Archive • Speeches

Reading University Speech 1998

READING UNIVERSITY  3rd – 5th  APRIL 1998

 

I am, of course, unqualified to get this show on the road. Having had my head down, ploughing my own furrow over the decades –  what do I know? I’ve been too busy, too pre-occupied, too obsessed, to have an overview. When I first met Michael Jackson, I wasn’t shocked by his youth (in our business the transition from enfant terrible to eminence grise can take only five years). I was shocked that he knew more even about my own life – than I did. He reminded me of things I had forgotten. At this moment I am being judged by a whole conference full of Michael Jacksons and each of you know more about dramatic fiction on British Television than I do.

 

A weekend conference like this would have been inconceivable 30 odd years ago. Richard Hoggart had influenced us all with “Uses of Literacy”, certainly, and Raymond Williams, lonely among the Leavisites, was in Cambridge arguing that there was more to culture than Eng. Lit. — which itself had been an upstart academic discipline just a couple of generations before.

 

But there was not a hint of the explosion of media and cultural studies which was to accelerate and gather momentum — especially in the last few years. You seem to be

for the 90s what sociology was for the 60s. And you know what happened to

sociology. I look on it all with disbelief, coming from a generation which wasn’t

allowed to study someone’s work until after they had been dead for a decent interval.

What emerged at that time came out of a different climate. There was optimism in the air, particularly on the left. The privations of the post war years, and the conformity of the 50s, were giving way to a new energy and openness. We were the best fed working class generation ever — a result, paradoxically, of war-time rationing. We were the Beveridge kids. Butler’s ‘44 Education Act had selected us, and grants paid for us, to be the first working class generation to attend University in any numbers. There was full employment. BBC was recruiting for BBC2 and ITV was booming. Harold MacMillan told us we’d never had it so good.

 

Of all the possibilities, why did so many of us go into television — and insist on working in mainstream popular television? Not get into Parliament, not stay in academic life, not even work in the theatre.

 

Because it was the most exciting place to be. There were just two channels, but the whole nation, it seems, was watching and talking about it the next day. For some of us it was political. Our families didn’t go to the theatre — except the Christmas panto. British cinema was dead in the water. We wanted to occupy that screen to show the Britain we knew, to incite, to express our anger. Angry young men. Very few women, you will notice. There was some self-righteousness in it, as we constructed middle class lives out of dramatising working class experience. So if it is to be understood, the work must be placed in its wider social and political context. Political radicalism, alas, seldom comes out of hard times and defeat, but in times of prosperity and security. I might be best employed tonight if I concentrate on the changing circumstances of our work; how we have got from then to now, as it were. There have been 3 main changes in the last 30 years — structural; the move from studio to location; and the centralisation of decision making. I shall deal briefly with them in turn, and reveal a shift in the locus of power, which has had a profound effect on what we make.

 

But because all that past work doesn’t really interest me, I would then like to take a look at the political and technological realities facing us now — because the present does interest me.

 

I learned in Hollwood that every movie has a power centre — often a star, sometimes a director, or a producer or an agent. Usually a studio executive. The same is true in television drama. The power centre is located in different places at any one time because of strengths of personality and reputation, but there are clearly identifiable general historical shifts.

 

In the early days, before my time, drama got made on a more ad hoc basis. Then Sydney Newman, like Caesar with Gaul, divided BBC Drama Group into three parts – Plays, Series and Serials. Looking forward to an expanding income from colour Licenses and the start of BBC2, he felt the need for specialist departmental heads to help him handle the increased output. In those days, even though the Controllers had the power of the purse, Group Heads were their equal in the BBC hierarchy. No Controller had come up through Drama. No doubt there was much discussion about individual productions and even more about strands and when they should be scheduled. But all drama went through one man. The Controllers could negotiate with no-one but him. Lip service was paid to the regions, but in practice the Head of Drama Group in London ruled absolutely. He visited the regions like a pro-consul.

 

Sydney protected his people from interference. The BBC was feudal. If the Controller was King of the Channel, then programme output heads were very powerful barons.

 

The separation of the roles of producer and director, and the allocation of resources to strands, or runs or blocks of air time — whether of individual dramas in an anthology, or series or serials – created a power shift towards the producer. Having been a producer, Sydney believed in them. For maybe 20 years the broadcasters actually practised as well as preached producer power. Of course the best producers behaved in a collegiate way, not only holding the ring between the writers and directors, but forging an open collaboration between the writer, director and everyone else.

