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Meeting up with Peggy Blackett – from the film ‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974)

Lesley Bennett in 1973

When the original feature film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ was made in 1973, Peggy Blackett was played by Lesley Bennett. She can be seen here on location at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water in the Lake District.

For the last thirty-four years, Lesley has been living in the Netherlands. I met up with her for lunch at Schiphol Airport on my way back from sailing Arthur Ransome’s cutter, the Nancy Blackett, through the inland waterways of Zeeland. (Please see the last two previous posts.) I nearly didn’t make the meeting. A man had been arrested for planting a bomb on a train just north of Middleberg, but the authorities must have acted quickly as I wasn’t delayed for long.

Lesley had brought along a blue file of documents and a number of black and white movie stills that she’d been given by Richard Pilbrow, the producer of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) on one of our last days in Ambleside after filming had finished. We could both remember them spread out on a table at the unit hotel so we could each chose the ones we appeared in. I had picked one where Lesley and I are sitting together, our hair bobbed in line with the 1930’s, I wearing a cream silk dress, Lesley in a dark top looking very pretty:

With Virginia McKenna on the first day of filming

~A publicity shot featuring Virginia McKenna, with Kit Seymour, Sten Grendon, Sophie Neville, Lesley Bennett, Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton, published in the Guardian and other newspapers~

Lesley’s parents, who lived near Tonbridge in Kent, originally learnt that Theatre Projects were looking for children to take part in the film when the Associate Producer, Neville Thompson, wrote to their local sailing club. Lesley explained that her father, who was very well organised, kept a copy of the letter sent to the Secretary of the club in January 1973.  Plans were made for Lesley to be interviewed for a part with her younger sister Lyn, who sadly fell ill and couldn’t make the audition. The letter contains a mistake that might explain why Lesley ended up playing Peggy when she was thirteen years old.

Lesley got on well with Kit Seymour who ended up playing her elder sister, Nancy Blackett – ‘terror of the seas’. Both girls would sail well and enjoyed being out on the lakes. Lesley told me that the reason why she held her hands between her legs in this photograph is that it was so cold when we were filming on Peel Island.

‘Kit would fold her arms and I’d try to keep my hands warm.’ Although I wore a cardigan in this scene, Swallows had been cold too. I remember thinking that at least the Amazons wore knitted hats. Otherwise their costumes were simple short-sleeved shirts and long shorts with black plymsols, worn without socks.

~Kit Seymour as Captain Nancy and Lesley Bennett as Mate Peggy in 1973~

Lesley told me their hats had been quite a problem – not quite a full-blown movie disaster but a they caused consternation in Consiton. The first scene the Amazons shot was set in the garden of Beckfoot, the Blacketts’ house. Although it does not lie on the ‘Amazon River’ at the northern end of the lake, Brown Howe on the western shore of Coniston Water was used as the location and the crew set up the 35mm Panavision camera, along with reflector boards and enough lighting to bring sunshine to Westmorland. When everyone on the production was ready, Gareth Tandy, the third assistant led the Amazons down to the set wearing red knitted stocking caps – with no bobbles. Beanies were not quite what either the director or producer had expected. Lesley has a photo showing the great discussion that ensued:


~Director Claude Whatham, Producer Richard Pilbrow, 3rd Assistant Director Gareth Tandy, Make-up Artist Peter Robb-King, Hairdresser Ronnie Cogan and Associate Producer Neville Thompson with Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett at Brown Howe on Coniston Water in May 1973 ~

In the end Claude Whatham shot the scene with the girls bare-headed, their hair blowing all over the place, even though it was meant to be ‘dead-calm’ in the story.  This looked natural as they were at home but they needed to look like pirates in every other scene.

~Nancy and Peggy running down to Amazon at the Blackett’s house Beckfoot~

Wooly hats with ‘longer ends’ were knitted locally at some speed. Red is not a good colour on the screen. I remember a couple of bright pink ribbed bobble-hats arrived when we were filming on Peel Island but they were deemed a complete disaster and rejected in favour of scarlet ones originally described by Arthur Ransome even if the colour might look a bit jarring on screen.

