Over To Bill Review

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One of the biggest downsides of the Red Dwarf Movie’s ten year development hell is that British comedy was robbed of one of its most unique voices for an entire decade. Even after Dwarf‘s triumphant return to our screens, it’s still been nearly 20 years since we’ve seen anything written by Doug Naylor that doesn’t contain those familiar four characters flying around in one of three spaceships. So now it’s over to Over To Bill to see if the man who co-created one of the greatest sit-coms of all time can still conjure up compelling new characters and exciting fresh scenarios, in this one-off comedy drama.

Bill Onion is a weatherman, although that’s not very important after the first two minutes. He unexpectedly gets sacked for being a bit old hat, although that’s not very important either. He’s trying to secure a meeting with a bloke at Channel 4 so he can get a new job, but that’s so unimportant that you wonder why it’s even there. Despite the synopsis – and indeed the title – the specifics of Hugh Dennis’s character are strangely irrelevant to the plot, which consists of Bill getting into a series of farcical scrapes in an attempt to prevent his best mate Jez from being forced to ostracise him by his evil fiancee.

OK, here’s the first hurdle. The criticism that Grant and/or Naylor can’t write for women has become a bit of a running joke, but it becomes a real issue when two of the four leading characters in a brand new sit-com are one-dimensional, unrealistic stereotypes. The notion of womenfolk “culling” their partner’s friends was out-dated enough in Duct Soup seventeen years ago, and it’s certainly no better here. Doug has fallen into one of the most common clichés of female comedy characters, by creating two women who only exist to nag at the funny men and disapprove of whatever they’re doing. Why can’t the women be just as crazy, flawed or stupid as the men?

It’s a tired old dynamic, and here it means that half of the core characters are totally unlikeable. We’re introduced to Bill’s wife Faith by having her mocking him for having been fired, and throughout the show she does nothing but pour scorn and anger over Bill’s astonished face. As we’re supposed to be on Bill’s side throughout, this just means we end up hating his wife. And the less said about Jez’s partner Selina the better. So shallow and detestable; she’s like a hateful parody of womankind. Why would Jez even want to marry her if she’s going to completely ruin his life? Not all women are like that in the real world – only in poorly-thought-out sit-coms.

For what it’s worth, Tracy-Ann Oberman and Helen George don’t do a bad job. They have very little depth to work with, but they do the best they can. Hugh Dennis and Neil Morrissey are great throughout. Dennis is a steady pair of hands, with his role in Outnumbered having helped him corner the market for slightly downtrodden and exasperated-with-the-world middle-aged everymen. And it’s good to see Neil Morrissey back in comedy after years of tabloid shenanigans and animated builders. He brings an air of warmth and likeability to the role of Jez, and the pair make a good on-screen partnership.

Back to the plot. When it’s done right, farce can produce brilliant, memorable and hilarious comedy, but it requires tight plotting, consistent characterisation and a believable level of escalation. Unfortunately, Over To Bill has none of these things. All too often, the situations rely on someone behaving utterly unrealistically in order to create conflict, such as Bill eating the clearly expensive-looking pastries, or not noticing that he’d left his present on the roof of the car, or Jez not realising that Bill had obviously swapped presents with Selina’s best friend, even though he’d been with Bill when he bought the original gift. Not to mention the fact that all the stuff about bone marrow transplants is complete bollocks – that’s not even close to what the procedure entails.

Worse still, these situations are exacerbated by the characters behaving incredibly stupidly and inhumanly, with their actions being dictated entirely by the plot and not common sense. Why doesn’t Bill just tell Jez and Selina that he accidentally lost their present but he’ll buy a new one as soon as possible? Yes, when characters act like complete idiots it helps the plot to progress, but it does so at the cost of alienating and aggravating the audience. The great characters of farce are never stupid – they often come up with ingenious ways to wriggle out of situations, only to be foiled by other people, unexpected consequences or pure bad luck. How are we supposed to feel empathy for these characters when their downfall is entirely their own fault?

