British Comedians

Fawlty Towers

I had a bit of trouble thinking what to call this essay. “British Humorists” seemed out of date; “British Comics” was definitely not what it was about; “British Satirists” seemed to limit what I wanted to talk about unnecessarily. In the process of writing I became aware of some of the types of humour practised. Satire, parody, irony, mime, sarcasm, humour, verbal humour, physical humour and doubtless many others. Not that this was a great discovery. I just had never thought about it before. There’s not much that’s original in what I have to say either.

I also discovered that the people I wanted to talk about all worked in television. There are many, many great British TV comedians I enjoy watching, and doubtless many I don’t know about also worth watching. My vote for greatest series would be Antony Jay’s and Jonathan Lynn’s Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister and Connie Booth’s and John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers. For me, Britain is the home of TV comedy. American TV comedy doesn’t travel. Americans have a very different sense of humour; you have to be American to get it.

Cinema is a different matter entirely. I’ve got hundreds of favourite American comedy films. By contrast, I don’t find British cinema comedy appealing at all. Arthur Askey, Gracie Fields, George Formby, Norman Wisdom, the Carry On films, Wallace and Gromit, they’re all a bit bizarre to me. You have to be British to appreciate their films. I have no idea why the divide is through media. Television seems to prompt British comedy writers to become philosophers, and funny in all countries.

I started with viewing Hancock’s Half Hour, a set of 37 surviving programs made by Tony Hancock for BBC television 1956 through to 1961. I had seen it previously, and knew the material varied enormously, yet as I watched I became certain I was watching a major talent, a genius, who sadly let success slip away. But before I could talk about Hancock I needed a bit of background. Like everyone else, my viewing was unsystematic. Luckily, Thames Television had a series called Heroes of Comedy, and it featured episodes on many names I was interested in.

1. Background
British humour is actually quite a literary form I thought, made usually by a mockery of established institutions. Great grandfather of British humour would have to be Laurence Sterne and his running backwards, randomly organised pseudo biography Tristram Shandy, complete with missing, blank and black pages, published 1759-66. The more recent progenitors are Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson 1832-1898) whose seminal work Alice’s Adventures Underground was first published in 1864; and Edward Lear (1812-1888), whose Book of Nonsense was first published 1846. Though Carroll was a professional mathematician and a pioneering photographer, and Lear an accomplished artist, it is their books that have made them famous and influential. Made up words, absurd logic and fantasy figures treated as real are all featured in these works, and have echoes later in the writings of Spike Milligan, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketches. The impossible is made real, and language itself is subverted. Of interest is that both Lewis and Lear had unhappy personal lives, both with major fixations on unattainable objects of desire. In Lear’s case another man, a heterosexual one, and in Carroll’s case a child. What either man’s books had to do with the serious business of building the British Empire, then, at mid century, at its height, I leave to those wiser than I am.

Another type of progenitor of British comedy is silent film comedy, and in particular the films of two major British stars, Charles Chaplin and Stan Laurel, who went to America to make them. Cartoon violence, pratfalls and that perennial favourite, men dressing as women, are all to be found in silent comedy, together with almost perfect timing and command of pace. Many of these techniques were inherited from vaudeville. I often wondered why people laughed at the sight of men in frocks, while women in suits was considered provocative. Perhaps the boundary being stretched or broken is male homosexuality, and female homosexuality is not as threatening? Ancient Romans, Scots and men in Middle Eastern countries wear dresses with no humour evoked (in the later two cases, and probably the first, you’d better not laugh).

Also inherited from vaudeville were some of the components of the so called Theatre of the Absurd. In Paris in the 1950s Eugene Ionesco wrote plays such as the Bald Soprano, and Irishman Samuel Becket, Waiting for Godot and Endgame. This was a time suffocated and depressed by the threat of the Bomb, the possibility of nuclear war that could terminate humanity. It all seemed meaningless, absurd. Nightmares from earlier times started to haunt people, such as 1948’s 1984, or Kafka’s bureaucratic morass The Trial of 1925. One response was the highly publicised Death of God (of course they meant faith), another was existentialism, the response Beckett dramatised in a novel: “I can’t go on. I must go on”. Beckett had written a play in which the chief characters spend their time in garbage bins (trashcans). Spike Milligan was to write a sketch in which two manic characters dance and sing (maniacally) in garbage bins. I don’t know if there was any connections between Theatre of the Absurd and the Goons, perhaps via British playwrights Harold Pinter and Edward Albee, but it seems possible.

