Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Remembering ... Desperate Romantics. BBC Two

The series was inspired by and takes its title from Franny Moyle's factual book about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives Of The Pre-Raphaelites.
Moyle, a former commissioning editor for the arts at the BBC, approached writer Peter Bowker with the book, believing it could form the basis of an interesting television drama. Although Bowker had a self-confessed "horror of dramatised art biography", he felt that Moyle's book offered something different, viewing the Brotherhood's art largely through the filter of their tangled love lives.
Discussing the series' billing as "Entourage with easels", Moyle said: "I didn't pitch it as 'Entourage with easels' ... I pitched it as a big emotional saga, a bit like The Forsyte Saga. Having said that, I think it was a useful snapshot – a way of getting a handle on the drama." The series has also been billed by the BBC as "marrying the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to the values of Desperate Housewives."
Desperate Romantics was the second time the lives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had been dramatised for television, the first being The Love School – a six-part serial first broadcast in 1975. Whereas Bowker's drama about the PRB was an adaptation of Franny Moyles' book, The Love School (scripted by John Hale, Ray Lawler, Robin Chapman and John Prebble) was adapted into a novel published by Macmillan in 1975. The new dramatisation was heavily influenced by the earlier series.

When Desperate Romantics was first shown on BBC Two it attracted 2.61 million viewers.The first episode received mixed reviews; Tom Sutcliffe in The Independent described the series as "an off-day" for writer Peter Bowker, adding: "It was never quite recklessly anachronistic enough to suggest a defence of predetermination for those moments in the script that seemed more like a spoof of an artistic biopic than a genuine attempt to rise above its limitations." Serena Davies wrote in The Daily Telegraph that the episode: "sadly didn't go far enough in conveying to the viewers how much the Pre-Raphaelites’ art contrasted with what had gone before it." Caitlin Moran, reviewing the episode for The Times, described it as "so bone-deep cheesy that it appears to have been written with Primula, on Kraft Cheese Slices, and shot on location in Cheddar."
The Guardian review described the first episode as: "a rollicking gambol through a fictionalised Victorian London with a narrative as contemptuous of historical reverence as its rambunctious subjects were." Andrea Mullaney, writing for The Scotsman, also considered it: "a rollicking romp ... it's rather good fun", but cautioned: "historical purists will have to clench their thighs as it plays fast and loose with accuracy – much like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood themselves, for all their vaunted insistence on painting the truth of nature."

Viewing figures for the second episode dropped to 2.13 million. The third episode attracted 2.15 million viewers, and ratings for the fourth fell to 1.92 million. Viewing figures for the fifth episode rose to 1.96 million viewers. The sixth and final episode of the series attracted 1.76 million viewers.

"The reason behind Ruskin's inability – or unwillingness – to consummate his marriage to Effie remains the subject of debate amongst his biographers. In 1854, Effie wrote to her father: "He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and, finally this last year he told me his true reason  that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife  was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening." Ruskin's only word on the matter was in a statement to his lawyer during annulment proceedings: "It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person that completely checked it." It has been speculated that Ruskin's unfamiliarity with the realities of the female body was the reason he felt unable to make love to her, and that it was either the sight of Effie's pubic hair or menstrual blood that informed his disgust. His relationship with Rose la Touche has also led to claims that he was a paedophile, having met her at the age of ten and stating that he had loved her since their first meeting. This claim is often backed up by letters he sent to illustrator Kate Greenaway – asking her to draw children naked. However, he did not approach Rose as a potential suitor until she was seventeen."

What was John Ruskin thinking on his unhappy wedding night?
Legend says the greatest Victorian was put off sex by the sight of his wife's naked body. A new film will try to establish the truth
Vanessa Thorpe

The secret at the heart of the short-lived, notoriously unconsummated marriage of John Ruskin, the great artist, architect, poet and political thinker of the Victorian age, has baffled fans of his work for a century. United on his wedding night in April 1848 with Effie Gray, the girl who had been the object of some of his most beautiful writing during their courtship, something went badly wrong.