Another problem with the show is the pacing. It really drags at times, and it felt like there wasn’t quite enough plot to fill out half an hour. This leads to several infuriating sections in which Neil Morrissey simply reiterates things that the audience already know, repeating the same phrases over and over again. There’s no need for the audience to see someone being told a story if they’ve already seen the story unfold. The repeated phrases thing is a trope that Doug uses several times in Red Dwarf X, where it’s aided by being rooted to established characters and by the atmosphere of the studio audience, but it just doesn’t work here.

Speaking of which, a quick word about the style of the show. I’m no evangelist for traditional three-wall four-camera sitcoms, and the likes of Peep Show and Friday Night Dinner prove that character-based farce can work brilliantly as single-camera productions. But Over To Bill lacks the energy of those two examples, and I can’t rule out the possibility that the single-camera style contributes to the lack of atmosphere throughout. Having said that, it’s well-shot and well-directed, with a good mix of sumptuous exterior shots and lovely big comedy close-ups that have sometimes been lacking in Doug’s directorial efforts. It looks marvellous in HD too.

But crucially, though, as this is a sit-com – is it funny? Not enough, I’d say. There are some good gags for sure, the highlights being “what was wrong with good old-fashioned iPads?”, and the shot of the Jim Davidson stand-up tape in amongst a crappy petrol station gift selection. But the big farcical sections, that should have provided the biggest laughs, are more cringeworthy than comedic. There’s a very fine line between the two, but when the audience is so far ahead of the characters – as we were the very second Bill put the present on top of the car, or when he picked out the only expensive-looking thing in the entire fridge – it strays into annoying and uncomfortable. You’re willing the show to catch up with something you’ve already figured out, as there are no laughs there to distract you.

Overall then, a frustrating and disappointing half an hour, which fails to live up to the pedigree of the writer or the quality of the cast. It was only a pilot, which suggests that there’s scope for problems to be ironed out if it makes it to a full series. This would require much, much tighter scripts, a great deal more inventiveness and a complete and total reworking of two of the four main characters. Despite the disappointment of the pilot, I’d very much like to see this happen, as I believe that Doug could do a lot better with this cast, and with a platform as big as BBC One. If, on the other hand, I wasn’t aware of Doug’s genius, and were judging the project purely on the basis of this half-hour of television, then sadly I’d be dismissing Over To Bill as a complete dud, which isn’t worth attempting to rescue. Please Doug – if you’re given another chance, prove me wrong.

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38 Responses to Over To Bill Review

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  1. This actually annoyed me a lot. Not just because it wasn’t funny, but because it was so unimaginative and a great waste of an opportunity.

    We’ve heard a lot recently about how badly treated Red Dwarf (and, by extension, its cast and crew) have been by the BBC but, meanwhile, this landed itself a pretty nice slot of its premier channel.

    And *this* is it?

    This is the thing that Doug has been working for the last few years?

    How? There aren’t any interesting characters. There’s no central idea. What’s the actual point of this beyond an excuse to trot out a bunch of old cliches in glorious HD?. Presents on car-roofs, characters insulting girlfriends who are now fiancees, people eating food they shouldn’t and, worst of all, characters accidentally drinking breast milk. Enough with the gross food stuffs, Doug. (Admittedly, this bit wasn’t setup quite as horrifically as the equivalent bit in Lemons, but it was still incredibly feeble).

    And everything about that Bone marrow thing was fucking stupid.

    I think the worst thing in the whole sorry 30 minutes was the plot-device (I refuse to call him “character”) who came and sat down with Neil and Hugh when they were in the restaurant to push the plot along. And then he immediately buggered off once he’d served his purpose. I hope he comes back if this goes to a series because he was brilliant.

    As for the cast; Hugh Dennis does “put upon” pretty well. Tracey-Ann Oberman tends to piss me off anyway, so dumping an awful female character in her direction wasn’t doing her any favours.

    I will have always have time for Neil Morrissey as I think his performance in MBB is greatly undervalued, but well, that screenshot above says it all. To be fair, his character is as badly written as the women. Either he’s Bill’s closest confidant, or he’s someone that Bill can’t tell basic truths to. Bill can’t make up his mind and neither can Doug, evidently.

    The End isn’t perfect. But as a first episode, it’s brave, imaginative, free of cliched situations and full of character comedy. Compared to this, it’s a masterclass of a pilot.

    Gah.

