. Finally, we went upstairs to Michael Peacock who was Controller of BBC1 at the time and said, “Take us off. Please!” He said, “No no no – give it till Christmas and I’ll find you another producer” So he gave us jolly Jack Gold, who was a wonderful bloke and had never worked in the studio before in his life, he made films and before that had been a film editor, he didn’t know anything about a live show. So it was again very much on my shoulders, with a wonderful floor manager and team and everything and John Wells, John Fortune, John Bird, Barry Humphries and Eleanor were a great gang. John Bird, particularly is such a good actor. He came and played a bishop for me in Emmerdale years later. But it was not a happy period; it was the fag end of the satire period.

BS. Was Alan Bennett still in it then? He was in some of them.

DB. No, Alan Bennett was only ever a guest in BBC-3. God, I’ll never forget it, he and John Bird were going to do a sketch about the various councils up and down the country commissioning art, statues and artworks to be in the front of their town halls and things, something like this. So they decided that they were going to play a sculptor and a town councilor in this sketch, but they wanted the base of a totally representational statue. So I got some eleven-foot legs made in jaboilite and a great big fake marble stock base commissioned on the Tuesday for the Saturday. This was all under way somewhere and we’d go to the office and improvise and set the sketch, when Alan Bennett suddenly came up to me in my office and said, “I can’t think of anything to do. I’m going to the dentist” and never came back. So John Bird and John Fortune improvised a sketch on the day, really around these eleven-foot legs with terrible puns like, “El Greco? Leonard Greco, he’s on his last legs” – that’s why I remember Alan Bennett. Another silly story is that he was born and grew up in Leeds just around the corner from where Anne [Cunningham, Blake’s wife] grew up and to her they were Bennett’s the Butchers, because his father was a butcher.

 One of the things that had happened in 1958 when I was assisting Natasha was the launch of Monitor, and what happened subsequently was that an entire department, Music and Arts, was created as the son and grandson of Monitor, and there were a load of producers around who specialized in music programmes and arts programmes about painters and writers. Humphrey Burton, who had been a production assistant on Monitor became head of Music and Arts while I had been doing all these satire things, and Music and Arts became a sort of indulgence corner where people would arrive and spend loads of money on fantastic films. And because I’d spent my life in the television studio up to that point I thought that I’d get out and learn how to make films. So I happened to see Humphrey Burton in the corridor one day and said, “I’d love to come and work for your department”. So he said, “Oh, great yeah okay. There’s an advertisement on the board at the moment for a producer. Oh, it’s closed – well, put in for it anyway” And I put in for it and got it without a board interview, which was unheard of because you always had to sit before a board which had got a Personnel person and a producer and a sort of Joker person from that department who wasn’t really involved with what they were doing who would actually trip you up if he or she could, four or five people usually.

 Suddenly I was in Arts Features. What had happened was that something called London Weekend Television had started and Humph had gone off to join them, so there were loads of people left in Arts Features to whom he’d promised this that and the other running around with no leadership. So they found someone new to be head of department, but they decided to have a weekly topical arts magazine, colour was looming, and a woman called Lorna Pegram – who’d been one of those women who’d let me direct back in the days when I’d been a designer for women’s programmes, a department that had subsequently been swept away because they’d decided that afternoon programmes should be properly financed – was now in that department as an editor of this new review. It was initially called Release and there were just a sort of job lot of us who had been promised the earth by Humphrey thrown onto this magazine programme. She and I got on terribly well and always had. I was one of the producers on it as well as director, and a man called Colin Nears who had been in schools television a lot was the other producer. And Gavin Millar, who is now a very distinguished drama director and loads of other people who have gone on to have extraordinary careers who were then quite young were all there, and we just endlessly made films and studio items for a topical arts magazine that was the first weekly show in colour. Before that I’d worked on Our World in 1967, the first ever satellite television programme.

BS. Was that the global live thing where The Beatles preformed ‘All You Need Is Love’?