A feature film is due go into production written by Emma Thompson and starring the Oscar-nominated Carey Mulligan in the role of Gray. Together with a new book by Ruskin expert Robert Hewison, it will attempt to clear up the speculation surrounding the sex life of the man sometimes referred to as "the greatest Victorian".

"The wedding night was clearly a failure," said Hewison, author of Ruskin on Venice. "What subsequently happened was that they realised they had made a mistake so made an agreement to postpone consummation." The popular idea that the groom was shocked by the sight of his bride's pubic hair, first suggested by an earlier Ruskin biographer, Mary Lutyens, is a fallacy, believes Hewison.

"The whole pubic hair nonsense is like a great big wall preventing people understanding Ruskin," he said. "The idea that he did not know what women looked like is a nonsense. It is frankly irritating."

The film reflects a growing interest in the Romantic era. Last year the television series Desperate Romantics took a light-hearted look at Ruskin and the circle of artists he championed, including John Everett Millais, Leigh Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The BBC2 drama was a parody of an incestuous "brotherhood" that saw Millais eventually marry Gray, the ex-wife of his former mentor.

Last year Jane Campion's film about John Keats, Bright Star, brought the same renewed attention to the Romantic poet and showcased similar contemporary beliefs about love and nature.

Ruskin, who was born in 1819, knew JMW Turner, Thomas Carlyle and Lewis Carroll and was responsible for much of the most innovative thinking of his day. He began writing at 15 and won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for poetry as a student. In 1836-37 his work The Poetry of Architecture was serialised in London's Architectural Magazine and, six years later, he anonymously published the first volume of his major work, Modern Painters. Yet all this early achievement has been boiled down to one night of sorrow in the bedroom.

Hewison points out that, since divorce was not legal, Ruskin's claim of "incurable impotency" was the one secure way of separating from Gray.

Thompson's husband, Greg Wise, who will produce the film and play the part of Ruskin, has been fascinated by the life of the eminent polymath since his time as an architecture student in Edinburgh: "He is a pin-up for many artists and was Gandhi's hero too. Whether on the wedding night Effie dropped her night-dress and revealed herself to be far from the physical ideal Ruskin had imagined, we will probably never know for sure, but I think it is too easy to say that he was terrified of intimacy."

In the screenplay for Effie, which Wise and Thompson hope to start shooting next month in Venice and Scotland, the wedding night is a key plot point. "We will show that night at the start, but it doesn't play itself out until the very end. I have talked to many different Ruskinians and they all have a slightly different take on it."

In a famed letter to her parents, Effie claimed her husband found her "person" repugnant. "He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and finally this last year he told me his true reason... that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April."

During the annulment proceedings, Ruskin made the statement that: "It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it."

Wise has found that Ruskin scholars tend to dislike Effie and see the marriage "as a six-year hiccup in the great man's progress".

"We have tried to stick to what Effie wrote about the incident," he said, "but you never really know if Ruskin had set her up for it in some way. She had to go to the ecclesiastical court to get a divorce, so if nothing else you have to admire the strength of character of this girl."

After a trip to Scotland with Millais, Gray and the artist became close, later marrying and raising a large family.

For Wise, the Ruskins' wedding night is a symptom of the universal problem of the difference between an idealised image and reality. "In the same way now that men are bombarded with images of what is supposed to be the ideal woman, after the Pre-Raphaelite ideal anything is going to be a let down. Real life is wrinkles and smells."

Wise believes Ruskin became fixated with Effie and the idea of being in love before the marriage. He and Thompson asked Mulligan to take the part before her success in An Education. "Carey has a rare quality of being open and unfettered," he said. "At the time Effie said she would have borne anything, had Ruskin just been kind. But I can't play him as an ogre because the audience need to understand why she married this man."

While Ruskin's personal reputation remains confused, his impact as a thinker is clear. Admired by the novelist Marcel Proust, who helped to translate his work for the French, a number of Utopian colonies were set up in Canada and America in honour of his ideas and some still bear his name. He coined several literary and architectural terms and inspired a school of neo-Gothic architecture.