 

The producer was in the driving seat. Any higher in the formal hierarchy and you’re in management, removed from the creative work. If I’d wanted to go into management I’d have joined Shell. Any lower and you’re waiting on the end of a ‘phone, unable to initiate anything. I’d had enough of that as an actor. If you think of our work as divided into the what question, the who question and the how question I knew, the way t.v. was then organised, that as a Producer I could decide the what question — what shall we make? I could decide the who will be the main people involved. And, through careful selection, have a big influence on the how question. But it wasn’t to last.

 

We all have an infantile tendency to think that the universe revolves around us. I’m told that the writer in the theatre is contractually in the ascendant — which maybe is why overweening directors prefer to muck about with the classics, where they can be the centre of attention and do what they like. In the cinema, art film directors are encouraged to believe that they are the authors — the French have a lot to answer for. In the movies a star actor sometimes calls the shots.

 

In British T.V. drama it is now not so clear cut. Everybody complains about being usurped. The move to location film shifted the power from writer to director, or so the writers say; the producers have turned directors into bus drivers – they are given the responsibility of driving it, but others have specified the route, the passengers, the stops, and how long it is to take from Acton to Piccadilly. That’s what directors say. The more controllers and commissioning editors involve themselves in the creative process the more producers are marginalised and treated as nuts and bolts operatives, or so the producers say.

 

Much depends on the model you carry in your head. One such model goes like this: all worthwhile work is the voice of a single writer. Everyone involved is at the service of that voice and must work to produce its expression on the screen. You will notice that if you replace the word “writer” with the word “director” then you have the model for the cinema, the auteur. It’s a struggle for signature rights and possessory credits. It’s also about power.

 

Writers like television drama to be “by” them, just as every kid out of film school likes the phrase “‘un film de”’ Personally I like the custom of everybody just sticking their names next to their jobs.

 

But this one-artist-with-a-vision model is not the only one, because making dramatic fiction for the screen is a collaborative, social activity (unlike a novel or a painting). Some of the best work emerges from the hammering out of a shared vision, where you’re too immersed in the moment to moment creation of the stuff to care whose it is. Afterwards the press will pick on somebody (usually the best known) but that’s just to put a convenient handle on it.

 

Why shouldn’t good work come out of this process? In my experience the writer is usually primus inter pares, but so many are at their best when under scrutiny, and in the rough and tumble of collaboration. Too many do their worst when they become so grand that their word is law. Similarly, puffed up directors, producers and actors.

 

There’s a controversial element missing, of course. The script editor. Very important people — which is why, perversely, too often it’s a starter job given to some kid straight out of college. The pain inflicted on writers by the casual destructiveness of arrogant and ignorant script editors, innocent of what they do, cries out down the years. With apologies to Sartre, one could say that writers are condemned to be edited, in perpetual anguish.

 

But if it is done well writers grow and drama is enhanced. It is a craft and an art in itself in my shop, no untrained kid is unleashed on a writer, and even the experienced script editors work under close supervision.

 

There is one person who is seminal to much of the work you are considering this weekend. Roger Smith. He twisted my arm till I gave up acting to be his assistant. He persuaded Ken Trodd to give up academic life. Academia’s loss was Dennis Potter’s gain. He persuaded Dennis to write for television and commissioned him. As he did many other writers. His job at the time? Script Editor.

 

Trying to rise above these subjective responses, it is clear that the writer did give ground when the single studio play was replaced by the single location film, when anthology drama more or less disappeared. It is also clear that the separation of Producer and Director gave more power to the Producer at the expense of the Director. And that the recent centralisation of decision making has eroded the power and creative clout of the Producer.

 

They talk about creative freedom but actually run a command economy. It reminds me of Drucker’ s story about listening to an executive at General Motors’ Detroit headquarters going on about the “beatitudes of decentralisation”, when the teleprinter noisily coughed up a message. “Pay no attention,” the executive said, “It’s only the Kansas City plant manager letting me know he’s going to lunch.”