British comedy as we know it first became evident in the 1950s on radio. This is worth a mention. Radio was a phenomenon that spread popular culture faster than newspapers and magazines, and earlier stars of radio had huge and fanatical followings. There was little competition in humour then from other media. Film confined itself mainly to romantic melodrama, popular literature was obsessed with the crime and detection story, only PG Wodehouse survives of those who wrote humorous novels. But radio in Britain featured many influential shows. The biggest star of radio in Britain 1954 to 1961 was Tony Hancock. It was said that the streets of towns around Britain were deserted Friday evenings, as people stayed home and huddled around the radio set to listen to Hancock’s Half Hour. Although more celebrated now because seen as the progenitor of ‘alternative’ comedy, the Goon Show 1951 to 1960, didn’t come close as a competitor to Hancock.

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2. Hancock
Tony Hancock was born in Birmingham Warwickshire in 1924 and bought up in Bournemouth. He worked in various clubs in London before landing his own radio show in 1954. When television broadcasting started after the war in 1956 Hancock was also given a TV show, which ran concurrently with the radio show. For seven years both shows were the most popular broadcasts in Britain. Hancock had an estimated audience of more than 25 million people (the equivalent figure today would be perhaps 80-100 million); and more than that, he earned enormous affection from that audience.

Hancock had many gifts as a performer. He was above everything else a great actor, but he was also exceptionably skilled as a mime, and a expert at physical comedy as well, a great dancer and a master of gesture and movement. Hancock could hold a scene silently for over five minutes and allow a cascade of expressions to move across his face as he attempted to remember a name from the past; he could mime the plot of a detective story while keeping silent in a public library; and he created the role of Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock.

Hancock worked with his scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson to create the character Hancock played in his shows. That character was based on elements of Hancock’s personality. It was a very cannibalistic process. Hancock the character was an unsuccessful actor with a lousy show called Hancock’s Half Hour who indulged his propensity to daydreams of grandeur. We all do it; watching someone else do it was never so funny. Hancock’s character was the melancholy fool, a modern update of Shakespeare’s Feste from Twelfth Night. Galton and Simpson were in many ways like frustrated novelists, and they created in depth characters and a detailed milieu for them, not just occasions for humorous repartee. Helping in this creation was veteran actor Sid James in both radio and television series, and on radio only, Kenneth Williams, Bill Kerr and Hattie Jacques. Galton and Simpson went on to write the successful series Steptoe and Son.

The character Hancock played was plagued by insecurities and lack of self confidence, and compensated by fantasies of grandeur and success, and by a haughty dismissal of others, always to be caught out and shown up. Highlights of the series included The Set That Failed, an episode that ridiculed the effect that the newly introduced TV set had on households, who are shown eating, talking and moving about without their eyes leaving the screen. In Twelve Angry Men Hancock leads a jury debating the evidence in a criminal case and slowly persuades all members to concur on a non guilty judgement, only to be reminded that the accursed may perhaps be a break and enter thief and his own property be at risk of theft at his acquittal. He therefore backtracks, and browbeats the jury to the opposite judgement, along the way giving brilliant impersonations of a judge, Sir Winston Churchill and a panicky householder. It was of course a parody of the 1957 Sidney Lumet film. In The Missing Page Hancock borrows a mystery thriller from the library only to find the last page is missing. He tracks down other copies, locates the original MSS and traces the author’s movements before his death, only to learn the author had died before completing the book. In The Reunion Party Hancock reminiscences tiresomely about his war years, and invites some old comrades to a reunion party, only to be sadly disappointed as to how they have turned out. The episode contrasts the gap between fantasies of the past with unglamorous reality to hilarious effect.

