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Dear Friends and readers,

Here is part two of my musings on the differences between the way film-makers adopt/adapt 18th versus 19th century sources. I wrote in Part 1 about two successful Tess of the D'Urberville (1979 by Polanski, 2008 BBC, with Gemma Arterton and Hans Mathesen) and one masterpiece Jude the Obscure film (1999 BBC, by Michael Winterbottom, with Kate Winslet and Christoper Eccleston) a couple of days ago.  Today my subject is The Duchess, a film adaptation of Amanda Foreman's enormously successful biography of Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire.  Next up will be the marvelous 1997 BBC production of Tom Jones (director Metin Huseyin, screenplay Simon Burke  with John Sessions as Fielding himself, Benjamin Whitlow, Samantha Morton).

It'll differ from Part one because I find I've written about this book, the film, and Georgiana Spencer as a letter-writer, poet and politician before: in the first blog I kept up, Jim and Ellen have a blog, Too, one attacked by a malicious virus-monger, where I retrieved those blogs I valued among which was The duchess was a writing and reading girl too.  If you go over there, you'll find a life, an account of her writings and quite a debate on the book versus the film.

Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire by Joshua Reynolds (1774)

Here I'm not looking at the relationship of the film to Georgiana's real life, but its relationship to other films and to paradigms which underlie films based on 18th century sources.  My "control" or other film I bring in to show the masculine version of the kind of uses I'm talking about is the strongly popular mini-series from 1975-77, Poldark , a young Cornwall landowner, who returns from the American wars, having been reported dead and has to build a life for himself against the interests of others who his presence deprives of what his land would have given them (screenplays Jack Pullman, Alexander Baron [among others], directed by Paul Arnett [among others], based on a mid-20th century historical novel cycle by Winston Graham, Cornwall later 17th century .  

Robin Ellis as Poldark (still from series)

Jeffrey Patcher and Saul Dibbs's film adaptation of Amanda Foreman's The Duchess (based on a woman's real life in the 18th century however with access to wealth and some power), is a coming of age film, the equivalent of "a young lady's entrance into the world" as the 18th century novels have it.  In the 19th century these were labelled bildingsromans.  In women's case these are quite different from men's:  the coming of age comprises different experiences in life, the cruxes or crises are often different and what is presented is often shaped differently -- especially before the 20th century. The term is originally a Victorian one and was applied first to Goethe's William Meister.

The original texts of the eighteenth century (Georgiana's letters and life), the biography which grew out of these (Foreman's) are differently shaped than those of 19th century sources, and the movies both reflect and reinforce the original shaping so 18th century films repeatedly delve into sexuality for its own sake and to present the issues as we are troubled by them through this mirror or disguise of costume, while 19th century films turn to social and familial pathologies and attempt large historical critiques -- again as relevant to our own time and even about our own time in disguise. If we look at La Nuit de Varennes, which purports to be about history, we see that it takes a very much marginalized and fantastic playful perspective; by contrast, say Davies Middlemarch or films based on Hardy do what they can to be "true" to larger patterns of history.

The Duchess in line with this has a paradigm that recalls say Austen's S&S where our heroine is taught a cruel enforced lesson in sexual renunciation.  Under threat of ostracism, poverty, loss of children, Georgiana is forced to give up her lover and a child by him (revealingly played by Dominic Cooper who was Willoughby in the 2008 S&S); the directives are given by a husband whose male sexuality (pride, ego, control, appetite) are threatened even ever so little. He will not compromise a jot.  The ending is of her running about as a child, like a child with her children.

A typical moment from such films: the used and abused (in one scene the Duke, played by Ralph Fiennes, rapes Georgiana, forces himself brutally on her, and there is no recognition in him that he has done anything out of the way). She is vexed, anxious, on her way to meet Charles Grey in a hidden pavilion (as she might do in one of the era's novels)

Cooper as Grey looking out at the crowd before he begins a political speech supported by Georgiana -- about half-way through the film.

The biography does not emphasize Georgiana's relationship with her children at all. They take a second or third place (or more) in her decisions and choices which still left her profoundly maimed and discontented: she died young, and the woman she had taken in as a companion, Bess Foster, who had begun to dominate her (probably through a lesbian relationship) married the Duke herself.  But our society cares or insists that women care deeply about their children, about abortion, adoption and sustainning nuclear groups. So the movie speaks to these paradigms in movies.

