Blakes 7 – Orbit

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A renegade scientist called Egrorian (John Savident) has an offer that Avon can’t refuse – a weapon of incredible power (the Tachyon Funnel) in exchange for Orac.  You possibly won’t be shocked to hear that there’s a catch though ….

After his previous story, Traitor, failed to hit the mark, Robert Holmes certainly bounced back with Orbit.  Maybe one of the reasons why Traitor didn’t work that well was because it was the only one of Holmes’ four B7 scripts that didn’t team Avon and Vila up.  It’s plain that Holmes saw plenty of possibilities in the Avon/Vila relationship – it’s certainly of the reasons why this one works as well as it does.

Holmes’ Doctor Who scripts tended to feature double-acts, a tradition he carries on here – apart from Avon and Vila there’s also Egrorian and Pinder (Larry Noble).  Egrorian is the sort of role that’s a gift for an actor of a certain type – i.e. one who’s not afraid to go soaring over the top.  John Savident was clearly that sort of actor.  It’s a grotesque (in a good way) turn, totally lacking in subtlety but with the occasional hint of menace to counter the fairly flippant dialogue.

This must have been a fairly cheap show to make, with just a couple of new sets and only two guest stars.  But it never feels like a bottle show or something cobbled together on the cheap because the end of season was fast approaching and the money had run out.  Holmes concentrates on just four characters – Avon, Vila, Egrorian and Servalan (yes, of course she’s lurking about) – and gives them some sparkling dialogue, such as here when Egrorian lays eyes on Avon and Vila for the first time.

EGRORIAN: Surprisingly, you don’t look like the ruthless desperados of legend. But you have, of course, killed a great many people.
AVON: Only in the pursuit of liberty.
EGRORIAN: “O Liberty! O Liberty! What crimes are committed in your name!” Do you know the source?
AVON: No.
EGRORIAN: No, why should you? Natural leaders are rarely encumbered with intelligence. Greed, egotism, animal cunning, and viciousness are the important attributes. Qualities I detect in you in admirably full measure.

Larry Noble, as Egrorian’s assistant Pinder, has very little dialogue, but he still manages to catch the eye.  Noble manages to suffer incredibly well and his hangdog expression immediately engenders sympathy from the audience, something which is increased after we see how badly Egrorian treats him.  There’s a certain cruelty and sadism that runs through Holmes’ Doctor Who scripts which is also present here – best demonstrated after Pinder beats Egrorian at chess.  Egrorian doesn’t like this and proceeds to twist Pinder’s arm.  “Can you feel your extensor muscle tearing? Can you feel your humerus grating against your radius? Hmm.? Just a little more… a little more… now you’re feeling it, aren’t you?”

It’s more than a little unpleasant, but it helps to shine a light on their dysfunctional relationship.  Quite how they’ve entertained themselves during the last ten years (they’ve been in exile together) is probably best left to the imagination, although Egrorian’s comment that “naughty boys must be punished” offers a world of possibilities.

Hey, here’s a surprise – Egrorian plans to double-cross Avon and the others because he’s secretly working for Servalan.  Bet you didn’t see that coming.  So far, so familiar, but Holmes continues to give Savident some choice dialogue and he doesn’t disappoint.  Here, Egrorian outlines to Servalan his vision of a shared future.  “A connubial partnership, Servalan. Why not? Alone you are formidable enough, but together we would stand like mountains.”  Jacqueline Pearce also seems to relish the chance to play something a little different, as we see Servalan ever-so-slightly discomforted by the effusive and fulsome Egrorian.

The key part of the story takes place during the last few minutes.  Avon and Vila are heading back to Scorpio in Egrorian’s shuttle, but there’s a problem – they’ll never make the escape velocity as the shuttle’s carrying too much weight.  Frantically they jettison everything they can think of, but they still need to find another seventy kilos.  Avon wonders what weighs seventy kilos, to which Orac replies that “Vila weighs seventy-three kilos, Avon.”

Paul Darrow’s facial expression after Orac delivers this bombshell is a treat.  He shakes his head ever so slightly, but then seems to pull himself together and goes hunting for Vila.  Darrow’s S4 Avon was not known for its subtlety, and so it proves here, as he goes into “I’m not going to kill you, I’m your friend, honest” mode.  It’s not terribly convincing, so you can’t blame Vila for staying hidden.