No one on the production knew anything about knitting or subtle shades of wool and Emma Porteous, the costume designer, was back in London. When the third pair of hats arrived we were all a bit worried about the fatness of the bobble-end, as they didn’t quite match the illustrations in the books, but no one knew what else to do. Time ran out and the producer was forced to compromise. ‘They were warm but prone to flop about,’ Lesley said, ‘and sometimes flopped forward, which looked a bit silly.’ I’d never noticed this but it was captured in one photograph:

~Kit Seymour and Lesley Bennett as Nancy and Peggy Blackett on Wild Cat Island in 1973~

Mum was given the pink version of the hats. She kept them for years but no one ever wore them.

To be continued….

 

 

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A Little Bit of Film History

Contact sheet - Sophie Neville with Amazon's anchor

~ Titty with Amazon’s anchor ~

When I first posted an extract from ‘The Secrets of filming Swallows and Amazons’ on a literary website, someone wrote a review assuming it to be a novel. They must have thought that I was some poor creature who had imagined the whole thing. The reviewer considered the plot too far-fetched and fantastical – as you might if it had not been true.

‘You must have been dreaming.’

‘But Captain Flint, there were burglars, you’ve got to believe me.’

Poor Titty! No one ever believed her. Fortunately quite a bit of documentary evidence exists to support the fact that a certain feature film was made in the Lake District in 1973. I do wish I’d kept a copy of the book review though.

Contact sheet - finding Titty in Amazon

~ The Swallows find Titty sleeping in Amazon near Cormorant Island ~

Contact sheet - Suzanna Hamilton and Sophie Neville sailing Amazon

~ Titty and Susan sail Amazon back to Wild Cat Island ~

Contact sheet sailing Swallow & Amazon in 1973

~ Sailing Swallow and Amazon on Derwentwater ~

Contact sheet - sailing Swallow & Amazon on Derwentwater

I was encouraged to collect things as a child, in case they might one day be of value. Back in 1973, I was given a number of black and white photographs and contact sheets of stills taken by Albert Clarke on the set of ‘Swallows & Amazons'(1974) – if you can call Derwentwater a movie set. I pasted some of these in a scrapbook but others remained in a roll that has only recently been returned to me. Each sheet looks roughly like this:

The Making of Swallows & Amazons contact sheet - both boats

The eye is easily tired by looking at the whole set but scanning and editing reveals a little bit of film history in every shot. I can see here that Titty wasn’t letting Amazon’s anchor down, she was hauling it in while Susan was at the helm, with a fair wind in her sails. This must have been quite tricky.

Sophie Neville pulling up Amazons' anchor

You can tell by the numbers above each shot how many were taken and in what sequence. presumably 2003 photographs had been snapped by the time the Swallows found Titty moored near Cormorant Island.

Contact sheet - filming Swallow

~ These bizarre shots show the film crew afloat on their pontoon ~

The photographs below show Virginia McKenna rowing away from Peel Island on Coniston Water in a native canoe with DoP Denis Lewiston and his 35mm camera, which is pretty unique.

One thing is certain, if these contact sheets had not been given to me they would have been thrown out and yet, over time, they have become precious. Do add a comment below if you would like to see more.

It is quite interesting to see which shots were chosen for the press. You can see a few of the action shots used in magazines of the time by clicking here. Newspapers tended to chose photographs akin to portraits as you can see here.

Recent newspaper articles tend to use a black and white film still that was clumsily tinted giving the lake water an unreal and bright blue hue as you find here.

Some of the black and white prints are now held at BFI. StudioCanal hold a vast selection of the best photos in their library and have an on-line shop here. I have included about a hundred behind-the-scenes snaps taken by my parents in the latest edition of ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’ recently published by The Lutterworth Press, available from libraries, bookshops and online stockists including The Nancy Blackett shop, where proceeds go towards the upkeep of Arthur Ransome’s favourite little ship.