I was much moved by the ending where the Duchess gets as a reward this playful existence and to get to socialize, drink, and gamble (though now within limits) and Grey ends a prime minister.  We see a scene closely analogous to that of Willoughby versus Marianne in Austen's books.  Grey must separate himself from Georgiana; he does what he can in the moment to assure her their child is being taken care of and she acknowledges as kindness his even telling her this.  He is the decent man deprived of a genuine personal life he might have wanted:

Even their postures in this closing scene recall analogous scenes in the Austen films. Insofar as the S&S films enact this, they are simply 18th century films.

I was gratified to see this giving up as part of coming of age for both,, and Grey and Georgiana -- though the cruxes here are those a woman experiences, from a film about Grey and book we'd get very different choices as central to what made his career. 

Poldark too is coming of age.  A hero more different from Tom Jones cannot be imagined -- somber, serious, a man whose troubles are those that might appeal to people today:  home from the war after having been declared dead, he finds his relatives and friends may welcome him, but the woman he was engaged to marries his cousin (for her family wants his family's money), his uncle calls in a debt from money he has worked hard to loan, he is driven by a man (monopolizer in the making) who wants his mine.  He is presented as a strong courageous type but with depth of feeling and intelligence.  Excellent husband material: faithful to the girl he marries because she's pregnant and intuitively he knows how good and kind she is:

Robin Ellis as Ross and Angharad Rees as Demelza Poldark

But again sex is central, the inner person. It's more marginal for the women who are presented stereotypically that the kind of delving one sees in The Duchess is not wanted when it comes to a male hero, and his cruxes are not hers. Women are presented stereotypically.

Among the delights are fine acting, actors I've seen in other series, and now I know why Clive Francis was both Willoughby and Sloan from Joe Orton's play, with Robin Ellis as Edward Ferrars in the 1971 S&S too.  Also 1970s dramaturgy here includes filming on location and the use of location symbolically -- as waves crashing on rocks (anticipating the 2008 S&S?, not really, both are archetypal).

Lizzard Light, a cove and cliff in Cornwall, where scenes of erotic romance and smuggling are shot.

The same paradigm is even four times over the mini-series, The Aristocrats (Stella Tillyard's book on the Lennox sisters turned into a costume paradigmatic romance by Harriet O'Carroll), Catherine Breillat's Une Vieille Maistresse, the thematized lives of all the characters in the various Les Liasions Dangereuses,, just about everything in the hard La Religieuse,



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May. 22nd, 2010 02:29 pm (UTC)
18th century matter at the heart of 18th century films (1)
I thought I would generalize out further from a posting I wrote the other day explaining why or how the mother in _La Princesse de Cleves_ is criticized or seen as wrong. This sheds light on a movie like _The Duchess_ but also how 18th century fictions function to question the social order fundamentally.

There is a strong convention going on in this fiction, one which goes further back to early modern fictions and is found quickly in women's long romances (Scudery, the long heroic romances written around the same time as Lafayette's as well as those in the pre-Civil War era, like Wroth's Urania): it's common and even supposed that the parents are presented as unfair/wrong/forms of pressure which distort the heroine's life and often cause disaster. The tradition lives on in a movie like the Duchess -- which if you watch you will see an unsubtle version of. As the movie opens, Georgiana's mother makes a very bad decision for her: she marries Georgiana off to a superrich man who turns out to be a tyrant, bully, possessive, promiscuous and ruthless. Georgiana's mother would say, so what? He is rich and provides enormously; other men could be as bad and poor.

Throughout the 18th century these novels were decried as "bad" for young women to read because they 1) were erotic and 2) often counselled rebellion or provided forms of wish-fulfillment. Lafayette's, as I suggested, is much subtler than most because she is analysing the mother to show a deeper level of oppressive or illegimate norms, not one based so much on who the princess should or could love, but what are the values by which we shall live decently, unexploitatively or (as we might say today) sincerely and authentically.

May. 22nd, 2010 02:30 pm (UTC)
18th century matter at the heart of 18th century films (2)
From the point of view of what we see in _The Duchess_ (film and books), Walter Scott's criticism of Austen's novels morality or tendency at the end of his review of Austen's Emma (where he also analyses Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice) makes sense. Far from praising them for morality -- which they were praised for and by the authority figures of the era, said to be unusual romances with so much better morality than the average -- he says the prudence and self-interest they teach is not exactly needed by the world or the average person. His words are something like we need not worry the average person or reader is too romantic or too idealistic. In fact most people are not idealistic, romantic, sentimental, and he implies it's the job of the poet (for he gets this deep in his analysis of novels --- not just Austen's but Radcliffe's, Smith's and other women and men) to teach a higher ethic.