  2. It seems this pilot did get one or two positive comments on other sites (along with many negative ones) but as Doug has been working on this for at least 4 years, it wasn`t unrealistic to expect something more. Especially as this is the remake of a previous pilot and he should have been able to see and fix the things that didn`t work.

    Ah well, at least if it isn`t commissioned then Doug can dedicate all his time to Dwarf.

  3. Oh dear. I wanted to like this and it was fine as a time passing diversion. But the glaring flaws were the above mentioned character stupidity and Doug’s apparent inability to write women as people rather than sitcom stereotypes. :/

    There were a few amusing moments and Dennis and Morrissey managed to invest their characters with some likeability. I’ve only watched it once so maybe it’ll improve on rewatching.

  4. Who saw the previous pilot that was shown at dimension jump, and this. How do they compare?

  5. Why doesn’t Bill just tell Jez and Selina that he accidentally lost their present but he’ll buy a new one as soon as possible?

    Because he is afraid of Selina because she is painted as a difficult controlling woman he has already upset recently and is scared of losing his only mate, so he seeks a way out with out being found out.

    Which isn’t massively far from something like Cybil Fawlty etc and Basil hiding plot points from her in fear. In plot alone. I agree with most of the review though. Tracy ann oberman’s character. Needed to be more sympathetic to balance the show out. But her nagging and them having the showdown moment in the car, and then just turning up again at the wedding having totally changed her mind and having to jump around in the verbal akward scene about why she hadn’t been there until then. Like Basil lying about his wife being ill upstairs when she was out. etc. Only shorter and 4 million times less good. It felt like tracey’s character would have needed a bigger explanation to turn up at that point or that she would have happily dropped Bill in it deeper at that point still being mad at the gift situation etc.

    Totally agree with being so far ahead. In the present pay off etc. and the fridge eating. I read war and peace while I was waiting for the comedy pay off there.

  6. If you had to watch the current “Distended Rectum” crap they call comedy here in the U.S. This would of broken viewing records!

    Since I now have access to a UK server I can watch what ever they put on their I-player.

    I thought it was a good 1/2 hr program. I don’t Dissect comedy, because it becomes unfunny!

    Excellent Casting! Would play well in USA,PBS

    Want to see the next show!

    Photobucket Pictures, Images and Photos

  7. Wouldn`t be a bad idea for Doug to make a public statement about that. Could get some publicity for both the pilot and, more importantly, the charity. Turn a negative into a positive.

  8. He should have asked on Twitter: “What’s the standard procedure for registering for Bone Morrow donations in 2014?”

  9. Missed opportunity for a spitting rain reference in the show then. Tch.

    Next time make an Asso: Spanish Detective pilot to avoid these problems.

  10. What about Captain Invisible and the See-thru Kid? Cheap, if nothing else.

  11. Keep Hugh Dennis and Neil Morrissey but change everything else. Create a situation that makes the show worth watching.

    Don’t have two men talking about how annoying the women in their life are when a) we don’t know the characters they’re talking about so we don’t have a reference point, i.e. why these lines should be funny, b) when we do see the women, they actually are annoying as opposed to sympathetic characters. It’s as though the entire pantheon of Doug’s female characters stem from him seeing Harry Enfield’s ‘Women – Know Your Limits’ sketch and coming to the conclusion ‘that’s what women are’. Oh, and they’re also slags… :p

  12. Nothing wrong with dog’s milk. Full of goodness, full of vitamins, full of marrowbone jelly.

  13. Steve Coogan did the animation narration? Six degrees of separation.

    “Bone marrow harvest.”

  14. G&T Admin

    I thought it was absolutely fucking dreadful. Smiled once, at the Jim Davidson bit. I found the portrayal of the female characters genuinely offensive.

    For years I’ve been saying how I suspected I might enjoy something Doug Naylor created solo, rather than his version of Red Dwarf. Well, that’s that theory blown out of the water. The best bit was the opening Comedy Playhouse logo.

  15. G&T Admin

    That John Lloyd thing is oddly timed, considering that so far this year, the BBC has put out House of Fools, Inside No 9, The Life of Rock with Brian Pern, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle and The Trip to Italy – all of which have been uniformly excellent.

