Coronation Street – 25th December 1961

To begin with, there seems to be a clear division of the sexes. Whilst the men – in the shape of Albert, Frank, Ken, Harry and Len – are heading off to a football match, the women (such as Concepta and Elsie) are fretting about their Christmas lunches.

The episode opens with some boisterous children running down the street, but their antics are mild compared to Len – who’s waving his football rattle, bellowing at the top of his voice and dancing in the street with Annie Walker. Goodness, he’s irritating – not the sort of person you’d want to run into first thing on Christmas morning.

As for the match, it’s between two teams of ladies (which might be the reason why all the lads are up and about so early – if not, then they really, really, love football).

The notion that the menfolk have all the pleasure whilst the women are confined to the kitchen is challenged after we see Jack slaving away. Clearly that’s one household where the roles are reversed.  Jack, as always, has to be a man of many talents – not only doing a spot of cooking but also serving behind the bar. Annie must be taking it easy.

This year it’s Minnie’s turn to cook Christmas dinner for the others.  There’s a vague air of melancholy at work here (Martha decides that it’s “a funny Christmas isn’t it? More like a very long Sunday”).  Martha’s still grumbling as she tucks into her meal, but Ena – for once – is in a good mood. “Martha, goodwill to all men, including Minnie Caldwell. She may be wilful but she is human and she is our friend”.

The fragile peace doesn’t last long though (Ena swallows one of Minnie’s sixpences and chokes). Classic, classic comedy then ensues (Martha wonders if they should pat her on the back but Minnie decides not, as Ena might hit them back!). Poor Ena, all four sixpences (wrapped up in tissue paper and cotton) found their way into her portion of pudding. “Have you never heard of windpipes?” mutters a despairing Ena. Lovely stuff.

Prior to this, there’s another touch of sadness after Martha and Ena grumble that their families steer clear of them on Christmas day. It’s worse for Minnie of course, who has no family. But at least she has friends around her.

Ena/Minnie/Martha might be the Christmas highlight, but there are some nice character moments elsewhere as well. Ken and Frank share a moment of reflection as they celebrate their first Christmas without Ida. Lucky that Esther was on hand to cook them something, otherwise no doubt they would have gone hungry …

Hapless Harry continues to get an ear-bashing from the very shrill Concepta. You can see her point though.  Mind you, his present to her – a gold watch – does cheer her up somewhat.  At least for a short while.

Interesting that the Queen’s speech is still seen as the centrepoint of the day, at least for some (Annie, Concepta).  Annie’s total devotion to Her Majesty even extends to exhorting poor old Jack (who lest we forget has been on his feet all day) to stand up when the National Anthem is playing.

Christmas at the Tanners is rather fraught. Dennis, having seen that the cupboard was bare, went out for his meal, not knowing that Elsie had rustled up something as a surprise. So when he does return she’s determined to force-feed him, whether he likes it or not. Pat Phoenix and Philip Lowrie raise the roof for a few minutes, but things then settle down. Elsie and Dennis may scrap on a regular basis, but since neither has anybody else the spats don’t last for long.

The episode had a slightly fraught production, as Derek Grainger disliked elements of Tony Warren’s first draft. Warren allowed Grainger to rewrite it, but insisted that his name didn’t appear on the credits (so the fictitious Carol Nicholas was used instead).


Are You Being Served? – The Father Christmas Affair (26th December 1976)

AYBS? is a curious beast. No other series in the Croft/Lloyd and Croft/Perry canon has quite the same feel – this was a show that often resembled Frankenstein’s monster (in the way that numerous disconnected pieces were jammed together in order to form a whole).

I’m not entirely sure how the writing process worked – presumably Croft and Lloyd worked separately and then cherrypicked the best moments from each of their scripts. If so, that would explain how in today’s episode we jump from Mr Grainger performing the hits of Al Jolson to the whole department dressing up as Santa Claus ….

If there’s one moment from The Father Christmas Affair which has endured then it’s the flashing Father Christmas.  BBC Visual Effects seemed to relish working on AYBS? almost as much as they did on Doctor Who and this very silly Santa is well up to their usual standard.  It’s Mr Humphries’ reaction which really sells the moment though – but since we’ve already had the reveal (Santa – like Action Man – is bereft of working parts) this doesn’t quite satisfy.  Surely it would have been better not to have shown exactly what Santa was hiding under his robe, that way we would have been left guessing about why Mr Humphries suffered such a dramatic swoon.