 

I don’t see anything to threaten the present balance of power. A lucky group of directors will make films on more or less their own terms, thanks to the lottery money and the traditions of the European art cinema; and what the Americans call a “show runner”, that is a Producer/Lead Writer, may become more of a presence and a creative force over here. But the present settlement looks fixed. The only thing which might disturb it, at the margin, is if some of the talent behind the camera becomes in such demand that it is able to bid up control as well as price, like some on screen talent does. But this won’t be open to many.

 

In the wider economy there has been a general shift from a Producer interest society to a Consumer interest society. The shift wrong-footed the Left. The organised working class had been considered by its leaders to be have-nots who produced goods and services for the haves to consume. But in the post-war Keynsian boom these producers during the day became consumers during the evening and the weekend, and whilst they wished to preserve their restrictive practices, poor customer service and general bloody-mindedness in their own work, increasingly demanded prompt, customer sensitive value for money outside their work.

 

The merits of this shift and the damage it has caused are not the business of this conference, but the business of Television has been affected by it. The producers (I use the word in its widest sense, the creators) have given ground to the consumer, the viewer. This might be beneficial if it forced us to strive more humbly to connect, to reach our audience; in Huw Weldon’s phrase, to make the good popular and the popular good; to sweep away the cultural snobbery which believes that work must be inaccessible and obscure to be any good. But of course, it might also be used to stifle innovation, coarsen and reduce aspiration and narrow what is possible. Just as the market, that great allocator, is not enough, neither are crude ratings.

 

A balance has to be struck between the inner and the outer, between the rights of the individual imagination and the duty to connect with others. The tension between the two is painful but it is our job to live it.

 

The push to commodify our work, alienate us from it and use us for the single purpose of making profits for large corporations, enriches a few but ultimately impoverishes everyone else. This is a political battle — a battle for an ecology of television which facilitates and insists upon that creative tension between the producer and the consumer. If it is lost, then popular culture in Britain will finally become just a branch of manufacturing. Alienated work mocks human capacity. Because T.V. drama doesn’t get made in isolation, as a result of some artistic impulse pulled from the ether.

 

And it is not just a question of what at a particular juncture will be allowed on the screen. It is a question of what it is possible to imagine at a particular juncture. Who could doubt that the smashing of the trade unions and the management’s assertion of the right to manage – the Thatcher settlement – have affected the content of the work, not just working conditions?

 

The generation coming through in this decade – with a few exceptions – lacks attitude, hasn’t found its voice. Too often it tries to reach the broadcaster rather like a frightened schoolchild trying to see by the teacher’s face what the “right” answer is. These young people should be bursting to express what is inside them rather than just responding to external stimuli. But their stance is understandable. Power is centralised and used prescriptively, the industry is atomised, a foothold is difficult to get and easily lost. It is urgently the task of some of us, who enjoyed luckier times when we were finding our voice, to seek out kindred spirits, to link arms with them and help them to speak.

 

It has been suggested to me that I won’t get out of here alive if I don’t stand up to be counted – and possibly shot down – on two questions. Firstly, the destruction of the studio play and secondly, the Golden Age.

 

Lip to the middle 60s location shooting was a small part of the work — the taxi draws up to the house, a woman emerges, pays and goes up to her front door — linking scenes, often devoid of dramatic content. The real work was done multi-camera on three sided sets in a studio. A whole aesthetic had been invented to justify or glorify this way of making drama, but I thought it was crap then and I think it’s crap now. It was a bastard child of 2 forms, the theatre (continuous performance) and cinema (various lengths of lens affording different p.o.v and size of image). Far from constituting an exciting new form, it seemed to me to have the disadvantages and none of the advantages of its parents. The criterial attribute of the theatre is immediate physical presence — a group of people occupy the same space to take part in an unrepeatable event. On each occasion spectators and performers come together in time and space to create something unique.

 

But with T.V. drama the audience is miles away and mediated by the technology; 5 or 6 cameras were deployed around the studio trying to catch the action whilst the whole thing was being simultaneously edited. Cinema on the run.

 

This was the glory, the adrenalin rush of live T.V. drama. There were some wizards at the game and amazing work was achieved. But the aesthetic was a phoney. It was all based on necessity. The performances were continuous because the transmissions were live — recording had not been invented, and when it was, efficient editing was impossible; and when they finally got both together they were expensive of equipment and time. So the aesthetic which glorified the continuous, multi-camera studio “as if live” play was very convenient to management.