  16. All I can say is, there’s a bigger cultural divide between the US and UK than I thought if Faith seemed scornful and angry the entire time to you. Us American women must come off as She-Hulk by comparison when we are angry. :-D Though I agree her showing up at the wedding later was a dumb plot device.

    The situations were contrived and totally Bill’s fault. It had stupid moments. But I concentrated on the actors, I guess, and found them decently humorous. I actually liked how Selina sort of hounded Bill on the stupid shit he said and did; I got the feeling she’d known him a while and had put up with such as this enough – at least that’s the only reason I would press someone about that stupid stew-moistening comment, to try to get them to break down and admit they’re lying.

    About the culling thing: I got a feeling Bill’s friend might have been the kind of asshole who puts the unpleasant things HE wants off on his partner. If he’s now rich and wants to trim dead weight from his past to better fit in (or Bill has just annoyed him enough that Jez wants shed of him – after all, who really wouldn’t ask their presumed best friend to stand up with him at his wedding?), what better way than to say it’s her fault? What are the chances the “culled” buddies are going to confront Selina about it? I’m not sure if this bit says more about Doug’s view of women, or if it’s a clever observation on a lot of men’s view of the “folly” of trying to communicate with women, frankly.

    And as for the gift bit … maybe I was the only one who thought Jez knew Bill switched the tags and that the whole bone marrow angle and culling Selina’s friend was made-up bullshit?(Does Selina strike anyone as the sort of person who’d let anyone tell her who to not associate with?) The usher was paying some attention (nice Jesus cameo, BTW) – I figured he told Jez or Selina and this was Jez’s way of getting Bill back. That buddy showing up to give exposition time was oddly convenient, and Jez sort of cemented my suspicion when his response to the confession was “well, we can’t let Selina find out, you’ll just have to undergo this painful procedure anyway.” The only part I found really contrived character-wise was Faith’s going along with it.

    Maybe I’m reading too much into it; it’s possible. I just didn’t find it the floater everybody else seemed to, I suppose.

  17. That John Lloyd thing is oddly timed, considering that so far this year, the BBC has put out House of Fools, Inside No 9, The Life of Rock with Brian Pern, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle and The Trip to Italy – all of which have been uniformly excellent.

    I’d add W1A, Weekly Wipe, and (to a lesser extent) the last series of Outnumbered to that list, as well.

    The first few months of this year have been great for comedy on the BBC. Unfortunately, Over To Bill was not good at all. (Except for the hanging mime pictured above, and the petrol station’s selection of gifts.)

  18. I haven’t watched it yet. Really looking forward to it!

  19. John Lloyd is one of my absolute heroes, but I don’t think he’s looking hard enough for the good stuff. If he looked outside of the primetime BBC 1 slots (ie. the sort of spot where BlackAdder used to air, back in the day) he’d find some great stuff.

    There’s certainly a drought of populist stuff that unites the masses (comedy “snobs” alongside less-discerning viewers) but, as long as they keep commissioning shows that cater both types, it’s not a huge problem.

    On that note, I’m sure there’s lots of people who thoroughly enjoyed Over to Bill.

  20. I think the John Lloyd stuff is simply based around him personally not being able to get stuff commissioned.

    The BBC has created plenty of good comedy over the past few years.

  21. British TV comedy is in a much better place right now than it was 10 years ago. This is a simple, undisputable fact. Endless streams of BBC1 shitcoms have now been replaced with at least some decent ones, and ITV have even been raising the odd smile here and there. Though that’s only scratching the surface. There was a period of about 5 or 6 years where British comedy was friggin woeful.

  22. All I can say is, there’s a bigger cultural divide between the US and UK than I thought if Faith seemed scornful and angry the entire time to you. Us American women must come off as She-Hulk by comparison when we are angry. :-D Though I agree her showing up at the wedding later was a dumb plot device.