If I was the sort of person to worry about these things, then I’d worry about who was looking after the customers whilst all the staff were crowded around this work of technological art. Luckily I don’t.

I always enjoy the canteen scenes. In the first phase of the series they provided Mr Lucas with the opportunity to grievously insult Mrs Slocombe on a regular basis (he doesn’t disappoint on this score). They also provided ample scope for some ramblings from Mr Grainger (again, we’re well served today).  Possibly the most notable thing about the scene is the way that Wendy Richard very visibly corpses on more than one occasion. Something was clearly tickling her fancy.

The middle part of the episode is where things get a little odd, although as I touched upon at the start, complaining about structure in an average episode of AYBS? seems to be a pretty futile pastime.

Mr Grainger has, once again, elected to entertain the old folks at Christmas. And since his impression of Winston Churchill has been deemed to be old hat, he’s decided to come right up to date – by impersonating Sir Stafford Cripps. There’s something rather delightful about this reference, which would have been dated in 1976 (after all, Cripps passed away in the early 1950’s) never mind forty or more years later.

This idea is quickly knocked on the head and it’s suggested that miming to an Al Jolson record would be a safer bet (although maybe not if you want to earn any repeat fees in the twenty first century …)

There’s no reason why Mr Humphries and Mr Lucas should have learnt such an intricate series of dance moves, but it provides us with a few minutes of entertainment, so let’s be generous (it is Christmas after all).

Since the automated Santas wern’t a great success, a human replacement has to be found. With a handy cash bonus on offer from young Mr Grace it’s no surprise that everybody rushes into their suits with alacrity. Mrs Slocombe has some lovely lines, reminding a nonplussed Mr Rumbold that since “Parliament has passed a Sexual Relations act” there’s no reason why a woman shouldn’t take on the role.

Mr Humphries once again steals the show with his Santa ensemble. I wonder what the rest of the cast felt, every time that Inman was handed a prime bit of comedy business? With a few exceptions they remained together for a long time, so presumably they accepted that there was a definite pecking order.

When Mr Grainger arrives he’s still blacked up as a Minstrel (he was unable to get the make-up off). This provides us with the episode’s punchline – a young child (Donald Waugh) is brought in to pick out the best Father Christmas from the line-up and naturally picks the one who – like him – is black.

This moment hasn’t aged well, but since AYBS? never comes across as unpleasantly dated as the likes of On The Buses, it seems more like an innocent gag rather than anything inherently racist. Certainly it’s of its time, but since this a strong – if bitty – Christmas special, it’s a slight shame to think that it’s probably not now going to be the first to get a repeat airing. Mind you, it last surfaced on BBC2 as recently as 2009, so you never know.

Are You Being Served? – Christmas Crackers (22nd December 1975)

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It’s Christmas, so we can forgive the employees of Grace Brothers for indulging in a spot of dress up. Mind you, as the series progressed they tended to do it virtually every week ….

Christmas Crackers is a game of four halves.  It begins with a brain-storming meeting called by Mr Rumbold – although in his absence Captain Peacock moves into his seat with alacrity. He also quickly acquires Mr Rumbold’s cup of tea (the only one in a real cup – the others have to make do with plastic ones). It’s a reminder of the rigid herichary which exists at Grace Brothers.

Elsewhere the chat is, as you’d expect, very dependent on double entendres. Mrs Slocombe frets about her pussy whilst Mr Grainger – late once again – tells the others that Mrs Grainger failed to rouse him this morning. Mr Lucas supplies the obvious punchline.

The strangest moment occurs just after Mr Humphries suggests that they should organise a glee club.  This seems reasonable enough, but it tickles the fancy of one member of the audience who hoots in a very distracting fashion.  John Inman, pro that he was, carried on regardless which meant they didn’t have to go for a retake.

When Mr Rumbold eventually does turn up, he reveals that young Mr Grace has already decided exactly how the department should get into the Christmas spirit, thereby negating the previous ten minutes of chat.  This is either a clever touch or it reveals that the plotting of AYBS? was never that solid.