9780718894962_cover Amazons.indd

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News of 2nd edition of ‘The Making of SWALLOWS and AMAZONS (1974)’ published by The Lutterworth Press on 25th May 2017

9780718894962_cover Amazons.indd

The long-awaited second edition of ‘The Making of SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS (1974)’ is being published in paperback by The Lutterworth Press on 25th May. Pre-orders are now available from their website here
This memoir of an odd thing that happened in the early 1970s is similar to the first edition but has a new cover and includes a few more stories, photographs and names from the ‘seventies that have floated to the surface. It compliments StudioCanal’s 40th Anniversary DVD and Blu-ray and makes a good present for anyone who has grown up watching the 1974 film.
StudioCanal DVD cover
The new paperback edition will be stocked by the vast majority of book retailers including Amazon, Waterstones, Blackwells, Paperback Bookshop, Books Etc. and is available direct from The Lutterworth Press  who also publish ‘Swallows, Amazons and Coots’ by Julian Lovelock that has a forward by Sophie Neville.  Those in North America can order copies from the US distributor Casemate Academic
 Swallows & Amazons flags for book

Sophie hopes to be signing copies at events around the country this summer.

Please click here for details

Roseland Festival 2017
Last weekend Sophie was signing copies of her books at the Tavistock Festival and gave a talk at the Roseland Festival in St Mawes before a screening of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1974) on Sunday evening at the lovely Hotel Tresanton cinema.
Arthur Ransome Pin Mill Jamboree
We are hoping copies of the 2nd Edition will be available by Saturday 13th May when Sophie will be opening the Arthur Ransome Pin Mill Jamboree in Suffolk, to celebrate the  20th Anniversary of the Nancy Blackett Trust and Visit England’s Year of Literary Heroes. As we Discover the Land of Literary Greats, Sophie will be giving a talk on the adaptations of Ransome’s books set in East Anglia and the English Lake District.

Map of the Jamboree

 this Saturday 22nd May at 2.00pm

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What did you think of ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’?

The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons

‘I’ve just read this delightful ebook – thank you so much for writing it! I’m sure you must get messages all the time like this, but I hope you will deservedly enjoy hearing that I absolutely adored the film of S&A and learned your name, along with all of the other actors and actresses off by heart from the record, which I played and played.

LP of Swallows and Amason with vinyl record

‘I also had the jigsaw of the campsite scene, which I thought was an incredible piece of merchandising (and it was, for its day).

5664403747_508e9eb7d7_n

‘I read my first S&A book (Swallowdale, but never mind) in the summer holidays when I was 7, and rapidly recruited my best friend Linda to being a fan. One of our mums spotted that the film was on at our local cinema in Dundee that Christmas, but the next day was the last date it was showing – so we were collected early from our school Christmas party, so that we could make it in time. We were in heaven. The next Easter, our families took us to the Lake District (staying in Coniston) for the first of many holidays there. We remember “finding” Gondola submerged in the reeds, and sailing with our dads over to Bank Ground and seeing the two dinghies named Swallow and Amazon. We soon found a favourite picnic on the shore close to Peel Island, and in later years, my dad and I rowed over to the Island in a rubber dinghy, which was tremendously exciting. Fascinating to hear about the artificial shingle beach!

I was interested to read that one of your qualifications for getting the job was that you could row, and that you’d practised at home in a Thames Skiff.  Many thanks again for giving me such a delightful film to immerse myself in as a child. Helena Smalman-Smith

Fan letter for Swallows & Amazons -

‘We love your book and tales of filming.’  Love Ambleside – on Twitter

‘…the girls adore your film of Swallows and Amazons. In fact, I fear it is thanks to your film rather than the book that my Swallows and Amazons camping weekend was full to bursting. I also have friends in Suffolk who would happily hot foot it across the country with their three children to hear you!’  Grainne Dennison (teacher and Ransome fan).

‘My daughter is 11 today & this is her favourite present!  Titty was always Moira’s favourite character from the books AND the film, she is thrilled!’

Fan mail

‘My daughter LOVED your book! She couldn’t help sharing gems & finished it in a few days on hols. Magic! My turn now!’