By the end of the 1850s Ruskin had developed theories about social justice which fed into the Labour party and had written a series of pamphets, 'Fors Clavigera', for the "working men of England". He was the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford and Ruskin College is named after him. When his father died he gave away most of his inheritance, saying it was not possible to be a rich socialist.

Emma Thompson's film Effie, with Dakota Fanning in the title role as Ruskin's teenage bride, is released in May. Photograph: Joel Ryan/AP/Press Association Images

John Ruskin's marriage: what really happened
Ruskin's marriage to Effie, annulled for non-consummation, still provokes speculation. A new book may explain everything
Michael Prodger

The scandal surrounding John Ruskin, his wife Effie, and John Everett Millais still fascinates a century and a half after the events. What makes it famous is that it wasn't a sex scandal but a non-sex scandal.
The circumstances in which Effie left her husband for the pre-Raphaelite artist have generated at least half a dozen books as well as an opera, a silent film and assorted plays. One of the plays, The Countess, was at the centre of a just-resolved copyright dispute between its author, Gregory Murphy, and the actor Emma Thompson. Thompson has written the screenplay for Effie, a big-screen telling of the story starring her husband Greg Wise as Ruskin, Dakota Fanning as Effie and Tom Sturridge as Millais; the film is scheduled for release in May.

The outline is familiar. In 1848 the 29-year-old Ruskin – two volumes of the influential Modern Painters to his name and at work on The Seven Lamps of Architecture – married Euphemia Gray, the beautiful 19-year-old daughter of family friends. After six increasingly unhappy years, Effie fell in love with her husband's protege Millais and set about having the marriage annulled.

What reverberated then and now was that the reason given for ending the union was non-consummation. But what really snagged in the public consciousness was Ruskin's explanation of why he didn't fulfil his marital duties: "It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there  were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it."

Those "certain circumstances" have been the cause of much salacious speculation. The reasons mooted range from his aversion to children, his religious scruples, a wish to preserve Effie's beauty and to keep her from exhaustion so they could go Alpine walking, to a revulsion with body odour and menstruation. Effie herself was the inadvertent source of the most famous of explanations: Ruskin, she said, "had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening". From this emerged the canard that Ruskin, used only to the smoothness of classical statues of the nude, was repulsed by the wedding-night revelation that Effie had pubic hair. It may not rival Cleopatra's nose, but poor Effie has gone down as the possessor of the most famous genital coiffure in history.

The truth about the wedding night and marriage can never be fully known, but a new book, Marriage of Inconvenience by Robert Brownell, is about to revise perceptions of the whole sad episode. Much of the correspondence between the parties was subsequently edited or destroyed by Effie's relatives to protect her reputation as the injured party. Brownell, though, has subjected the surviving letters to a forensic reading and has drawn conclusions that are at odds with the established story.

Ruskin and Effie had known each other since she was a child. Both came from Perth families, and the Grays moved into the old Ruskin family home after John's father, a successful wine merchant, relocated to London for business. Effie would stay with the Ruskins during school holidays and John wrote his fairytale The King of the Golden River for her.

Ruskin was an only child, doted on by his parents and afflicted by both his mother's intense religiosity and ill-health. He may well have had tuberculosis, although his father ascribed his ailment to "over Study" – not impossible since, at the age of 12, he had written a 2,212-line poem about a family tour of the Lake District. Whatever the reasons, the young Ruskin was reserved, unsure of the opposite sex, a poor horseman and with hesitant social skills. Poignantly he wrote of himself: "If I had been a woman, I never should have loved the kind of person that I am."

Effie, on the other hand, was lively, flirtatious, clever but under-educated. When her mother heard intimations that Ruskin had begun to see her in a non-sisterly light, Effie responded: "that John and I should love each other – wasn't it good, I could not help laughing". When he did declare himself, his letters were indeed laughable – the prose stylist turned gusher: "You saucy – wicked – witching – malicious – merciless mischief-loving – torturing – martyrising … mountain nymph that you are." Nothing of matching intensity from her has survived.