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The character Hancock played turned out to be closer to himself than the parody it appeared. Despite his immense popularity Hancock was plagued by insecurities about his talent. It appears he really didn’t know how good he was. He determined on a career as a film actor, and as preparation remodelled his series character. He fired long time friend Sid James from the series, feeling the two were becoming a kind of Laurel and Hardy act. His new show, called Hancock, started with an episode long monologue called The Bedsitter. This display of virtuosic brilliance was then followed by virtually all of Hancock’s most famous sketches, such as The Blood Donor. It wasn’t enough for Hancock. He then fired his script writers, seemingly unaware of the crucial part they had played in creating his character. Not surprisingly no other scriptwriter was quite as good. Hancock then went into film, choosing perhaps four not very suitable scripts, none of which were successful at the box office. He was a great actor, all he needed was the right material, but he had previously fired his agent. Perhaps he would have been more successful had he got the Alec Guinness part of Gulley Simson in Joyce Carey’s 1948 novel The Horse’s Mouth but that was made in 1958, before self destruction set in. By 1967 Hancock was forced to make an unsuccessful comeback to TV. He had literally thrown all his success and opportunities away, and alienated a lot of friends. A lot of these stayed loyal, realising the self torment he was inflicting on himself. Hancock was a charismatic, deeply sensitive, well read man with a multi layered response to existence, and can be seen late in his career and at the height of his genius in an interview with John Freeman on the show Face to Face in June 1960. Not quite as ‘in depth’ as it thought it was, the show concentrated on getting answers to current newspaper gossip about Hancock such as how much money he earned, and failed to ask all the most important questions about Hancock’s work: influences, heroes, ambitions and so on.

In 1968 Hancock was in Sydney Australia making a series for Australian TV. Under the influence of alcohol and depression he took an overdose of barbiturates and killed himself in a Bellevue Hill apartment. He wrote a note: “Too many things have gone wrong”, he said. It was the waste of a major talent, someone who had been among the world’s greatest comic actors, and whose talent was still developing and expanding at the time of his death. Hancock had an immense admiration for Jacques Tati, and deserves to be numbered with Tati, Chaplin and other great names despite his unfinished achievement.

In 2004 a group of comedians and entertainment industry professionals were invited to vote on who they thought the greatest comedians of all time. The show was made for British TV and so had a British bias (no George Carlin!). Hancock came twelfth on the list, which bundled stand up comics, sitcom actors and film actors together, which I thought obscured the attempt at ranking. I would have thought it more accurate to have said Hancock was among the 12 greatest comic actors of all time. There is an episode of Heroes of Comedy about Hancock here, and a highly praised biography by John Fisher, What Kind of Fool? (Harper 2008).

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3. Kenneth Williams
I discovered Kenneth Williams not on film, or television sitcoms, but on interview shows, where he demonstrated a stunning ability to tell an entertaining story. On Michael Parkinson’s show I rate him second only to Michael Caine, and perhaps David Niven, in that regard. I don’t know anything about his stage or film work, but he is credited with parts in 40 films 1952-1978, including the strange Carry On series. Williams had a main part in Hancock’s Half Hour but was weeded out when Hancock tried to go solo. He was passionately interested in theatre, and acted in many productions. Williams was also a popular author, and kept a diary throughout his life which was posthumously published. He is recognisable by a small number of catch phrases and funny voices, but was widely known in London theatrical circles as a more than competent actor, with many friends in the profession.

I was interested to see some parallels with Hancock in his personal life. Williams never formed an intimate relationship, and claimed in his diaries to be a lifelong celibate. He suffered crippling attacks of loneliness and depression throughout his life, and thought of himself as a failure. He was highly praised by critics and the public, yet not by himself. He wanted to be a Sir Laurence Olivier, and failed: but he remained always a great entertainer, and a great stand up comedian. He died at age 62 in 1988, a probable suicide from barbiturate overdose, as his diary entry for the day of his death reads: “Oh, what’s the bloody point?” An episode of Heroes of Comedy is devoted to him,, and a Parkinson special, and he is also the subject of a 2008 film, The Pain of Laughter. There is a critically acclaimed biography by Christopher Stevens called Born Brilliant (John Murray 2010).