 

And even after stop-start shooting and editing became the norm, there were people pining for the old days. Some still are. Well, why not? T.V. ought to be big and diverse enough to include every way of telling stories and exploring character. Any chance of it happening? Work which did not rely on naturalistic sets and prop dressing, which focused on language and the intensity of performance, might make a low cost per hour case to present management. A certain kind of actor would relish the chance, and be available. Some writers would welcome the challenge. There may be a shortage of the technical skills now, but they can be learned afresh; the studios are still there. An anthology series made the way all drama was made 35 years ago? Fine, providing I don’t have to work on it.

 

I’m exploring this issue in this company because you know that I stand accused of having killed the traditional studio play in favour of the move to location filming.

 

It’s true that I fought a bloody battle with the BBC. Even Film Group at Ealing, the people with the most to gain, were against me. The reason? We wanted to use the new, blimped 16mm cameras, light enough to carry on the shoulder. Ealing management were horrified. 16 was for news, not drama. They wanted us to use 35. In the end, with some reluctance, Michael Peacock and Sydney Newman sanctioned a couple of films (10% had to be done in the studio because of the current Equity agreement – so we shot single camera and cut the horrible telecine in to the rest of the film). Michael Peacock (the Channel Controller) was reluctant because he was afraid he would be exchanging high quality studio drama for “B” movies. Some of you may think he was prescient. Sydney, because I had promised to deliver them very cheaply, just asked me why I wanted to die so young.

 

All I wanted was for us to go out into the world, where we could capture the physical conditions of people’s lives, how people actually lived; bring that material back and create a dramatic document. The drive was political as much as aesthetic: so contemptuous was I of so much of what passed for serious T.V. drama at the time, I would have denied any distinction between the two. But we (that is, a handful of like-minded people) were ploughing our own furrow, we had no agenda for T. V. drama in general – we just wanted to do our stuff in our way. It never occurred to me that others would want to leave the studio and follow us out into the world. I was not a pied piper. I didn’t see myself as leading a movement. I only had control of a few hours of screen time.

 

But a trickle soon turned into a tidal wave. It was creatively led – by writers, as much as directors. Many old school producers would rather have stuck with their comfortable ways, sitting in the warm overseeing everything — and not have to visit a shoot in Scunthorpe where it was cold and there were no restaurants. It certainly wasn’t management driven. They were tearing their hair out, and told me so, threateningly. They’d just put up those expensively equipped studios in White City and the regions — and one of their main clients, drama, increasingly wouldn’t be seen dead in them. For some years people were forced to use them.

 

Knee jerk “blame the management” is politically infantile and stalls any serious analysis.

 

You might hear talk of the Golden Age of the 60s – remember the 60s didn’t really get under way till ‘63 and continued into the early ‘70s, maybe till the first Opec crisis.

 

You might also hear sighs of despair about the present – conditions are impossible, prospective good work is hunted down and strangled at birth, the climate is so

oppressive that there is an institutional bias towards mindless, unchallenging pap — the opium of the masses revisited.

 

Well, that would all be very satisfying. Nothing like a self-righteous, paranoid Potteresque rant to get the juices flowing. The trouble is, the useful truths of the matter are more complicated.

 

There was never a Golden Age. Good work was done before the Wednesday Play – in Armchair Theatre, for instance — and afterwards, even recently by people too young to even recognise the name Sydney Newman. Those who believe in the Golden Age have conveniently filtered out the dull and the crap which haunted the screen then as much as now. Little of it would stand up today — we would all cringe in embarrassment at most of it.

 

People who the world has left behind believe in a Golden Age, people who have a personal investment in nostalgia for a world which never existed.

 

Do some of you think there was no political censorship in the 60s? Do you think the BBC even under Greene was some hippy love-in where the English language could be used on the screen as freely as people used it off the screen (like the Controller who told me “If you think you can say ‘fuck’ on my channel you can fucking think again), and where sexuality could be freely and joyfully explored? Do you think the violence lurking in all of us could be displayed realistically? Did I imagine Mary Whitehouse, my old adversary? Did she not fight us every inch of the way? Have we forgotten the man from MI5 in Broadcasting House who put little Christmas trees on our file? I haven’t.