Ruskin's first proposal was not accepted. Effie had an acknowledged "understanding" with a soldier about to go to India and an interest in at least six other young men. Mrs Gaskell, who had attended the same school – though earlier – recounted gossip she heard of Effie collecting admirers as a hobby. What changed her mind, Brownell says, was her father's financial situation. Mr Gray was an inveterate speculator and his investment in railway shares threatened to bankrupt him. Either Effie herself, or more likely her father, saw marriage into the wealthy Ruskin family as the only way to maintain the Grays' creditworthiness. So the Grays brought forward the wedding date to forestall the bailiffs; Effie married with no dowry, but instead had £10,000 settled on her by Mr Ruskin; and the ceremony took place in Scotland with none of John's family present. The Grays had been saved, but Ruskin had been duped.

It was the realisation of this duplicity that was, Brownell argues, the reason for the non-consummation of the marriage. Before the wedding Ruskin had written to his bride-to-be with coy but panting excitement: "That little undress bit! Ah – my sweet Lady – What naughty thoughts had I …" but he also had viewed her with realism ("she is unfitted to be my wife unless she also loved me exceedingly"). Despite the fact that they shared a bed, the knowledge that he had unwittingly entered a marriage with love on one side only meant that his naughty thoughts never became deeds: he was too scrupulous to have sex without reciprocity. They agreed instead to wait six years, when Effie would be 25, to give themselves time to fall properly in love before broaching the subject again.

Love was to prove a vain hope; the most they ever managed was fondness, and that began to erode soon enough. There was an added overlay of friction caused by Effie's resentment of John's parents, who paid for the couple's comfortable lifestyle and kept a close watch on them in return. Effie was thought to need supervision: during two long stays in Venice in 1849 and 1851, while Ruskin was researching The Stones of Venice, he left her pretty much to her own devices in a city crawling with Austrian army officers after their recent successful siege.

Effie had no trouble attracting admirers. She wrote to her brother: "Venice is so tempting just now at night that it is hardly possible not to be imprudent." Her imprudence led to her encouraging – intentionally or not – a number of soldiers. The results escalated from arguments between them over her dance card (she was a committed polka dancer) to a duel in which one admirer was killed. At least two slighted others came openly to express their hatred for her, and things were exacerbated when some of her jewellery was stolen and suspicion fell on another soldier-admirer. According to gossip, perhaps the diamonds weren't in fact stolen but given.

Effie now had a reputation that followed her to London to the extent that the unmartial Ruskin himself was twice challenged to a duel by friends of the jewel-thief officer. It was at this point, Brownell says, that Ruskin rather than Effie actively started to look for a way out. His cat's-paw presented itself in the shape of Millais. Ruskin had defended the painter against critical attacks, and soon Effie was modelling for his appositely titled picture The Order of Release. She was willing – as she wrote to her mother: "Millais is so extremely handsome, besides his talents, that you may fancy how he is run after."

In the summer of 1853 Ruskin invited Millais to join them on a Scottish holiday to paint his portrait. He rented a cottage and left his wife and the painter alone together as much as possible, all the while keeping an "evidential diary". Ruskin's aim, says Brownell, was not divorce (it was so difficult, demeaning and expensive that there were on average only four divorces a year in England at the time) but annulment, which allowed for the dissolution of a marriage on the grounds of, among other things, bigamy, kidnap, incest or non-consummation due to incurable impotence or mental/physical inaptitude.

Ruskin was willing to take the stigma of non-consummation on himself because he wouldn't be medically examined and nor were annulments usually reported in the press. If Effie's father had helped dupe Ruskin into the marriage he was in turn duped into ending it. Ruskin, says Brownell, used the threat of divorce and the ensuing scandal to pressurise Mr Gray into persuading Effie to instigate annulment proceedings instead. The ruse worked. Two doctors attested to Effie's virginity, Ruskin himself was out of the country at the time, and in 1854 the marriage was officially ended.