All turns out well in the end, Avon stumbles (literally) against the problem – a microscopic fragment of a neutron star, planted by Egrorian to kill them – and is able to get rid of it.  But the damage has been done.  Vila might not have mentioned it to the others, but he now knows exactly how far Avon will go to protect his interests.  It’s a nice dramatic moment for Michael Keating, something of a rarity this late in the series.

This may be a talky, studio-based story, but it doesn’t really get any better than Orbit, thanks to John Savident’s exuberant performance and the way that Holmes skewers the Avon/Vila relationship.

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Blakes 7 – Traitor

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The Federation is beginning to expand agaim and Avon has decided that the planet Helotrix holds the key.  The native species, the Helots, are once again Federation members after a long period of resistance and Avon is keen to find out why their resolve crumbled so quickly.  Dayna and Tarrant teleport down to the surface but quickly lose contact with Scorpio.  The arrival of Federation Commissioner Sleer further complicates matters ….

Traitor is the most anonymous of Robert Holmes’ four Blakes 7 scripts.  Lacking the flamboyant characterisation of Gambit and Orbit or the rock-solid narrative of Killer, it’s simply there – solid enough, but a little uninspiring and never likely to be anybody’s favourite.  There’s some nice dialogue, but maybe Holmes felt straightjacketed by the various story elements he was required to include (the pacification drug Pylene-50 which becomes a running theme and Commissioner Sleer, who turns out to be, shock horror, Servalan).  It’s also a pity that his original title – A Land Fit For Helots – was rejected in favour of the descriptive, but dull, Traitor.

Avon’s transformation into Blake pretty much starts here – he suddenly decides to take the fight to the Federation.  After spending the first two series sniping at Blake from the sidelines for exactly this sort of gung-ho approach, it’s an unexpected move, although there are several possible reasons.  The boring real-life possibility is that since series three had been rather aimless, reintroducing the Federation as a tangible enemy helps to give the show a more cohesive feel.

There’s a more interesting fictional possibility though – Avon’s character is slowly being subsumed by Blake’s, meaning that he’s turning into a carbon-copy of his former colleague.  To support this theory, the final episode – Blake – provides us with plenty of evidence that Avon’s obsession with Blake is colouring his actions.  Can’t live with him, can’t live without him ….

There’s intrigue aplenty on Helotrix, although the downside of this is that the regulars, especially Avon and Vila, are rather sidelined.  Dayna and Tarrant have more to do, but Traitor is really concerned with the various squabbling factions who are jockeying for position on the planet’s surface.

Colonel Quute (Christopher Neame) and the General (Nick Brimble) are in charge of Federation operations.  They’re an odd couple, to put it mildly.  It’s easy to tell that Quute is a baddy – he’s got a scar down his face and an eyepatch (two dead giveaways).  The General doesn’t have any such facial embellishments, but he is caked in make-up.  Both also have uniforms which sport the most amazing shoulder pads.

This may all sound fairly unpromising, but Neame and Brimble are good enough actors to be able to transcend the fact they look faintly ridiculous.  They’re also aided by Holmes’ script, which isn’t content to paint them as simply another couple of faceless Federation killers.  The General (he doesn’t seem to have a name) is a military bore, forever droning on about battles from the past, meaning that Quute is forced to feign politeness on a regular basis.

GENERAL: Do you remember the Fletch expedition of twenty-nine?
QUUTE: No, I don’t think I do, sir.
GENERAL: Fletch used gas, against the Wazis. Hmm. Complete massacre, bodies everywhere. Took dinner with his officers that night, suddenly the Wazis came over the wall, butchered the whole expedition. Seems the Wazis are gill breathers – they can lie dormant for days.
QUUTE: Ahh, that’s very interesting sir.

Just before this, the General mentions that the best way to deal with these rebel types is with a dose of the cold steel. It’s very hard not to think of Corporal Jones ….