The second section of the episode revolves around a shop-floor spat between Mrs Slocombe and Captain Peacock.  Mrs Slocombe doesn’t like the high-kicking automated display model which has been wheeled onto the floor by the ever-annoying Mr Mash. She wants it removed, but Captain Peacock stands firm and tells her to return to her counter.  So she turns it on when his back is turned and the inevitable happens (it kicks him up the backside).  Mr Humphries then notes that it’s playing the Nutcracker Suite ….

Christmas dinner is next on the agenda, which is a good example of the fact that Grace Brothers remains the most parsimonious of employers.  A microscopic chicken has to be shared amongst them all, whilst their Christmas pudding deflates after Mr Mash liberally sprinkles it with a dose of powerful wood alcohol.  Mind you, their crackers were very large and did include decent novelties, so it wasn’t all bad. Chief amongst these were Captain Peacock’s googly eyes and Mr Grainger’s sticky-out ears, which allows him to cosplay as Mr Rumbold.

This just leaves the reveal of the shop floor, now transformed into a very credible Christmas grotto (clearly all the money went on this, rather than the staff Christmas dinner) and the emergence of the regulars, all decked out in their costumes (this was young Mr Grace’s brainwave).  Whenever dress up was on the cards it seemed there was a strict pecking order (with Mr Humphries always being the last to show his face). This suggests that the writers had quickly latched onto the fact that Inman had clicked with the audience (he certainly gets the loudest whoop of appreciation – although it’s debatable whether his costume is the funniest).

Captain Peacock’s snowman is wonderful (I think it’s the addition of the pipe which really sells it) whilst Miss Brahams and Mr Lucas, as a fairy and Long John Silver, don’t let the side down. Mrs Slocombe’s Robin Hood isn’t too way out but it’s counterbalanced by Mr Grainger’s egg costume (my favourite). As always, Arthur Brough helps to sell the moment – Mr Grainger’s long-suffering miserablism is pitched at just the right level.  Like all Croft/Lloyd and Croft/Perry series, AYBS? was never the same once the original cast began to break up and Brough’s death (following the conclusion of series five) undeniably affected the balance of the show.

Once all the staff have assembled, out of nowhere music begins to play and also out of nowhere everybody starts to sing a song based on the way their day has gone.  This isn’t quite as jolting as raising a glass and wishing everyone at home a very Merry Christmas, but it’s not far short.

The Mrs Merton Show (27th December 1997)

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After 1996’s half-hearted Christmas titles, I’m pleased to report that things were much better this year – not only was there a snow effect, we also had sleigh-bells added to the opening theme (always a quick and easy way of Chrismassing something up). Well done!

1997 was a busy year for Mrs Merton. Following the transmission of series three during February and March, she and the gang then decamped to Las Vegas for several more shows. Fair to say that her humour didn’t always translate – with one show (featuring Tammy Wynette and La Toya Jackson) deemed unsuitable for transmission. Hopefully it still exists in the archives, as it would be fascinating to see it. Unlikely it’ll ever resurface, but you never know.

Mrs Merton’s final Christmas special opens with the audience in a very jolly mood. But she’s got just the answer to deal with these hi-jinks.  “There’s only one way to dampen down this party atmosphere, and that’s with my first guest – yes it’s very scary spice, Edwina Currie!”

The Merton/Currie encounter is as awkward as you’d expect although, at least to begin with, Currie is fairly game (allowing Mrs Merton to check the back of her neck to see if ‘666’ is tattooed there). However it doesn’t take long before the initial lukewarm temperature drops well below freezing.   The first flashpoint occurs when they have a difference of opinion about exactly when Currie’s husband left her – Mrs Merton maintains it was on the day her book was published, Currie says it was a week later.

It’s when Currie mentions that she’s currently suing somebody for making the same claim (and Mrs Merton should therefore proceed with caution) that you sense they’re not going to be the best of friends. There’s a fairly obvious edit immediately after this, which suggests that some contentious material was snipped out.