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4. Dave Allen
Tony Hancock ended up in Australia attempting to revive his career in TV in 1968. Only five years earlier an unknown Irish comedian from Dublin had began his career down under with a 1963 show called Tonight With Dave Allen. When he returned to Britain Allen had a variety of TV shows. Another Tonight With Dave Allen, The Dave Allen Show, Dave Allen At Large, The Dave Allen Show in Australia, Dave Allen, and The Dave Allen Show (just to make sure you don’t forget the name). These shows covered a 30 year period, from 1967 through to 1994, during which Allen became known as one of the most controversial comedians in the English speaking world, for attacks on political and religious institutions, satires on human failings, stories of drunks, examples of Irish logic, all interpolated with hilarious sketches. He wrote most of his own material. Allen was banned several times, questions were asked about him in Parliament, and he scandalised people in three countries, yet he managed to preserve his freedom to cross boundaries of accepted language and subjects of satire. Stand up was not common when Allen started, though it had its beginnings in vaudeville. In the early 1960s Lenny Bruce was doing it in clubs in America (and being prosecuted). It was relatively unknown on TV. Allen was one of the first TV stand up comedians. He didn’t actually stand up: he sat down, with a drink and cigarette to hand, but the attitude was there. Once established, Allen branched out as a documentary film maker, remembered for his films on English eccentrics. He also had a successful stage career as a dramatic actor, and was a keen amateur painter who exhibited many of his paintings.

Allen was extraordinarily consistent across the years. Relaxed and charming (though he did introduce an ‘angry’ character in his 1980s material), he was also very direct. He punctured pretension and intolerance with enormous dignity, and his satire was clearly originated in his own beliefs and philosophy of life. There was never an attempt to merely raise a laugh. Allen fought a successful revolution to extend the boundaries of satire and comment shown on TV; like all successful revolutionaries there is danger of his achievement being taken for granted. Allen made a great deal of his atheism. Raised a Catholic, he used to say: “Thank God, I’m an atheist”. Just as George Carlin said he stopped believing in god when he attained the age of reason (the age of seven). These remarks were directed, needless to say, at abuses of power by religious institutions. Power and injustice were the targets. Allen’s famous farewell at the end of his shows was also a plea for toleration: “Goodnight, and may your god go with you”.

Nevertheless, sketches such as the papal strip tease on the Vatican steps resulted in his show being banned in Ireland, and Allen received death threats afterwards. He had a sketch about clocks in which he said, you live your life to the clock, and when you retire, they give you a fucking clock. The poignant observation of how people’s lives are measured out in Prufrockian coffee spoons was obscured for some folk because Allen had used a ‘dirty’ word, and he received a flood of hate mail. People were horrified when he swore he had always thought the priest was saying “In the name of the father, the son, and into the hole he goes” when blessing the congregation, or referred to the nuns who educated him as “the gestapo in drag”. Nobody seemed aware, among the protestors at any rate, that Allen was himself protesting, at an abuse of authority.

Allen 2

It is this gentle, determined, consistent 30 year subversion of big brother, mind control, conformism, exploitation of people’s fears, that made Allen a profound political thinker, for these are the issues that confront us. After George Carlin, Dave Allen is the most important comedian of the 20th century, both men great teachers and exemplars for those who want to think for themselves. By some extraordinary accident Allen was also an extremely funny man, who could make you laugh at anything:

Two Irishmen open a pub, and nobody comes. They have a drink, and one says to the other, “I know what we’ll do, we’ll open a brothel”. “That’s no good (to be sure, to be sure)”, says the other. “If we can’t get them to drink beer they’re not going to drink broth”.

An Irishman, Allen tells us, when giving directions to go from point A to point B, always does it differently to the Englishman. They’ll begin by saying, “Well, I wouldn’t start from here if I were you”. (!) “If you start from over there it’s closer”.