Star Major Hunda (Robert Morris) leads the rebels, but frankly he’s rather dull (as are his grimy cohorts). By a staggering coincidence, Tarrant and Dayna teleport down right beside him – which means that he’s able to fill them both in on the plot. Handy that.

Forbus is a cut-price Davros.  He looks a little like Peter Sellers (or possibly Lewis Fiander in the Doctor Who story Nightmare of Eden) and he’s there to explain to Dayna and Tarrant all about Pylene-50. His appearance suggests that the budget was running rather low, although there are also signs of penny pinching elsewhere. The Federation HQ features some very familiar-looking panels (if you watch far more Doctor Who and Blakes 7 than is healthy that is) as well as flashing disco lights which I assume are supposed to represent power lines. The unconvincing studio grassy knoll is at least lit quite low and covered in mist.

The return of Servalan (or Sleer as she’s now calling herself) is odd.

A few lines of dialogue confirm that the Federation is now under new management and those loyal to Servalan have been executed. This makes the idea that she’d have assumed another identity just about feasible, but it’s strange that she’s made no effort to disguise herself, meaning that everywhere she goes there’s the risk she’ll bump into someone who’ll recognise her. She was the President for goodness sake, it’s a safe bet that most people would have a fair idea what she looked like.

This happens here, as the new puppet leader Practor knew Servalan of old, which means he has to die. For some reason the story attempts to keep her presence a secret until the end, but earlier on her voice (albeit distorted) was heard, so I doubt many were shocked when she did turn up in the flesh.

Although the return of Servalan is a non-surprise and the rebels aren’t terribly interesting, thanks to Holmes’ dialogue for Quute and the General plus the location filming (I’m a sucker for a nice quarry) this isn’t too bad at all.

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The Nightmare Man – Episode Four

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The military arrive in force as Colonel Howard prepares to lead them in a expedition to recover a valuable piece of hardware.  Howard is remarkably blase as he informs Inskip that he’s invoked martial law and is therefore now in complete control of the island.

As the soldiers make their landing, Michael is still musing over the identity of the killer and the reason why he’s being hunted by the army.  “They lost contact with that craft and it ran aground here. Probably a power failure. Because what got out of it was no longer a man. Radioactive. Its mind in splinters.”

Douglas Camfield had been a Lieutenant in the West Yorkshire regiment, but due to health issues he was forced to leave in 1956.  His love of the military never left him though and can clearly be seen in some of his best directorial efforts.

The Web of Fear, The Invasion and Terror of the Zygons were three classic Camfield-directed Doctor Who‘s which all had a strong military angle.  And in some ways the last episode of The Nightmare Man resembles Zygons – the incongruous juxtaposition of the army and a small Scottish village, for example.

The revelation of the killer’s identity seems to be one of the main reasons why The Nightmare Man is viewed as a disappointment.  After three episodes of teasing the audience with various possibilities, the somewhat prosaic reality can’t help but feel like a letdown.  Especially as when we see him in the cold light of day he’s not a terrifying sight – although that may have been intentional (let’s be generous and give the production the benefit of the doubt).

Another slight disappointment is the way that Inskip fades away once Howard takes control.  But the fact that Howard isn’t all he appears to be is a decent twist, although the audience should have twigged this early on (after he tells Michael and Fiona that he has a great admiration for their police).

Positives. Maurice Roëves as Inskip and James Cosmo as his laconic sidekick Sergeant Carch. The slowly increasing sense of dread and fear as the attacks continue.

Negatives. Not every question is answered – for example we’re never told why the killer became cannibalistic or how he had super-human strength.  And if the killer looks rather unimpressive in the cold light of day, then that goes double for his craft. We’re expected to believe that it could travel thousands of miles in the water?  Sadly it looks like the filmiest, most unconvincing prop ever.

There’s no doubt that the dream-team combination of Holmes and Camfield would have been enough to interest many Doctor Who fans, but The Nightmare Man doesn’t really show either at their best.  The script is workmanlike (not having read the original novel I can’t say whether Holmes added many of his own touches).  His trademark humour isn’t really in evidence, although Carch gets some decent lines.  Camfield seems to perk up when the army arrive, but otherwise there’s few of the flourishes and innovative camera-angles for which he was known.