‘I have been hesitating to write, but I do want to tell you how much I enjoyed reading ‘The Making of Swallows and Amazons’. It made watching the film so much more enjoyable. I came to Arthur Ransome late in life, but I’ve read all of them, and have a complete collection of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ adventures.’ Mark Cheng, Bedford

Puzzels

‘I really love the Swallows and Amazons movie. I actually went to see it at the pictures in London, with my family when it first came out, but I was only about 4 or 5 years old, so I don’t remember much about that day. But of course I have watched it many times over the years and since I have the DVD I make a point to watch it at least once every year. You are my favourite as you are so charming!!’ Robert Newland, Dorset

If you have a memory of the film, do leave a comment in the box below.

If you would like to write a short review on Amazon, here is the link for readers in the UK

A publicty photograph for 'Swallows and Amazons'

Lesley Bennett, Suzanna Hamilton, Stephen Grendon, Sophie Neville, Virginia McKenna, Simon West and Kit Seymour gathered at Bank Ground Farm above Coniston Water

 

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Memories of making the original movie of ‘Swallows & Amazons’

The phone in my office rang at about 6.30pm.

“Is that my little Titty?” a voice asked.

“Well…”

“Do you know who I am?”

I had no idea.

“I haven’t seen you since 1973!”

“It’s Jean!” It was Jean McGill ringing from Bowness in Cumbria. She had been our driver and the unit nurse on the film of ‘Swallows & Amazons’ made in the Lake District from May to July 1973, released a year later in 1974.

Jean our driver and location nurse operating the radio with Sophie Neville ~ photo:Martin Neville

Jean McGill our unit driver and location nurse with Sophie Neville ~ photo:Martin Neville

“I’ve never seen the film,” Jean declared, “but I loved your book about making it.  It brought back such memories.”  I urged her to tell me more. “I remember when Suzanna Hamilton cut her hand whittling wood. It was bleeding like anything. I bandaged it up nicely but the director was horrified and made me take the dressing off again.”  I think this was when we were in the middle of filming on Peel Island. The accident put an end to our wood carving hobby, which was a shame. We’d been using a Swiss Army knife to make our own bows and arrows with Bob Hedges the prop man.

Ronnie Fraser and DoP Denis Lewiston with paper cups of champagne and the call sheet for the next day ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Ronnie Fraser outside the dining bus on location with a paper cup of champagne

” You children persuaded me to go out to dinner with Ronnie Fraser! Why I went, I haven’t the foggiest. He was a rough character – very coarse.” Ronald Fraser was the movie actor playing Captain Flint. “I used to have to drive him to the local hotel in the mornings and order champagne to sober him up.”

“How would champagne have helped to sober him?”

“I don’t know. He told me it would.”

“I think he’d been divorced for a while at the time.”

“I wouldn’t have married him in the first place,” Jean assured me.

Terry Smith and Jean McGill on Derwentwater

Terry Smith wearing the safety officer’s wetsuit with unit nurse and driver Jean McGill

Jean had been taken on as the unit nurse after the first nurse proved rather out of her depth. I thought she was a State Registered Nurse but she corrected me. She had 26 years experience in nursing becoming a hospital sister but was never an SRN. “I was a driver for Browns (of Ambleside)” and as such was paid to work on the film. “I wasn’t paid to be the unit nurse. It didn’t matter, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

I only found out recently that my mother hadn’t been paid to be a chaperone either, despite the responsibility as well as her legal obligations. It was hardly a big budget movie. Like Jean, she was simply thanked with a bouquet of flowers at the end of the filming.

Jean was one of the few local people who worked on the film throughout the seven weeks we were on location. Her local knowledge made all the difference as she knew the roads well, took short cuts to avoid the traffic and knew the best swimming spots when the weather warmed up.

A Day Off in Blackpool

Suzanna Hamliton, Simon West, Claude Whatham Sophie Neville, Kit Seymour, Jean McGill with Daphne Neville (kneeling) Blackpool, 1973

I reminded Jean about the early 1970s – what we ate and how we dressed.  ” I bought a pair of jeans for the first time in my life. It was so hot that I changed into shorts while we were on set. You children took the jeans and stitched a big red heart on the backside.” There was a craze for adding embroidered patches to denim clothing. These were expensive to buy but we persuaded to Sten Grendon’s mother to make red hearts for everyone’s jeans. “It made walking through Ambleside very embarrassing.” Jean sounded as if she was still recovering from the indignity 43 years later. “It mucked me up!”