Allen, whose real name was Tynan O’Mahony, was born in 1936. He had a close relationship with both parents, though his father died unexpectedly when he was ten. He married, twice, and had children from both marriages. He was admired and liked by colleagues, friends and family, and tried to live a private life as far as possible with his fame. He loved children, was very creative, and seemed to live a happy fulfilled life. He died in his sleep in 2005, aged 69. A wonderful tribute was made in 2013 called God’s Own Comedian, which you can see here Allen disliked repeats of his shows being run, and had a clause added to all his contracts to prevent it.  Although you are unlikely to see anything by him on TV, Allen did make a series of six 90 minute compilations of what he considered the best moments from all his shows, and these can be found if you search for them. Some of his work has been published as The Essential Dave Allen, by Graham McCann (Hodder, 2006).

Dave Allen wins my vote as one of the two or three greatest comedians of all time. He is certainly the most influential comedian of all time in my opinion with the possible exception of Lenny Bruce. Strange to say, there has been no-one quite like him since, no-one with his unique mixture of wisdom, tolerance, wry acceptance of human oddness, exact observation and charm, and few to match his way with an audience.

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5. Kenny Everett
Kenny Everett was born in Lancashire in 1944, and sprang into prominence quite suddenly in 1962, aged 18, as a DJ on Radio London, a pirate radio station operating in the English (or French) Channel. Once he’d overcome his sea sickness he started to assemble the act he maintained all the rest of his life, on radio and for a period on TV. Everett was fascinated with what you could do with an eight track two reel audio tape recorder, and created ridiculous sketches and outrageous characters, complete with ludicrous advertisements, utilising  the possibilities of multi tracking sound levels. He invented this for radio. Nobody else had the audacity or knowledge to do anything like it. As a result he became a celebrity for his largely alternate audience. The really big stars at that time were the Beatles, just at the start of Beatlemania. Dave Allen had done a national tour with them, and Kenny Everett went along on their first tour of the US. Although he worked in radio for most of his career 1964-1994, and reached audiences of more than 20 million people, I never heard him. My exposure to the man was through his television shows 1978 to 1988 for both the BBC (which he christened The Beeb) and Thames. Everett wrote much of his own material, but also worked with other writers such as Ray Cameron, Barry Cryer, and Dick Vosburgh.

Starting with a traditional pop music show interspersed with comedy sketches, Everett evolved a TV show where the emphasis was on character types he gradually perfected. Sid Snot, an ageing urban anarchist or ‘punk’ rocker; Marcel Wave, a ludicrous version of Poirot  with indecipherable French accent and moustache; Angry of Mayfair, who popped up regularly to object to the program (and anything else going), all bowler hat, umbrella and upper class accent but revealed as wearing women’s underwear beneath the pin striped suit; Reg Prescott the DIY man, who regularly sawed pieces of himself off with a bandsaw, poked his eyes out with a chisel, and generally used up a lot of studio ‘blood’; and Cupid Stunt, a spoonerism who looked very like flamboyant actresses such as Bette Midler (who spoofed the same part), complete with large breasts which had a mind of their own and a liberal display of crotch, but all in the very best of taste of course. And including Kenny Everett himself, a bug eyed, manic presenter who always did the unexpected.

At first sight Everett’s humour is anarchic, and seemingly derived from that of manic comedian Spike Milligan, whom Everett admired. Yet while Milligan’s is the comedy of anger, and was developed creatively by comedians such as John Cleese (think modern versions of Oliver Hardy’s “That’s another fine mess you’ve got us in”), Everett’s humour is really the humour of deflation, and ultimately, of reassurance. That figure of danger, the punk with the safety pin in his nose and the aggression, the one we don’t want to meet while riding the almost empty midnight train, is revealed as someone who tries to flip a cigarette from the pack into his mouth, and misses: every time. Angry of Mayfair, a figure of fury to the BBC administration, is really a silly pervert, a reminder that those who criticise us have feet of clay. Marcel Wave turns out to be Maurice Chevalier playing Peter Sellers playing Inspector Clouseau, only an actor. Sex on television it appears is just cheap exploitation.