 

I’ll tell you about him. Twice we went to the wire – once on my contract renewal, and then when they refused to hire Roland Joffe, my choice to direct “The Spongers”. Only after I threatened a public row did Alastair Mime, the Director of Television, to his credit, order Roland’s contract through. I know, I was there when he did it.

 

People talk now as though the men who owned commercial T.V. were highly cultivated patrons of the arts devoting their lives selflessly to encouraging risk taking talent. Funny. I thought they were a bunch of capitalists just like the present buggers. A licence to print money. Do you think the men who ran Scottish T.V. for Lord Thompson were any less exploiters of labour or less profit driven or less generally philistine than those who run it now? What kind of selective, sepia tinted, re-writing of history is this? Let old people have their memories, even if they have made them up. But it doesn’t help the present fight to live in the past – study it, by all means, but don’t live in it. Life is not a Hovis ad.

 

Most of my working life I’ve been hearing that drama was in a crisis. Leaving aside the misuse of the word crisis, the doomsters always claim that there is a secret plan by senior management to confiscate air time from anything serious in favour of “a mindless pursuit of ratings”. The trouble with attacking the bosses — and I speak as a lifelong practitioner — is that it can so easily become a means of avoiding self­criticism. If we can blame them for everything, we are all off the hook. You know the first assault on the very existence of the single, stand alone, anthology drama — what used to be called the “single play”? — 1964. Why? Because Donald Baverstock, Controller of BBC1, thought they were expensive and couldn’t deliver the ratings. Sound familiar? Baverstock wanted to divert money to Elwyn Jones, who ran the Series Department, those long running, 1 hour, renewable dramas which are now being accused of swamping the schedule and dumbing down television. (By the way, have you noticed that T.V. and psycho-analysts have something in common? Their hour is only 50 minutes.) So what were these mindless, ratings chasing vulgar series at the expense of the high minded single play? Well, one of them was called Z Cars.

 

In the event Sydney Newman beat Baverstock and the series of singles we had been preparing went out on Wednesday nights. But if we had failed to find and keep an audience, who knows?

 

So the battles had to be fought even then. There have been losses — not surprising when you consider the wider depredations of the last 20 years. The loss of regular anthology drama is one. Perhaps another is even more important. The erosion of stable creative environments in which talent can learn and grow.

 

What of the future of T.V. drama? That is largely predicated on politics and in particular, on the future of the BBC and Channel 4. ITV will be in a dog fight for share as Channel 5 and the digital expansion eat away its audience. But popular drama, some of it very fine, will be made for ITV. Audiences like drama – and despite the cultural snobbery which pollutes these matters — attracting a large audience isn’t an automatic sign of frivolity.

 

Single films will be made in some quantity, at the lower end of the budget scale. They will be financed by a combination of Lottery, private investment, direct T.V. investment (like Film on 4), or indirect (anticipating future T.V. sales). Their makers will have dreams of success in the cinema, or at least their vanity being massaged at film festivals — and because every city in the world now has one, there’ll be an award waiting for everybody. Most of these films will not be distributed in cinemas — many won’t even open. But most will be shown on T.V.

 

As for the multi-channel digital paradise – well, it will bring many exciting things but more original T.V. drama isn’t one of them.

 

So we’re back to the Beeb and Channel 4. It is very important for the ecology of broadcasting, both politically and culturally, that Channel 4 survives as an independent, non-profit company. Privatisation has receded as a threat, but I don’t believe it has gone away.

 

The Beeb is even more important, clearly. Setting aside what I think of the internal changes of the last 10 years — I talked about this on another occasion and don’t want to repeat myself— what of the future? Is it being set up for privatisation? I don’t think so. Is it being set up as a publisher broadcaster retaining its own core news and current affairs capacity? Possibly. Would that matter? Not as much as 2 other things. Political independence and finance.

 

The BBC has traded rather smugly on its reputation for political independence but we know it is a fraud. Reith set the standard in the General Strike and you saw it in the miners’ strike — when it really matters, the Beeb caves in. Thames TV showed more courage by standing up to Thatcher over “Death on the Rock”, and we know what happened to Thames.

 

3 things need to be said in defense of the Beeb. The first is that its very stance of independence (although hypocritical), and the fact that the Government of the day may be the Opposition the day after tomorrow, gives it room to manoeuvre. The second is that although it in the end always takes a great and the good, mandarin view of things, that is very much better than a multi-national corporation view of things.