Jean went on to drive for Mountain Goat Tours in Cumbria and worked in a doctor’s surgery before becoming a registrar for ‘hatches, matches and dispatches’. “I’m a coffin-kicker now,” Jean told me cheerfully. She never worked on another film but kept a copy of the original screenplay and other memorabilia.

Not long after I spoke to her a brown paper package arrived in the post.  It contained an envelope with the writing,

FOR THE ATTENTION OF TITTY

‘Still looking for the photographs. Will send to you when I find them. 43 years old?  It was this tatty when I got same! Jean.’

And this is what the envelope contained:

Original Screenplay of Swallows & Amazons page 1

Here is Jean in her red top talking to my mother in her Donny Osmond hat:

 

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Notes for the second edition of ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’

Since Classic TV Press published ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’ in 2014, a number of facts have floated to the surface. The most amazing recollection was one that occurred to my mother.

‘The letter inviting you to come for an interview for a part in the film was addressed to your father. He was working abroad when it arrived. I never, ever opened his mail but something urged me to open that one envelope. It was a good thing I did as he was away for three weeks and we would have missed the opportunity altogether.’  She was amazed by the contents and replied at once, sending a photograph to Theatre Projects. I think it was this rather miserable one of me wearing a Laura Ashley dress.

Sophie Neville  wearing Laura Ashley in 1972

Sophie Neville in 1972

A date was made to meet the director. I now remember that I was taken up to Long Acre in the West End to meet Claude Whatham very soon after Dad arrived back from his business trip. We walked through Soho and visited a Chinese grocery store on the way home.

 

Daphne Neville presenting 'Women Only'1

Daphne Neville on HTV in 1973

‘I was never paid to work on the set as chaperone,’ Mum told me. ‘Neither was Jane. We were just happy that our expenses were covered but it ended up costing me quite a bit as I had to travel back to Bristol to work now and again.’ She was working for HTV as a television presenter alongside Jan Leeming, who is currently appearing on ‘The Real Marigold Hotel’. For the photo of them both on an HTV West show, please click here

Jean McGill said she didn’t get paid for acting as the Unit Nurse, as far as she could remember, ‘But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.’

Nurse with Baby Vicky, the ship's baby

Kerry Darbishire playing Nurse

The most exciting thing was meeting Kerry Darbyshire, who played Vicky’s nurse, at Zeffirelli’s cinema in Ambleside for the 40th Anniversary screening of the film. I learnt to my horror that I had mis-spelt her name in the credits I gave the actors. All I had to go on was her signature in the back of my copy of the hardback book of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ where I’d collected autographs.

Signatures of the rest of the cast and crew of 'Swallows and Amazons' in the back of my Jonathan Cape edition of Arthur Ransome's book

Kerry Darbishire’s signature

Kerry laughed, telling me, ‘I should have had more legible handwriting.’ She  appeared in the film quite a bit. ‘It was a pity I wasn’t able to bring my own child. She was the exact same age and colouring as the little girl they found to play baby Vicky.’ Kerry was with us in the compartment of the train on day one of the shoot. ‘I found it very difficult to laugh with you when the train went into the tunnel.’ I couldn’t think what she meant at first but it was the laughter that followed Virginia McKenna’s line: ‘He’d say, “Just look at that scenery”.’ at the moment the train goes into a dark tunnel. ‘You children found it no problem at all, but I couldn’t laugh. I was too shy.’ Zeffirelli’s are next screening ‘Swallows & Amazons’ (1974) at 7.30pm on 2nd March.

I never knew the name of the snake wrangler – who brought the charcoal burners’ adder along, but Ken Foster wrote in recently to say it was his father, John Foster whose family farmed near Satterthwaite. He was once employed as an assistant at the fresh-water biology research establishment at Windermere and became a biological specimen supplier. You can read more about his unusual occupation here

To read more about the day the adder arrived on location, please click here.