DB. Yes, it was the first time that satellites were used to send pictures all around the world. I did three months on it and I was the director of all the bits in between the inserts from all of the other countries. There was a marvelous man called Noble Wilson who was directing in TC1 Gallery, I was in TC2 Gallery directing the TC1 floor, which had Bleriot’s plane and graphics and all sorts of things. It was the most extraordinary programme and it was a story in itself. That happened because a head of Science Features, Aubrey Singer, got this idea, went around the world twice. The first time nobody would talk to him, but in between he got The Beatles on board and then the whole world wanted to join in at that point and they were fighting to contribute to the programme. And so apparently while he was pulling the programme together he went to Michael Peacock and said, “Who’s your best studio director?” Michael Peacock told me, “I didn’t know what he meant. What does he mean? Who’s used to chaos? Ah yes, Darrol”

 So I was put forward as the studio director for this epic global production and it was absolutely fascinating. But the excitement of the two-hour transmission was just enormous and three months later we all gathered to watch a recording of the programme and it was the most boring programme that I’ve ever seen in my life. The excitement of actually doing it was extraordinary; babies were born on cue in Mexico and Denmark, people shot rapids, I cued a tram in Melbourne from *Television Centre when it was five in the morning there. Nowadays you’d just take it for granted, but getting pictures out of Australia for instance was quite something.

Directing for the BBC: 1970s

 It was from doing Our World and Release that I went freelance, because I still hadn’t finished the three years as a designer when I got this job as a producer at Arts features. After three years of that I think that I just asked to be released from my contract. And then Lorna got fired and at last I got transferred to drama series and did those Doomwatches and Onedin Lines.

 Even in the 1970s, we were still recording as live. When I was doing The Onedin Line, The Regiment, Doomwatch and all that stuff, you camera rehearsed for a day and a half, and then you taped everything for two and a half hours in the evening. It was like a weird cross between working in the theatre and making a B-movie. If it was a fifty-minuter you had two and a half hours. So you could stop the tape to change costumes or shift the cameras round or whatever, but nevertheless it was tight.

BS. We saw the banned episode of Doomwatch (‘Sex and Violence’, 1972) the other day. We were talking about the interpolated footage of the execution –

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DB. I got that clip from 24 Hours, it had already been transmitted.

LP. So the programme’s banning can’t have been for that reason.

DB. Oh no, it was because the public standards committee in the drama was a parallel of something that was actually happening simultaneously with the Longford Committee on which Cliff Richard was the pop star, and Mary Whitehouse’s ‘Clean Up TV’. But we were due to go out before the real committee had actually reached their conclusion, and I think the BBC was just frightened of the moral majority.

 What happened was that was the end of my two years in drama series and I’d been doing virtually a show a month – at one point I was doing three shows at once, an Onedin Line, something on BBC2 called Shadow of the Tower and I was editing a Paul Temple. And at the end of the two years we borrowed a house in the south of France for a month, we couldn’t have afforded it, we had three children by then. When we came back I was out of work and it was the first time it had ever happened to me. To transfer from arts programmes to drama series I’d gone freelance so therefore I was hired show by show. But it just so happened that I’d managed to get a constant flow of work in BBC drama series.

 So when I came back from France I bought a Radio Times and ‘Sex and Violence’ wasn’t there. So I rang Terry Dudley, the producer, and he said, “Ahh… What made me think that I’d told you?” What happened was that the BBC had got cold feet about it and David Attenborough who was then Director of Television was consulted – he hated being in the office anyway, and wanted to go and run up trees and things – was in the office for a couple of days between trips and said, “Oh, pull it” so they did. Terry Dudley and the head of drama series were both already worried about it, because the words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ were on page one of the script, they were very nervous about it so when they were told to pull it they did. But I think they were more nervous about depicting Lord Longford and Mary Whitehouse. I don’t really know their reasoning, but foolishly the BBC put out a press statement saying that the current series of Doomwatch will be one episode short due to a substandard production. Stuart Douglass who wrote it got on his bike to Television Centre and said, “This is absolute rubbish!” Fortunately his mate, Keith Waterhouse who had a column in the Mirror, had been in the gallery when we recorded it and he took up the cudgels and it was in the Mirror. All of this I knew nothing about because I’d been away for a month. So finally the BBC were forced to put out another press release which said, “Contrary to what we said before, it was really a very good production but the subject is too contentious to be dealt with in 50 minutes, so we’re still not going to put it out”

BS. There’s an extraordinary thing on the tape that happens after the end credits – there’s about 80 seconds of unused footage of reaction shots of horrified responses in the screening room to witnessing the execution, so you could have transmitted the drama with just the soundtrack of the execution playing with that as the pictures.