In fact Effie emerged from the whole business rather better than Ruskin. Her friends – and his enemies – used the non-consummation clause as a means to malign him, while he remained stoically tight-lipped. She also later ended any hopes he had of finding happiness with another young girl, Rose La Touche, by warning her parents about him. Her own marriage to Millais, though, was a success, and consummated with such relish by him that they had eight children and she was forced to write to him imploringly: "Basta!"

Ruskin himself did find love of sorts, however, with his books. Without the distraction of a wife he went on to become England's greatest critic and social thinker of the 19th century. Neither Ruskin nor Effie, however, fully managed to live down those "certain circumstances", however. Until now.

Oh look out, here come the PRB crew, striding down the street, line abreast, like some weird hybrid of a Danny Boyle movie and a costume classic. It's "Paintspotting", or rather
Desperate Romantics, with Dante Gabriel Rossetti as the Renton character, all roaring assertive appetite, and Millais and Holman Hunt as his sidekicks. They're on their way to give the Royal Academy gang a good kicking and it is already clear that the opening disclaimer on Peter Bowker's drama – laying claim to the same "imaginative licence" and "inventive spirit" that characterised the artists he's writing about – was a necessary warning. "Entourage with easels" was reportedly how the executive producer referred to the BBC's series, so what you get on the soundtrack is driving, rock-inflected music and what you get on screen is cheerfully and cockily vulgar.

For some reason, Bowker has invented a fourth gang member to help us out with the story – Fred Walters, a puppyishly eager fan of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. One of his tasks is to sort out their careers for them, procuring the right kind of model (Lizzie Siddal) and fixing up for Ruskin to come to their exhibitions. His other task is to stand around looking mopey and crestfallen when they all ignore him or steal his best lines. Ruskin, incidentally, is played by the excellent Tom Hollander, here struggling with a role that is three parts dictionary of quotations to one part tortured sexual repression. He managed as well as any man could in the scene where Ruskin flies in panic from the marital bed only to find a couple bathed in red light rutting on his desk, but I doubt that any actor could have prevented the tableau from provoking a giggle.

Desperate Romantics might have been better, curiously, if there had been more of such moments rather than fewer. It was never quite recklessly anachronistic enough to suggest a defence of predetermination for those moments in the script that seemed more like a spoof of an artistic biopic than a genuine attempt to rise above its limitations. "So...," says Ruskin when he bumps into the posse at one point, "... the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood... the group of radical young painters who announce themselves by thrusting notes through letter-boxes in the middle of the night." People do this sort of thing quite a lot – telling people what they know already – and Dante Gabriel Rossetti even does it to himself, introducing himself to Ruskin with a tabloid strapline: "Artist, poet, half-Italian, half-mad".

Peter Bowker's script scrabbles a bit effortfully for vigour. "I've seen stains on a chamber pot with more artistic merit," roars Rossetti, after finding that his pals have been bumped out of sight at the Royal Academy by a painting of three cherubs. But it was notable that the moments the language really came alive were when Ruskin had supplied the words. At one point, Fred stops him in his tracks by quoting his advice to young painters: "They should go to nature in all singleness of heart and walk with her laboriously and trustingly having no other thought but how to penetrate her meaning, rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, scorning nothing". It's an intriguingly sexual choice of word – penetrate – given that he could never manage it with his wife, and it gave the line a little frisson that lifted it above the boilerplate jauntiness that surrounded it. Incidentally, since I suspect that Bowker is not going to get an easy ride with this drama, it's only fair to remember that he also wrote the wonderful Blackpool and the recent Iraq drama Occupation. Count this one as on off-day.

Fools for love
A new study retells the tangled stories of the pre-Raphaelites with verve, says Kathryn Hughes
Kathryn Hughes