Charcoal Burners' Adder

John Foster & the charcoal burners’ adder

Simon West, who played Captain John, remembered that Claude Whatham often used to take us for a quick run before going for a take. It freshened us up and was appropriate when we had to run into shot, slightly out of breath.

One little girl wrote to tell me how she pulls her dress over her knees just as I did when I played Titty, as I got rather cold in a scene when were were first sailing Swallow to the island.

Sophie Neville with Terry Needham and the unit radio at Derwentwater ~ photo: Daphne Neville

Sophie Neville with Terry Needham

George Marshall, the veteran film accountant, assured me we had a very talented film crew. Mark Birmingham, a film producer currently working on the bio-pic of Noel Coward, knew quite a few of the individuals working on ‘Swallows & Amazons’ and told me of the amazing careers they went on to lead. ‘Your Best Boy, Denis Carrigan, went on to run Sherperton Studios.’ Denis worked closely with Ridley Scott who made many great films there. ‘Sadly one of the other electricians died when he grabbed a live cable.’

Other people have written with interesting stories relating to the film locations.

Swallows & Amazons filmography - ebook_html_m52e3dc61

‘The shop in Woodland Road was my grandfather Tom Kirkbride’s cobblers shop from 1930s to 1956,’ Brian Salisbury wrote. ‘After he retired, the wooden building became Stan Cropper’s sweet shop doing a roaring trade with the boys at St Mary’s Boys School just along the road and the newly built Droomer Estate.’  This was the shop where we bought rope for the Light House Tree that is now a barber’s in Windermere. To read more about this location and others in Windermere, please click here

Is there anything you would like to add?

Daphne Neville, Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, Jane Grendon and Simon West after the last shot was taken.

Daphne Neville, Stephen Grendon, Suzanna Hamilton, Sophie Neville, Jane Grendon and Simon West.

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Recent comments on ‘The Making of Swallows & Amazons’

‘I bought a signed copy of The Making of Swallows & Amazons and have just finished reading it. It’s a lovely, flowing read and I loved all the interesting details, especially chapters 12 to 18 in the later half of the book… I shall treasure it.’ Nigel

Blu-ray fishing scene

‘I am thoroughly enjoying reading your diary entries and hearing how life was on set etc… All the things I have always wanted to know about the film are in the book! I do hope you have lovely memories of all the locations you filmed at, especially Bank Ground Farm. Jonathan, who now owns the place and does all the farming has made my family and I very welcome indeed! (only) we can not tack up the field as they are growing it for Silage!!!! Thank you for inspiring my family and I so much! Yours sincerely, Benjamin’ (aged 10) ‘P.S. We’re off to Wild Cat Island tomorrow!’

Blu-ray Lookout tree

Simon West as Captain John by the lighthouse tree

‘All of your recollections are insightful and tinged with humour (as always). In particular the story about Mrs Batty locking out the film crew and all the Cumbrian characters that were involved in the film. I didn’t know George Pattinson appeared in the Rio scene either, and I can just imagine the giggles you must have had when watching the double-deckers playing footsie with one another!’ David.

Blu-ray Amazon Pirates

Lesley Bennett and Kit Seymour as the Amazons stranded on Wild Cat Island

‘Good little book full of information and funny tales.’ Jennifer

‘This book has rekindled my interest and memories from the 70’s when I first saw the film and read all the books, so well written and very entertaining, in some ways it ll seems a long time ago but this book makes it seem like yesterday! Thoroughly recommended.’ Richard on Amazon.co.uk

‘Loved your book about filming Swallows & Amazons – my favourite childhood film, very nostalgic.’ Nicola

‘Just wanted to say how much I am enjoying The Making of Swallows & Amazons. What a wonderful time you all had… I have all the books & love the film & TV series Coot Club and The Big Six, so it’s fab to read about them.’

Blu-ray John rowing swallow

Sten Grendon, Simon West and Suzanna Hamilton in Swallow

If you would like to write a short book review, please click here for the link.

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