    The situations were contrived and totally Bill’s fault. It had stupid moments. But I concentrated on the actors, I guess, and found them decently humorous. I actually liked how Selina sort of hounded Bill on the stupid shit he said and did; I got the feeling she’d known him a while and had put up with such as this enough – at least that’s the only reason I would press someone about that stupid stew-moistening comment, to try to get them to break down and admit they’re lying.
    About the culling thing: I got a feeling Bill’s friend might have been the kind of asshole who puts the unpleasant things HE wants off on his partner. If he’s now rich and wants to trim dead weight from his past to better fit in (or Bill has just annoyed him enough that Jez wants shed of him – after all, who really wouldn’t ask their presumed best friend to stand up with him at his wedding?), what better way than to say it’s her fault? What are the chances the “culled” buddies are going to confront Selina about it? I’m not sure if this bit says more about Doug’s view of women, or if it’s a clever observation on a lot of men’s view of the “folly” of trying to communicate with women, frankly.
    And as for the gift bit … maybe I was the only one who thought Jez knew Bill switched the tags and that the whole bone marrow angle and culling Selina’s friend was made-up bullshit?(Does Selina strike anyone as the sort of person who’d let anyone tell her who to not associate with?) The usher was paying some attention (nice Jesus cameo, BTW) – I figured he told Jez or Selina and this was Jez’s way of getting Bill back. That buddy showing up to give exposition time was oddly convenient, and Jez sort of cemented my suspicion when his response to the confession was “well, we can’t let Selina find out, you’ll just have to undergo this painful procedure anyway.” The only part I found really contrived character-wise was Faith’s going along with it.
    Maybe I’m reading too much into it; it’s possible. I just didn’t find it the floater everybody else seemed to, I suppose.

    Interesting take on it, Annie. I liked it a bit more on a second watch. Your theory that Jez was the one who really wanted rid of Bill seems pretty plausible.

    I think part of the reason I wasn’t keen, apart from it not being that funny, was the type of humour. I really don’t like shows which are entirely built around the main character embarrassing themselves, which is why I never liked “Brittas” that much. I know Rimmer does that sometimes, but it’s not the whole show.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if this does get commissioned though – between the star names and the set-up there’s probably enough there for BBC execs.

  23. >I wouldn’t be surprised if this does get commissioned though

    Let’s hope so. I need to see the episode where Bill slates Selina and realises she’s standing behind him. To make amends, he has to be her butler for the week. And then he accidentally eats some shit.

  24. I think part of the reason I wasn’t keen, apart from it not being that funny, was the type of humour. I really don’t like shows which are entirely built around the main character embarrassing themselves, which is why I never liked “Brittas” that much. I know Rimmer does that sometimes, but it’s not the whole show.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if this does get commissioned though – between the star names and the set-up there’s probably enough there for BBC execs.

    Cringe comedy is not my typical oeuvre either; a little goes a long way. I just figured aside from a few missteps, Doug’s provided me some quality entertainment for a long time, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for a little while on this one and presume he might’ve been going for something beyond completely easy gags.

  25. >Because he is afraid of Selina because she is painted as a difficult controlling woman he has already upset recently and is scared of losing his only mate, so he seeks a way out with out being found out.
    > Which isn’t massively far from something like Cybil Fawlty etc and Basil hiding plot points from her in fear.

    BECAUSE WOMEN ARE TEH EVIL!!!!!!111!

    Also Fawlty Towers was made in the 70s. Cool comparison bro.

  26. If we’re such shit, you’d think we’d be in charge of more stuffs and suchlike….

  27. I just had to drop in and say how sad I was at all this.

    Given the reported time that Doug has had to hone this, it is truly awful and I’m surprised that the BBC gave it air time in all honesty. Re-making it with a ‘named’ cast seems an enormous step to take considering none of the gags are new apart from the ill thought out ‘bone marrow’ twist.

    I think what set the rot in for me was the way Bill was automatically painted a complete moron and therefore not worthy of pity or any warmth whatsoever, very soon I found myself watching a screen with my mind drifting elsewhere, the character was neither funny or likeable. I really like Hugh Dennis so this was a massive disappointment to me.

    Neil Morrissey fared little better and I actually found him to be boring and spineless, why want to be friends with him in the first place?

    The overall impression I got was that they all deserved each other why would anyone outside of their group have the slightest interest in them and that’s precisely how I felt as a viewer!

    One thing I do find odd reading the comments above though is finding the portrayal of the ladies to be ‘offensive’ !! It has to be said that there are a lot of women like Faith and Selina out there in the real world.

    Very poor..