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DB. I forget where Huw Weldon was at this time, but he’d got very high up at the BBC and his great beef for many years was that the audience should know whether what they were seeing was real or acting, whether it’s a documentary or whether it’s a drama and if you try and blur the two – and of course there was a great move at the time towards doing docudramas – he didn’t like that at all. So that thinking was going on in the sixth floor a lot of the time.

BS. You were making several costume dramas at this time. Did they require a specific way of thinking or particular skills?

DB. No, not really. I’d always been interested in history and as a designer I was aware of costume and period architecture and stuff like that, and I was brought up on Gainsborough melodramas. No, whatever the scene, whether its 1978 or 1911 or 2020 you try to put together something which is believably of that period. So the people don’t clutch each other in 1911, I don’t know where you’ve picked it up but you have, you’re just aware of how people behaved in those days. But its absolutely dependent on what’s on the page, how persuasive and how authentic the writer has been. No, you attack any script with the same… forensic concentration!

LP. As a director, obviously all of your experiences in design would have helped in thinking about a certain way about how things look, but you’ve also talked about enjoying working with actors. So how did you divide your time between planning how things were going to work and planning shots and so on and focusing on performance?

DB. Well, you have a preparation period in which all that is done and I found that terribly easy. I know that there’s something wrong with a script if I’m not seeing pictures and hearing voices on the second reading. If its still not happening there then there’s something adrift, but normally even the first time that I read it, I can see where it is and even hear the voices. Particularly on a series or serial when it’s all pretty well pre-cast, so you can hear the voices of the characters. If you can’t, then there’s something wrong with the writing!

BS. There’s an interview with Douglas Camfield in Screen in 1970 where he talks about having an “inner eye” when he reads a script and bad television directors not having it and being able to tell which ones don’t.

DB. Oh right. It may be something to do with being a designer, but I can always see the show already.

BS. We were thinking when we were watching a few of your productions that you have a particularly sympathetic approach to the work of designers, in that you always show the set to its best advantage.

LP. Things just tended to look good! The stately home in Doctor Who (‘The Stones of Blood’, BBC1, 28 October – 18 November 1978) for instance.

BS. You were confident about using low lighting as well, which a lot of directors at that time weren’t.

DB. Yes, but you see one of the things that used to get up my nose when I was in the design department was – it didn’t always happen to me, because I counted a show as being a success because we put on the screen what the director and I had planned to do, and that to me was, ‘We got 90% there, okay he didn’t take this or that shot in the end, so we didn’t see that £100 thing’. But you’d see other designers at the next drawing table or whatever and you’d go on to watch their work having seen it in the studio and you couldn’t see anything, and surely the director should have told the designer that he was going to do it like that, so you could have done it in black drapes or whatever. But you’d get things like massive double-storied sets, which you then didn’t see. I have to reveal that my flat mate and best man was one Ridley Scott, and he would rush up a blind alley in everything he designed, and the director was always an idiot. I can remember that he used to sit up until five in the morning making these fantastically complicated models. I’ll never forget it; this was a Matt Monro Show in the television theatre for Yvonne Littlewood, a light entertainment director, nice lady. Rid designed this thing which was a giant spiral and what he actually used were paper doilies, so it was enormously intricate, and the scene boys hated him, they always hated his shows because they were such heavy going. And, I kid you not, that was all that you saw on Matt Monro was a close-up – that was predictably what you would see, just Matt Monro singing his little heart out. And that, to me, was a mistake between the two of them, Yvonne and Ridley.

BS. Another series that you worked on at this time was Paul Temple, which was groundbreaking in being a co-production with West Germany. Did that affect the way in which it was made?