 

The third is that Government renews the Charter periodically, and fixes the license fee, and neither are automatic. Being on your knees begging for your life, is not the most dignified way of asserting your independence.

 

It’s interesting that the most recent lease of life renewed the Charter for rather longer than the license fee.

 

How long can the license fee survive? As long as the public tolerates it. My Sky subscription is three times the license fee — and soon I’ll be paying even more for the

digital expansion. So the Beeb is clearly good value. But it wouldn’t take many people complaining to their NIPs about having to buy a license whether they watch the Beeb or not, for the very financial base of the Beeb to be called into question.

Which brings us to BBC1 and competitive scheduling and the fight for market share. If BBC faded against ITV, its main competitor, then its whole legitimacy would be called into question. I’m not sure how far it would have to sink, but you can forget BBC2, forget even the radio in this argument (because the whole of BBC radio takes such a small percentage of the license fee). There would be an unstoppable movement. People would just refuse.

 

Remember the reaction to that other poll tax. So many of my left and liberal friends find no contradiction in opposing one poll tax on housing and defending another on television. They are often the same people who are virulent against the Common Agricultural Policy but very much in favour of European subsidies for the Film Industry. I wonder why.

 

So those who want to preserve the license fee but don’t want the Beeb to fight an increasingly desperate ITV for audience share have some questions to answer.

 

Because on this reckoning the most important BBC show, the show on which public service broadcasting depends for its survival, is a show which holds up the schedule 3 nights a week — “EastEnders”.

It may be that the only way of preserving the license fee is to turn BBC1 into a general entertainment channel. Is it a price worth paying?

 

What are the alternatives?

 

Would people pay a graduated subscription for all, or bits of, the BBC menu? Probably, particularly as payment systems become simple and subscription for other services more the norm.

 

Desirable? Yes, if it were part of a re-born BBC structured in a way which would guarantee political independence, be a platform for the diverse voices in our society, be a great cultural and artistic patron and be publicly accountable — all the things some people fear they don’t see in the present Beeb. It would have a direct contract with its audience and be punished by it if contact was lost. The churn rate (those subscribers who don’t renew each month) would be watched more closely than the ratings.

 

This is a big question, bringing with it issues like the right to cultural access and the differences a multi-channel environment will make.

 

But don’t bank on that quaint British custom the license fee surviving beyond the medium term.

Huw Weldon used to say that the joy and the duty of the Beeb (although he called it the Corporation) was to make and schedule a mix of programmes so juxtaposed that one might come across something as a result of watching something else — and that new something would expand the range of one’s taste. After all, we don’t know what we want till we are offered it.

 

There was idealism and nobility in that aspiration, but it won’t survive the digital revolution, which will move towards niche channels. Although the main network channels will survive — and robustly if the American experience is repeated — they will become relentlessly mainstream. Even the news will become infotainment. It won’t be all bad — this is where in America you can find, ER, Bochko and Frasier. The different, the difficult, may find itself in a low budget ghetto.

The BBC is attacked for embracing the new technologies and expanding into them. These critics are facing the wrong target. The Luddites set a poor example.

The real battle is for the BBC’s soul.

Throughout history, people like us have had to use existing structures and make them work for us as best we can. If forced to work in a particular form or genre, then we must try to subvert it, or put new wine in old bottles or find other ways of creating Trojan Horse drama.

Of course the present situation has its difficulties. The danger is that we will so concentrate on the structural problems and the unsympathetic political and economic climate that passivity and defeatism will set in.

 

They owned it then and they own it now. What’s surprising about that? It’s very expensive gear and of real political, economic and cultural consequence — that’s what makes the game worth playing. We’re not indulging ourselves with a play above a pub here. The people we’re dealing with, charming as some of them are, don’t play softball. What’s new?

 

For the second half of the 20th century, my working lifetime, television has been the best place to work — both artistically and politically. Access to that platform, the opportunity to speak to millions of people and have them arguing about it the next day – that’s a privilege worth fighting for. Who said it would be easy? It never was easy. It never will be.

And so, practising with Gramsci “the optimism of the will and the pessimism of the intelligence”, I will carry on the fight a while longer. You never know, they might tire first.

 

I thank you for your courtesy to me this evening. Have a good conference. Tony Garnett

 

EIS/3 1.3.1998

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