  28. The portrayal of the women is only as offensive as the portrayal of the men.

  29. Watched it the other day. Hmm.

    As already mentioned, a lot of the humour was just incredibly predictable. In the commentary for The Simpsons Movie, at the joke closing the movie Dan Castellaneta said “you could see that coming two hours away”. Well, I got that feeling a lot in the episode, and large parts were just dull at times.

    I do agree with the idea that the bone marrow stuff was just an elaborate payback. Or perhaps I’m just hoping there’s more there than there really is. With that said, pledging to give bone marrow wouldn’t fill a box that size… right?

  30. G&T Admin

    The portrayal of the women is only as offensive as the portrayal of the men.

    Not really. The men are the main protagonists, so they get more time to show more of their ‘characters’ (which, admittedly, aren’t that well written). When the women are solely presented as one thing only, that’s where we have a problem, and I don’t actually believe that there are women out there who are ‘just like’ those in the show, because everyone’s human, with more than one personality characteristic.
    The best comedy shows out there reflect this, such as Sybil in Fawlty Towers gaining the audience’s sympathy many times through having to deal with Basil’s stupidity and selfishness, and Brittas, despite saying and doing some awful things, being written well enough that the audience knows that he ALWAYS means well. But that requires some serious writing, because farce, despite not being well respected by some comedy fans, is fucking difficult. As this show proves.

  31. The portrayal of the women is only as offensive as the portrayal of the men.

    Not really. The men are the main protagonists, so they get more time to show more of their ‘characters’ (which, admittedly, aren’t that well written). When the women are solely presented as one thing only, that’s where we have a problem, and I don’t actually believe that there are women out there who are ‘just like’ those in the show, because everyone’s human, with more than one personality characteristic.
    The best comedy shows out there reflect this, such as Sybil in Fawlty Towers gaining the audience’s sympathy many times through having to deal with Basil’s stupidity and selfishness, and Brittas, despite saying and doing some awful things, being written well enough that the audience knows that he ALWAYS means well. But that requires some serious writing, because farce, despite not being well respected by some comedy fans, is fucking difficult. As this show proves.

    I really didn’t see the men painted as any better than the women in this one episode (which is all I’ve been able to see). Jez seems to deliberately set Bill up to look bad to his partner, then messes with him over the gift; and Bill is either thick or so deliberately oafish the whole time (what adult would see someone else’s fancy pastry box and think “hey, that’s ok to snack on!”) that he makes Olaf Petersen look wise. I’m not sure them getting more time does either any favors character-wise.

    You’re so right that comedy is hard, especially this kind. It’s definitely not up to Dwarf pilot level in any case. But I’m American, and we have “My Mother the Car” under our national belt, so I can prove we’ve done worse. ;-)

  32. To be honest, based on the persona of the women portrayed in that short pilot, there are women like that out there, without doubt. That’s not to say it’s their only trait, but the elements of their behaviour are all too real. Clearly Sybil had more depth to her (although I never felt sympathy towards her) but she had 12 episodes to gain this depth and was arguably on an equal footing to Basil from day one.

    Bill and Jez come across as unlikeable morons from day one and Bill gives the impression of being down trodden to me.

    It’s a tad ironic to suggest the portrayal as offence given that the entire premise of the show is that Bill has been superseded by a younger more intelligent female!

  33. Having re-watched it (albeit with my finger hovering on fast forward), I see a few basic problems that take the fun out of it for me.

    Whilst I stand by my previous comments of predictability and real though exaggerated traits, the main problem for me is the ending/outcome. In reality, it is just so ridiculous and contrived that any enjoyment that may have been wrung out of the half hour, is immediately replaced with WTF! If this was just a case of Jez obtaining a pay back, surely a multitude of endings could have been used. I have heard of people offering their services instead of presents and for a beloved cause, it all makes sense. This however was ill thought out and wholly unlikely (if not impossible) surely the promise of a bungee jump, marathon run or three peak challenge for example would have been more appropriate and likely at the end of the day?

  34. So… the way the men are portrayed is ridiculous and contrived, but there are without doubt women like that?

  35. No, the ending was/is ridiculous and contrived, the men are unlikeable and moronic, they do exist….Whether anyone would be stupid enough in reality to put themselves through the ending though is questionable. Up until the end procedure. I could accept both male and female traits, the end (for me) was a step too far for everyone..

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