DB. Oh yes, Taurus Film in Munich. Well, the film sequences were shot in 35mm, which was very grand, and the reason for that was the film, which normally would have been 16mm, played through the studio on tape and was then taken to Technicolour and put onto film because Taurus Film produced film series for the world. So therefore the degradation of the picture from 16mm to videotape back to film would have been awful, so it was shot on 35mm. The story that I did, which was set in Switzerland, was sent over to Munich with a German director who was doing one at the same time. His was set in Munich at the bierfest and he hired a couple of German actors and I hired one German girl, the other German actors were already resident in London. I went to St Moritz at the height of the season, paid for by Taurus Film, and Ros Drinkwater, who played Steve Temple, got I’ll in Munich, she’d done the Munich shoot and then collapsed with flu, so she couldn’t work in St Moritz. So Derrick Sherwin, the producer had his wife Jane out with him and she doubled for Ros in long shots, and we went on to have to do the dialogue scenes back in the studio with back projections. It was just ludicrous having spent all that money to have to do these scenes in Television Centre. Anyway, we were actually grinding away on a 35mm back projection plate of just the street.

BS. I’ve read you articulating your dislike of productions that combine film and studio scenes.

DB. Yes, piebald productions, that’s my phrase for it. It just so happened that that’s what one was pitched into when you got into drama in 1970. You did locations on 16mm and it was edited to within a hair’s breadth and musiced and effects put on, and then you cut to the studio and there’s a different sound and a totally different texture and usually not nearly as many cuts as there were in the film sequences. So I was always very careful to ensure that the same eye looked at the film location as looked at the studio, and try to sort of marry it together in that way. But film editors would still put, if you had shots of people in trainers running on grass, footsteps onto it.

BS. Something that I always find odd about how dramas were put together in this period was that your fortnight of rehearsal for the studio would be after you’d already shot the film. So actors would have to establish their interpretation of their characters before they’d rehearsed.

DB. Well, for the most part you were using series people, so the performance – such as it was – was established anyway. And if you had a big guest performer then very often they were entirely on film, or they were just seen arriving in a car or something so you’d have a chance to rehearse their interpretation in the studio, or sometimes you’d have to commit yourself on location. But watching other people’s shows I quite often spotted quite bizarre changes between location and studio, somebody in the studio would have a heavy Irish accent and no accent at all on location, and the length of their hair would change between location and studio.

Directing for Thames: 1970s

 But those two years at the beginning of the seventies was wonderful. I thoroughly enjoyed doing The Onedin Line, The Regiment and all those things, and then I went off to Thames for two years. I did three Armchair 30 plays for Joan Kemp-Welch, she was also producing Armchair Theatre. I was hoping to do one of those, but there were another shenanigans that got me out of that – she was told not to use me. I know why that was. It was a personality thing, I apparently got up somebody’s nose and therefore I was not to be trusted as a director. It was all very silly. But it was on the board – I had this Armchair Theatre. There was no script yet, but I’d got this date, and when you’re working as a freelance… And then I went in one day and my name wasn’t on the board, it had disappeared. She said, “Oh yes, we’ve lost the recording date” Two weeks later it was back on the board with Dougie Camfield directing it.

 I knew Dougie as a floor manager, of course. Back in the ghetto of the women’s programmes of the late fifties we did a serial called Perido Flight, which was a dramatization of a Victorian novel and he was the floor manager. And then we were directors in the same area. But he died far too young.

 You just don’t know about other directors, you see. There’s only one per show. You inherit an actor or two who’s just been in something wonderful from another director and you say, ‘How did you get on?’ I remember asking one about coming off Wuthering Heights that someone had done again and it was a terrible production and I said, ‘How did you get on with him, then?’ He said, ‘I don’t remember much about it, we played football most of the time’.

BS. When you were at Thames, you worked on the world’s least well-documented series, Harriet’s Back In Town. What on earth was it?