With their bad-boy behaviour and instantly identifiable art, the pre-Raphaelites have become a permanent fixture in middle-brow culture. Images from their stylised paintings of mythical and biblical subjects circulate endlessly on book jackets and biscuit tins and probably still get tacked up on the walls of high-minded teenagers. The kind of women the PRB liked to paint - all bruised mouth and waterfall hair - have become a visual shorthand for the movement as a whole. And the stories of their triangular entanglements are so familiar as to be almost the stuff of fable: Ruskin, Millais and Effie; Burne-Jones, Georgie and Mary Zambaco; Rossetti and just about anyone he clapped eyes on. As for their wallpaper, well, it's an unusual Englishwoman who hasn't soothed herself to sleep imagining what her sitting room would look like layered with something from the William Morris back catalogue.
So it is disconcerting to learn on the first page of Franny Moyle's study that she sees her goal as bringing "the pre-Raphaelites to life for a new public". Where, you wonder, did the old public go? And how is she going to locate the pocketful of people who are not already on nodding terms with images drawn from the walls of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's study, which is where all pre-Raphaelite art goes in the end? The answer turns out to be, "through the telly". For Moyle's book is a BBC2 tie-in, designed to accompany what promises to be a sumptuous romp through the "private lives" (not too much boring old art then) of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the swan-necked shopgirls whom they elevated into icons.

And on these terms, it succeeds. The narrative weaves together at least a dozen individual stories without showing the joins. Particularly impressive is the way Moyle returns to a key moment - Lizzie Sidall's suicide, for instance - at various points to consider it from different angles. In less sure hands this would feel repetitive, but Moyle has the perception to see that Sidall's unhappy end impacted on several other stories: that of the relationship between her husband Rossetti and his rock-like brother William, the friendship between Swinburne (who'd had dinner with the couple on that fateful night) and Rossetti, not to mention the growing love affair between Rossetti and his public (just one reason why the inquest produced a tactful verdict of death by misadventure). All of which makes it a shame that Moyle has been let down so badly by her proofreaders. The book bristles with typographic mix-ups. At one point we are even told that Rossetti used to get himself to sleep with "choral" (for "chloral"), which at least sounds more soothing than the laudanum that sent poor Lizzie to her grave.

Particularly deft is the way Moyle integrates the "private life" of Ruskin into her story. Since Ruskin was a critic rather than a practitioner, and his professional activities extended far beyond his early championing of the group, his story tends to get hived off from that of the roaring boys who painted their way to prominence. If Ruskin appears at all in such accounts, it is usually as the impotent mama's boy whose marriage to Effie Gray was scandalously annulled in 1854, clearing the way for Millais to provide her with a happy ending: marriage to an important public man and a brood of pretty children.

But Moyle does not drop Ruskin's story there, instead taking it on to its bitter third act. In 1858, the 40-year-old Ruskin once again became obsessed with a young girl, this time an 11-year-old called Rose La Touche. The next 17 years were spent in a war of attrition in which the two unlikely love birds flirted, fell out, planned for marriage, stalked each other through the post and in person, bored their friends and family, and wore each other down until each was only a fraction of their former selves. Rose eventually died at the age of 27 in Ruskin's arms, having spent years starving herself into an approximation of the pre-pubescent with whom he had first fallen in love.

It was a sad ending, but no sadder than what happened to Rossetti and his one-time protégé William Morris. Having tortured each other with their mutual love for Janie Burden, an Oxford slum girl who had exactly the kinky hair and bee-stung lips that qualified her as a "stunner", the two men drifted apart. The mutual lease on Kelmscott was given up (Morris craftily got sole possession back almost immediately) and Rossetti racketed around his house in Cheyne Walk, trying to dodge Fanny Cornforth, a former "stunner" who was running to fat and making menacing noises about being paid off for past services. In the end clever Fanny cleared out as much art as she could carry from Cheyne Walk, and set up "The Rossetti Gallery" in Old Bond St to convert her nest egg into cash. Rossetti, meanwhile, died of kidney failure, quite possibly without his testicles, which had been plaguing him for years.

Quite properly Moyle acknowledges that her work rests on the scholarship of Jan Marsh (the Rossettis), Fiona MacCarthy (Morris) and Tim Hilton (Ruskin). For Desperate Romantics will not tell you anything about the pre-Raphaelites that you have not heard before. It will, though, remind you of how all those wild young men and marginal girls fitted together in a nexus of mutual need and exploitation which produced some of the most striking art of the 19th century. It's got television written all over it, and in a good way, too.

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