But whilst The Nightmare Man ends with a whimper rather than a bang, it still has its moments.   Not a classic, but there are worse ways to spend a few hours.

The Nightmare Man – Episode Three

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The Nightmare Man was Jeff Stewart’s first television role.  A few years later he was cast as Reg Hollis in The Bill and would remain with the series for an impressive twenty four years.  It’s strange to hear him speak with a Scottish accent, although since he was born in Aberdeen I assume it’s his natural one (he’s not tended to play many Scots during his career).

Stewart plays Drummond, one of three coastguards who all work in a very isolated spot.  There’s a clear vibe that they’re going to be the next victims, although it’s surprising how it takes before the unseen attacker strikes again.

This isn’t a bad thing though, as it means that Camfield’s able to gently rack up the tension as the episode progresses.  The policeman guarding the mysterious craft hears a noise (but it only turns out to be Dr Goudry), the coastguards detect something outside which triggers their radiation meter (but it slips away quickly), etc.  These little moments help to create a faint sense of unease – we know that there will be another murder, we don’t know when.  Although if you’d said just before the end of the episode, in order to create a nice cliffhanger, you wouldn’t be far off the mark!

Colonel Howard continues to move about the island, offering his help to the police (which is declined) and generally acting in a somewhat smug manner.  So it comes as no surprise when he receives a coded phone-call which confirms he’s deeply implicated in this mysterious business .

CALLER: Mother asked me to call.
HOWARD: Mother knows best. How is her chicken?
CALLER: Still free-range, I’m afraid.
HOWARD: Then forget the chicken. I’ve arranged for the egg collection. Can you close the coop?

Top marks to Jonathan Newth for keeping a straight face during that exchange of dialogue.

It seems probable that they’re both part of a military operation (who else would use so many convoluted code-words?) but we’ll have to wait until episode four to find out.

Fiona has developed the film from Dr Symond’s camera.  It was running at the time he was attacked and offers several snapshots of the killer.  Luckily, he was also recording his thoughts onto tape at the same time – so Fiona and Michael are able to organise a macabre film show for Inspector Inskip, Sgt Carch and Dr Goudry.  It’s a disturbing scene, as though we see very little (the pictures are quite blurred) the sounds the killer makes are enough to create a whole host of disturbing mental images.  There’s only one more episode to go before we find out if the reality will measure up.

With just a couple of minutes left, it must be time for another murder.  We cross back to the coastguard station, where one of Drummond’s colleagues elects to go outside by himself.  Has the man never watched any horror moves?!  It’s clear that he’s going to meet a very nasty end – which he does – and Drummond’s other colleague quickly succumbs to the implacable killer as well.

This leaves Drummond as the last man standing and so the episode ends on a close-up of Jeff Stewart’s face.  It’s quite a responsibility to carry a cliffhanger, therefore let’s be generous and remember that this was his first television job.  He does his best to pull a shocked face, but it doesn’t really convince.  Although his colleagues have both been killed he doesn’t really project a sense of dread or terror – more a sort of mild perplexity.  It’s slightly surprising that Douglas Camfield didn’t elect to try another take, but even allowing for Stewart’s lack of emotion it’s a jolting ending.

The Nightmare Man – Episode Two

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James Warwick was pretty ubiquitous on British television during the early 1980’s. By the time The Nightmare Man was broadcast he’d already appeared in several one-off Agatha Christie adaptations (Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?/The Seven Dials Mystery) and a few years later would star alongside Francesca Annis in Partners In Crime, also adapted from Christie’s books.  His earnest, square-jawed persona fitted the works of Agatha Christie like a glove and he plays Michael Gaffikin in a similar way.  His performance isn’t quite as good a match here though – at times it feels rather artificial (although it’s not as bad as his very wooden turn the following year in the Doctor Who story Earthshock).

The mysterious creature spends the early part of the episode lurking about (and killing the odd sheep).  Michael surmises that it could be the result of genetic experimentation whilst Inskip wonders why the woman killed in episode one (identified as Mrs Anderson) was dismembered and then taken miles away from spot where she was murdered.