Everett derives a lot of his humour by deflating his own role as a comedian. He loved to demolish the so called fourth wall, that dimension from which the audience view the dramatic or comic action. Every time you see an actor look at the camera and seemingly address the audience, they are humorously demolishing the convention that makes drama of all kinds possible. Aristophanes did it. He has his actors comment rudely on other actors, or or the physical peculiarities of members of the audiences. Groucho Marx takes the audiences into his confidence, and asks their sympathy for the lunatics he has to deal with. Woody Allen confides to the camera/audience about the boring ‘expert’ in the film queue who pontificates on Fellini and Marshall McLuhan. All these actors are saying, don’t take this too seriously. It’s only a play. Everett grabs the camera and drags it behind scenes to show the mundane makeshift world of technicians and cameramen. He is dragged through TV screens, draws a cannon on a whiteboard then crawls down its barrel and is fired from it across tables at a banquet. He brilliantly mixes cartoon and reality broadcasts, and in the process becomes a cartoon, both literally and figuratively.

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This is comedy of startling originality. Much of it was technically impossible until technicians worked out ways to create Everett’s sketches. It is also very literary. Everett loved wordplay. Cupid Stunt is one example. But this is also the person who thought of “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy”. Someone who had to be careful not to say, “that wraps it up” in case he got wrapped up by some gigantic amorphous fold of reality; or who asked “take it away”  only to have his seat whisked from under him.

The parallels are there, in silent film comedy, the comedy of Spike Milligan and the Goons. Yet the comedy of Kenny Everett is among the most original in the business, the man a one of a kind comedian without origins or successors, among the greatest clowns of all time.

Kenny Everett (whose real name was Maurice Cole) had a serious side, and was a man with a deeply spiritual love of nature. He was universally liked, indeed loved would be the better word. His anarchic behaviour got him fired from every job he ever had, but his enduring popularity saw him usually reinstated. He died in 1995 aged 50, from AIDS complications. He was homosexual, and had an enduring and fulfilling relationship, yet many of his closest relationships were with women. An episode of Heroes of Comedy was made in 1997 about him and can be seen here, and a 2007 film called License to Laugh There’s a biography by James Hogg and Robert Sellers, Hello, Darlings! (Bantam 2013), and a memoir by Cleo Rocos, Bananas Forever (Virgin 1998).

Four of the greatest of comedians. Each different: a great actor who played the melancholy fool; a manic clown; a stand up genius who was able to show the sophisticated cultural roots behind ‘silly’ comedy; and a subversive commentator who taught us all by making us laugh. What they have in common is that their work is all but inaccessible. The Kenny Everett shows are locked in the BBC and Thames Television archives, as are Dave Allen’s shows. Kenneth Williams was a Parkinson regular, but Parkinson’s shows are also locked in the studio archives. The BBC has recently released the surviving episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour, and admitted it was their policy to destroy episodes after they were transmitted, so we can only view half of them, and many episodes are sub standard video.

Other comedians I would have liked to write about are better represented on video and radio. The Goons are still transmitted on BBC Radio and internet radio as they have been since 1950, and have an episode of Heroes of Comedy to themselves,, (now how would Spike pronounce that?), as does Spike Milligan, John Cleese, Billy Connolly and Peter Sellers, all comedy geniuses, have much of their work available.

Comedy is one of the best ways there is to handle contemporary issues. But appreciation of contemporary comedians should not blind us to the brilliance of the past. Many of these older performers have not been surpassed. Here is the 2004 list. It doesn’t list George Carlin, nor Jacques Tati, nor Marcel Marceau. I expect you’ll have your own list. I do.

The Comedians’ Comedian 2004 poll
1. Peter Cook
2. John Cleese
3. Woody Allen
4. Eric Morecambe
5. Groucho Marx
6. Tommy Cooper
7. Laurel and Hardy
8. Billy Connolly
9. Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer
10. Richard Pryor
11. Chris Morris
12. Tony Hancock
13. Bill Hicks
14. Peter Sellers
15. Steve Martin
16. Ronnie Barker
17. Steve Coogan
18. Charlie Chaplin
19. Eddie Izzard
20. Paul Merton
21. Eric Idle
22. Peter Kay
23. Larry David
24. Rowan Atkinson
25. Bob Hope
26. Harry Hill
27. Victoria Wood
28. Spike Milligan
29. Christopher Guest
30. Michael Palin

©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Thanks to YouTube contributors for making scarce material available. Please inform post author of any violation.


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