Currie’s ordeal isn’t over yet though, as Horace is plucked out of the audience and settles down on the sofa beside her. A heated political debate then breaks out for a few minutes, with Horace managing to hold his own whilst Mrs Merton sits back and has a chat to the audience.

Mrs Merton’s first words to Max Bygraves – “he’s not dead at all” – sets the tone for an enjoyable ramble in which Bygraves gives as good as he gets. Maybe he dwells a little too much on his double hernia operation (you do get the sense that once Max launches into an anecdote nothing’s going to divert him) but there are some nice nuggets uncovered along the way.

Every so often, a question from the audience actually paid dividends. And so it was here, after Max was asked about playing the Wigan Hippodrome in 1947 (where he had to face some tough audiences mainly made up of coal-miners).  The acrobat on before him broke both his arms, leaving Max to muse that he never got laughs like that ….

Max is corralled into a duet with Mrs Merton (whose singing voice hasn’t improved since last year) before the big closing number – Perfect Day. In the style of the BBC promo, each line of the song is taken by a different person. Mrs Merton couldn’t quite run to a full celebrity line-up, so her loyal audience filled the gaps with performances of variable tunefulness.

The Mrs Merton Show (24th December 1996)

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Alas, there’s no festive border slapped round the opening titles this year. Humbug!

Having enjoyed two series in 1995, Mrs Merton sat out most of 1996 with only this Christmas Eve special airing (series three would begin in early 1997).  It was the last show to feature three guests and whilst some of the caveats previously expressed still stand, this one is stronger than the 1995 Christmas special, mainly because the guests are a little more engaging.

It’s somewhat jolting to remember that we’ve gone far back in time – to a period when the likes of Rolf Harris and Gary Glitter could be mentioned in casual conversation without a sharp intake of breath. Since the first guest, Clive James, is an Australian he’s clearly the perfect person to discuss the enigma that is Rolf – especially his wobble board and digeridoo. Innocent times.

Later, Noddy Holder is quizzed about Gary Glitter, although it’s mostly innocent fun. Mind you, Mrs M doesn’t miss the opportunity to crack the gag about her son Malcolm taking his friend to a new nightclub named after the seventies glam rocker (that’s right, they were going up the Gary Glitter). Judging by the very muted reception this comment received I think we can assume it was a reference which flew over the heads of most of her audience.

Both Clive and Noddy are good fun, with Clive musing about whether people up t’North say t’North (they don’t apparently) and Noddy reminiscing about his younger days as a window cleaner (although Mrs Merton was concerned that climbing up ladders in those big platform boots would have been tricky).  There’s also time for a quick audience burst of Merry Christmas Everybody – although it seems a bit remiss to have Noddy on and not get him to perform his party piece.  But there was clearly only room for one musical guest and it’s pretty obvious who has stolen the hearts of both Mrs Merton and the audience ….

Clive and Noddy are unceremoniously bundled out of the studio in favour of Mrs Merton’s star guest – lovely Daniel O’Donnell. Daniel has the second half of the show to himself, which means there’s plenty of time to answer such burning questions as to whether he likes to scratch himself and trump when he’s lying in bed (although this took a while to settle as Daniel didn’t understand what ‘trump’ meant at first – the penny did drop eventually).

The highlight of the interview must be when Horace wades in.  One of Mrs Merton’s rogues gallery of elderly questioners, Horace could always be guaranteed to launch into a rambling monologue with seemingly no end.  And so it proves here – after issuing a backhanded compliment (he hadn’t heard of Daniel O’Donnell until several weeks prior to the recording of this special) he then redeems himself by revealing that he’s booked tickets for one of Daniel’s shows in the new year. But due to a prior commitment he’s found that he can’t now attend it (I’ve given you the edited highlights – the actual explanation is a good deal more tortuous than that).

Ending with Daniel and Mrs Merton duetting on One Day At A Time, Sweet Jesus, this was very decent fare. I wonder what the third and final Christmas special (featuring the unlikely combination of Max Bygraves and Edwina Currie) will be like? Time will tell.

The Mrs Merton Show (24th December 1995)

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Following a couple of pilots (the first on ITV and the second on the BBC) the series proper of The Mrs Merton Show began airing in early 1995. Clearly it did well, as the second run started later that same year and culminated in this Christmas Eve special.