Picture quality for the exteriors is pretty poor – due to the heavy mist (it does help to give the location work an unearthly atmosphere though).  But it’s difficult not to wonder just how more impressive it would have looked on film.

Because the police-force on the island is so small (limited to four of five officers) it’s reasonable that Inskip would ask for Michael and Fiona’s help.  Michael, having originally wondered if the creature came from the sea, now has another theory – that it’s extraterrestrial in origin.  Roëves continues to have many of the best lines as Inskip counters that “a straightforward homicidal maniac with bad teeth running amok is good enough for me.”

But when they find Dr Symonds’ body, Inskip is forced to admit that nothing human could have been responsible. Although it’s hard to see why, as Symonds’ body is intact (unlike the mutilated Mrs Anderson) with only a minimal amount of blood.  No doubt this is due to what was deemed permissible in a pre-watershed programme (a violently attacked body clearly wouldn’t have been). Camfield could have elected to play the scene just on the reactions of Inskip and the others, but since we’ve previously met Symonds, his death has more of an impact if we can see his face.

If the cliffhanger is a little of a damp squib, it does at least up the ante a little more.  Another death and still the mysteries deepen.  There’s a mysterious craft on the shoreline, traces of radiation and the possibility that somebody parachuted onto the island the previous night.  And it seems that the charming Colonel Howard is more than just an innocent visitor ….

The Nightmare Man – Episode One

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The Nightmare Man was adapted by Robert Holmes (from the novel by David Wiltshire) and directed by Douglas Camfield.  Since Holmes and Camfield were both experienced Doctor Who hands it’s tempting to view this as almost a Doctor Who story by proxy.  Holmes had a love of classic horror tales, so there’s no doubt that Wiltshire’s story of a series of mysterious deaths on a remote Scottish island would have right up his street.  Whilst there’s little blood or gore it does feel a touch more adult than his Doctor Who‘s, something which probably would have appealed to Holmes (he was always a writer who pushed against the boundaries – as Mary Whitehouse would attest to).

It’s slightly surprising that it’s shot on VT rather than film, especially since Camfield was a master with a film camera.  Presumably this was budget-related, as there’s only a handful of video effects.

Within the first few minutes we’ve met the main players.  Fiona Patterson (Ceila Imrie, sporting an impressive Scottish accent) runs the local shop whilst Michael Gaffikin (James Warwick) is an English dentist, in love with both the island and Fiona. Both run into a visitor, Colonel Howard (Jonathan Newth), who tells them that he’s planning to spend a few days exploring, whilst we also bump into Inspector Inskipp (Maurice Roëves).

But whilst all this seems normal enough, there’s something on the island which is far from normal.  This strange entity is shot from their POV and instantly creates an unsettling atmosphere.  When Michael finds a body on the golf course it appears the mysterious creature has claimed its first victim.  Inskipp is matter of fact about this grisly discovery.  “Aye, I do mean a body. We haven’t found all the pieces yet.”  During the episode we’re drip-fed more facts about the murder and nothing we hear sounds very comforting.  The body wasn’t dismembered with a knife – it was literally torn apart.

Camfield always cast his shows incredibly well and The Nightmare Man is no exception.  Maurice Roëves makes an immediate impression as Inskipp and does something with what could be a cliche role – the tough copper.  Although Camfield had a reputation for using a “rep” of actors it’s not really in evidence here, although Tony Sibbald (playing Dr Symonds) had appeared in his 1975 Doctor Who story Terror of the Zygons.

This does everything that an opening episode should.  It sets up the mystery efficiently and finishes on a strong cliff-hanger (Dr Symonds attacked by the mysterious creature).  Will the serial keep this quality up or will it end in an anti-climax?  Time will tell.

Blakes 7 – Gambit

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Gambit is an unusual story, certainly for the series to date.  Robert Holmes’ script is laced with his usual love of wordplay and the camp quotient is set to eleven.  Krantor (Aubrey Woods) and Toise (John Leeson) are an unforgettable double-act – both actors seem to delight in upstaging the other (not least with their costumes – Leeson’s headgear is especially memorable).