DB. Oh that was an afternoon series. What happened was that the production companies each produced a serial for the afternoons when ITV started daytime television in 1973. YTV produced Emmerdale Farm, Thames made Harriet’s Back In Town, Granada produced Crown Court. Each company produced something and they ran in seasons. Harriet’s Back In Town was about Pauline Yates as Harriet, who was divorced but still friendly with her ex-husband, and her next-door neighbours were in it. It was a very nice show to do; it was just quite a middle-class afternoon serial. It didn’t last, although they might even have done a year. Emmerdale succeeded and Crown Court went on – I did a few of those.

 That’s the reason why I didn’t get Armchair Theatre, I think. What happened was that in the run-up to me doing my episodes I’d go to watch the previous episodes being recorded, and I can remember going to this recording studio – I’d done about 84 Rainbows by then and other kids’ shows as well as the three plays for Joan – and I met a cameraman coming out. He said, “Oh, I can’t stay in there” I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “there’s a man dying in there – I can’t watch it” And the guest lead, an actor named [Mr X.], was having an affair with Harriet and he couldn’t remember the lines. It was just an actor falling apart, which one has seen once or twice in one’s life and it’s not a pretty sight. He was having this terrible time and it was all around the building that [Mr. X] was a disaster. My episodes, which came up a couple of weeks later, were his exit, so I was ready for problems. I didn’t do anything about it, but I knew I was ready. We got to the read through and he went, “Mumble mumble mumble” So I thought, I’m going to have to do something about this now. So I thought that I’d take him to lunch, I went over and I said, “Where are we going for lunch?” and he said “We’re not going anywhere” And the way that he read his lines, the last person to have done that to me had most of his part cut, so I’m going to have to tell him. So we went to lunch separately and then came back to rehearse in the afternoon and suddenly the AFM put a note into my hand that said, “See Jackie at four o’clock” – Jacqueline Davis was the producer. I went in and she said, “How’s the day?” “Not the best of my professional career” – because he’d been very, very strange all day. And she was very buttoned-down, but suddenly it all came out and she said, “What I can’t stand is you rubbishing the show!” What? And this picture of me that [Mr. X] had given her – It turned out that she and [Mr. X] had had an affair in the past, so he’d gone running to her and said he’s useless. Because I’d started to say something to he and Pauline – Pauline was very sweet and was coping with him wonderfully – I started to say, in this style of thing, I was going to say something about the Woman’s Own style of story. And he started to shout at me “OH, TELL US ABOUT THE STYLE! WE’VE ONLY BEEN DOING THIS FOR EIGHT WEEKS, AND YOU COME HERE AND TELL US ABOUT THE STYLE ALL OF A SUDDEN!” That wasn’t what I was going to say; it would have been something quite different. I was gobsmacked. There were various other explosions like that during the day, and somehow he’d gone to the producer and he said that this incompetent fool from the BBC was ruining his life. No, he was ruining his life. And I’m sure that’s the reason why I didn’t get the Armchair Theatre, because Jacqueline Davis had the ear of the head of the department and Joan was persuaded not to use me. So some years later I was doing Crossroads, and guess who was in it? [Mr. X]. So that was an interesting meeting. We sort of tiptoed around each other, it was perfectly polite and he did actually learn the lines and hit his marks that time. Earlier on, he’d probably been in some private, or rather public, collapse. I suppose that I looked like somebody who he could trample all over and he did.

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5 Responses to Darrol Blake Interview Part II: Directing for the BBC and Thames Television in the 1960s and 1970s

  1. Pingback: Darrol Blake Interview Part III: Thirty Years Of Directing Soap Operas | Spaces Of Television

  2. Michael Seely says:

    Darrol Blake, an absolute star. I interviewed him for a book I did on Doomwatch and he was so helpful. The two girls in the pram at the very start of Sex and Violence are his daughters.

    • billysmart says:

      I enjoyed your Doomwatch book very much, Michael. I thought that it struck a good balance of assiduous research and intellegent criticism. I particularly appreciated your use of WAC material, especially the minutes of the Programme Review Board.

  3. Pingback: ‘Armchair Theatre: The Golden Road’ (1973): Representing lesbianism in the 1970s | Spaces Of Television

  4. Pingback: Pat Hooker: Writing for television in the 1970s | Forgotten Television Drama

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