Top marks for the Christmassy border around the opening titles – a cheap way of creating a spot of festive cheer without having to go to the expense of shelling out for new titles.  Mrs Merton is in full holiday mode – handing out mince pies and greetings – prior to her first guests, Alma and Mike from the Street ….

It was an unexpected treat (I think that’s the right word) to witness Amanda Barrie and Johnny Briggs duetting on the evergreen Something Stupid.  You have to give them top marks for being game (the largely octogenarian audience lapped it up of course).

We’re still in the early days of the series, which meant three guests jostling for position in each half hour show.  Later, TMMS would drop down to just two guests – this was a wise move as it meant that there was the possibility a half-decent interview might develop.  Amanda and Johnny are amiable enough but they’re really never given any questions that they can actually answer (a pity, but not surprising, that they didn’t confess which of their co-stars they hated ….)

There’s slightly more substance when Mrs M meets Glenys Kinnock. It’s always fun to see a combative guest who isn’t content to simply take the blows, but instead elects to gently go on the offensive.  When Glenys started to deal with the questions by asking her own, you got the sense that Aherne was forced to do a bit of speedy adjustment. As entertaining as the show often was, this was its main weakness (especially to begin with). Aherne often appeared to be more interested in delivering her scripted barbs than dealing with the answers she might receive.

Up next is by far the oddest part of the show. Seven year-old orphan little Tommy Regan is subjected to a special treat – a song from Mrs Merton. As she begins to blub her way through The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot, some of the audience are clearly getting a little misty-eyed too.  The punchline to this spot of mawkish sentimentalism? There isn’t one, which I guess was the point.

Gary Rhodes closes proceedings with some entertaining back and forth banter and a spot of food, tested by some of Mrs Merton’s most trusted lieutenants. That leaves just enough time for Hooky and the boys to play us out with that Slade song.

An entertaining enough half-hour, but many of  the series’ most entertaining moments (the unforgettable Bernard Manning/Richard Wilson face-off, for example) were still in the future at this point.

Hitting the Target – Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion by Terrance Dicks

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I started collecting the Targets back in the late seventies and although the identity of the first book I bought has been lost in the mists of time, I do know that The Auton Invasion was one of the earliest ones I picked up.  I had no recollection of its original broadcast, so possibly it was the cover – featuring the Doctor, Brig and a nasty squid – that drew me towards it.  Whatever the reason, I’m glad that I did get it because it’s a bit of a corker ….

Possibly since it was his first book, Terrance Dicks seemed quite keen to add a considerable amount of extra value to Robert Holmes’ original script (although it’s true that back in 1974 he wasn’t on the same one-title-a-month treadmill that saw him churning out a crop of fairly routine titles later that same decade).

Adding a prologue featuring the Second Doctor’s trial was a good move as it helped to explain exactly why the Doctor turns up insensible in Oxley Woods (back then, this sort of information wasn’t available at the drop of hat). But what really stands out from the first few chapters is the way that Dicks very deftly manages to transform Sam Seeley from the television comic bumpkin into more of a rounded character.

Having him witness the Doctor’s arrival in the woods was a nice touch and there’s some economical examples of character building scattered throughout (such as the moment when a worried Seeley, lying in bed, is disturbed by the sound of rumbling lorries and grim-faced soldiers passing by his window).  This helps to reinforce the notion that the meteorite he’s found could be dangerous (unlike the television Seeley, he never refers to it as a ‘thunderball’).

Seeley’s daydreaming is another effective touch. ‘Sam let his imagination wander, dreaming of a huge cash reward from a grateful government. He’d have his picture in the local paper. Maybe they’d even want him to go on telly’.

The first meeting between the Brigadier and Liz is good fun, I particularly enjoyed Liz’s internal reaction to the Brigadier’s assertion that he had been involved in foiling two alien attempts to invade the Earth (‘He’s cracking up, she thought wildly. Over-work probably. Been reading too much science-fiction’).

Many of the changes made by Dicks to the text are small, but they nevertheless help to strengthen the story. For example, the television Brigadier can only offer the weak excuse of a training exercise to explain his presence when confronted by a gaggle of pressmen eager to find out if the Ashbridge Cottage Hospital really does contain a man from space.  The book Brigadier has a much smoother and more convincing cover story – a vital part of the British space programme has come crashing down in the woods nearby, necessitating a search and recovery programme.