There’s a throwaway line that it’s Mardi Gras time at Freedom City, which explains why they’re dressed as they are – and presumably all the extras (dressed as clowns, nuns, etc) are entering into the spirit of the occasion as well.  Or their costumes could have just been pulled off the shelves – this is Blakes 7, so it’s always a fair bet that money was tight.

The lack of a decent budget is probably best reflected in the main room of Freedom City’s casino, which is pretty sparsely decorated.  So what funds were available seem to have been spent on a handful of new costumes (especially Servalan’s stunning red number).

Servalan, and her assistant Jarriere (Harry Jones), have travelled to Freedom City to find both Travis and cyber-surgeon Docholli (Denis Carey).  It’s believed that Docholli knows the location of Star One – so Servalan is anxious to locate him before Blake does.  She offers Krantor a substantial sum of money in exchange for his co-operation, but whilst they’re perfectly pleasant to each other on the surface it’s plain that neither trusts or likes the other an inch.

Servalan on Krantor.  “He is a despicable animal. When the Federation finally cleans out this cesspit, I shall have that vulpine degenerate eviscerated with a small and very blunt knife.”

Krantor on Servalan.  “One of these days, Toise, I am going to have Supreme Commander high-and-mighty Servalan ravaged until she does not know what month she’s in. I’ll have her screaming for death.”

This is typical Holmes, although it’s a little surprising that Krantor’s wish to ravage Servalan made it to the screen.  He always delighted in putting lurid dialogue into his scripts and sometimes (especially when Terrance Dicks was script-editing his work on Doctor Who) the more extreme examples were excised.  Here, it seems that Chris Boucher was happy to keep them in (unless of course he removed even worse!)

If Krantor and Toise are a great double-act, then so are Servalan and Jarriere.  Harry Jones couldn’t have looked less like a Federation trooper if he tried, but maybe this is why he was cast.  Jarriere is present mainly to listen admiringly to Servalan’s increasingly convoluted plans about how she intends to deal with both Docholli and Travis.  Delightfully, after she’s explained herself in great detail he then admits he doesn’t understand a word of it!

The third excellent double-act in the story are Avon and Vila.  Homes had already latched onto the comic possibilities of teaming them up in Killer and he wastes no time in doing so here as well.  Their subplot is a little bizarre, but it fits into the odd nature of the story.

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Both are aggrieved at having to remain behind on the Liberator with Vila complaining that “if it was a desert down there, so hot your eyeballs frizzled, poisonous snakes under every rock” then Blake would have sent the pair of them.  Avon agrees and then decides they should teleport down and break the bank at the casino.

Why they should want to do this (the Liberator possesses untold wealth) is never made clear, plus the concept of Avon sneaking down is also bizarre – it’s difficult to imagine he cares that Blake would disapprove.  Some of his dialogue (“you dummy”) seems out of character too.

Avon and Vila intend to win a fortune at the roulette table with the aid of Orac.  But since Orac’s rather bulky, after a brief discussion about molecular reduction the computer obligingly reduces himself to one eighth of his normal size.  You can either enjoy the comic moment or fret that the episode once again isn’t taking itself seriously.

Blake, Cally and Jenna’s search for Docholli doesn’t last very long (they find a trace of him in the first bar they come to) so they don’t really have a great deal to do.  Jenna and Cally’s brief staged cat-fight is easily the highlight of their scenes.  Travis skulks about, wearing a silly hat, guarding Docholli as he knows that Blake will turn up to find the surgeon (although how Travis knows about Docholli is never explained).

Thanks to Orac, Vila wins a fortune but then finds himself conned into playing speed chess with the Klute (Deep Roy).  If he wins or draws he’ll earn another fortune, but it he loses it’ll cost him his life.  Naturally with Orac on hand to whisper suggestions, Vila manages to earn a draw and he and Avon return to the Liberator a good deal richer.

Blake, Cally and Jenna have returned too, with information that will send them off to the planet Goth to locate a tribal chief who wears the brain-print of someone who knew the location of Star One around his neck. When Blake asks Avon and Vila if anything’s happened he’s immediately suspicious by the sight of their innocent expressions (Darrow deadpans terribly well).

If you like your Blakes 7 on the gritty side, then Gambit may not appeal but everyone else should find something to enjoy here.

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