Dicks mentions several times in quick succession that the Doctor’s kidnappers are rather like waxworks (which tends to hammer this point home – one would have been enough). Rather more effective is Doctor Henderson’s shocked realisation that the kidnappers hand was totally smooth and white, lacking any fingernails. This would have been hard to realise on television, but was simplicity itself in print.

Another small touch which entertained me was the revelation that the frilly shirt the Doctor ‘acquires’ from the hospital had once been the property of an aspiring pop star. The past tense does suggest he never made it out alive though ….

The book Beavis is simply itching to open the Doctor up and have a poke inside, which helps to explain why the Doctor feels perfectly justified in stealing both his clothes and his car (‘Serve the old butcher right’).  The idea of the Doctor having to masquerade as Beavis in order to pass the guards is an appealing one, as is the fact that the Doctor gives the unfortunate Beavis a cheery wave goodbye when he’s in the process of stealing his car!

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The Auton attack on the UNIT jeep is somewhat remodelled. On television, the solider dies as soon as the Auton forces the jeep off the road – in print, he emerges unscathed and manages to pump the Auton full of bullets – all to no avail though (this helps to pre-empt the later confrontation between the Auton and Meg Seeley).

One fascinating addition to the Auton stand-off with Meg is the way that Sam braves his fire in order to rescue his wife.  Seems a little out of character, although maybe we’ve just been misjudging him.

The Doctor and Liz head off to the waxworks, much to the Brigadier’s disgust.

“Hey, wait! Just a moment,” the Brigadier called after them. Then he shrugged his shoulders. Let them go to the waxworks. Let them go to the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and the London Zoo while they were at it! And much good might it do them. As usual all the real work was left to him. Like children, these scientists!

Lovely stuff. Also very appealing is the Doctor’s explanation as to why he and Liz have to hide in the waxworks after closing time (which isn’t made clear on screen).  Since he’s been unable to contact the Brigadier, the Doctor decides to impound the waxworks himself. When Liz reacts with amazement at the suggestion they simply walk out with the things, the Doctor counters thus. “But we should be able to manage one or two little ones, surely?”

Terrance Dicks faithfully reproduces the emergence of the shop window Autons, then with just a few paragraphs he’s able to sketch out what happened next – something which, of course, was impossible for budget reasons to realise on screen.

The police received thousands upon thousands of calls. But there was little they could do. Arms were issued, but the few rifles and revolvers available were powerless against the Autons. BBC and ITV issued urgent warnings. ‘Don’t go to work. Don’t go out shopping. Stay indoors and barricade yourselves in your homes. Admit no one you do not know.’

Many people were saved by warnings like these, but many others, already out on the streets, were unable to escape. The Autons seemed to be everywhere.

The Government declared martial law and called out the Army. But most of the available troops were mysteriously absent on manoeuvres far away from the big towns. They were recalled at once, but things seemed to go wrong continually. Orders failed to arrive, or were misinterpreted. Troops were told to stay put, or sent to the wrong place. In the other services the story was the same. The Navy and the Air Force armed what men they could, but the men never seemed to get clear orders, or to arrive where they were wanted. It was as though in every position of authority traitors were working against the Government, deliberately confusing the situation.

When I bought the VHS in 1988, I was a little disappointed that the scene featuring an Auton attacking UNIT HQ didn’t feature. But as one of the generation who encountered many Doctor Who stories via Target books first and VHS second, this was a common occurrence.  I’m sure other examples will follow in later posts.

The emergence of the Nestene consciousness is obviously much more effective in print than it was on television (no rubber tentacles here). Chris Achilleos’ illustration helped – he may not have enjoyed doing the internal illustrations but they’re all part and parcel of the story-telling process (even if the supporting characters look nothing like their television counterparts).

Yet another favourite, The Auton Invasion has to be one of the Targets I’ve read the most. Revisiting it yet again in 2018, nearly forty years on from my first time, I’m delighted to report that it’s still an enjoyable, breezy yarn.

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