And that's what Lafayette is doing -- only she is showing at the same time how the mother can come to be mistaken and guide her daughter badly -- to disaster. I'd say (this is heterodox on Austen-l and Janeites and is another general idea I avoid there) that _La Princess de Cleves_ is as to its ethical stance superior to _Persuasion_ when it comes to the presentation of how Lady Russell leads Anne Elliot astray. Lady Russell is criticized for crude things (not really insightful, too interested in rank and connections, too cautious) and then not just forgiven for meaning well, but Anne says she was right to follow this authority figure older than her. I like to think that's Austen pleasing her mother who in a note to the cancelled chapters she says was displeased with her presentation of the older women in the novel -- showing her family could and did read deeply and did repress her. But I can't know that. All we have is the text. The Princess's mother is not forgiven, not excused but presented as part of reality we have to cope with, and her error is that she assumes we live a life of lies and manipulation of one another, of performance, and complicity with corruption. She may be right -- for at the end the Princess retires from life -- very like Cecile at the close of _Les Liaisons Dangereuses_ and De Stael's heroines. But we the readers are to see a finer way of thinking, seeing, feeling is what gives life meaning.

We are not to admire or want the princess to have left the prince and gone off with the lover for he is Vronsky. This novel anticipates Anna Karenina where the novelist is not critical of her Anna at all. Her Anna does avoid adultery and does not commit suicide at the end, but her life is shattered
by what she has understood at last about people.

This book is as much an 18th century text -- meaning rooted in this long era -- as it is a woman's book. It needs to be seen in the context of Diderot's The Nun for example, or either Tom Jones or Clarissa, or (even better or closer) one of the French women's novels from the end of the era, say Madame de Charriere's which are unfortunately not well known though you can find them in English if you persist: one set of them is called Four Tales of Zélide, translated by S. M. S (New York: Scribner, 1925). Charriere was called Zelide and this name has stuck because Boswell courted her and used the name.

And a movie like The duchess, La Religieuse and the 1997 Tom Jones too belongs to these 18th century traditions.

May. 24th, 2010 01:58 pm (UTC)
Poldark, 3rd episode, the first season
I'm still watching Poldark -- almost in spite of myself :). I find I like it very much, and were I again in my 20s can see I might love it. Poldark himself enacts a norm of masculinity for our culture which includes behavior which makes him "good husband material." He has impregnated a girl he took in to work for him (he has a good heart) and now is going to marry her. A series of moving scenes led up to this. another employee caught poaching is set to prison because the judge is Poldark's enemy (the man he would not allow to be a monopoly in the area), but Poldark knows he handled it badly.

We have two couples who ended up married to people they don't love or didn't to start out with. Elizabeth who married for money now finds herself very dissatisfied and says she was afraid of life; she has a son, but her husband is continually sexually unfaithful to say nothing of how bored she is, how shallow in many ways he.

The cinematography is good enough -- shot on location with fine scenes out on the wilds.

I can see that the 1990s version would not have presented this kind of parable at all, but also that it is an 18th century film -- comparable to Tom Jones in the sense of what is thought of as an everyman vulnerable hero.

At any rate I am taken with it. I don't have stills to share because I'm watchng an old set of cassettes on my old VHS player (not yet broken).

May. 26th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC)
Poldark, Part 3, first half (or 5th to 6th episodes)
Dear all,

I've gone on with Poldark, really because I'm liking it so much. The other day I sent a URL to a review of the DVD where the reviewer found himself surprised to say how well the series holds up. I'd like to attribute this to three elements in it.

One, it has several groups of intertwining stories where you care about central characters, and then as the stories move on, they create anxiety for the character's fate. You are made to feel that by no means will all end in a conventional happy ending because already you've seen a few fates where this was not so. For the women this is mostly about marriage and who she will end up with: she gets pregnant outside marriage; she is bored with a husband whose job is awful and keeps him away for long hours plus he's dull; her family has made it impossible for her to marry someone she loves and now she is defying them (about to run off). For me this is about the public world: one man almost dies in a terrible prison where a wound is uncared for; our hero, Poldark defies the law in taking him out (but he is a landowing gentleman so may get away with it); another is getting deep into debt.

A third set of anxieties shows the second strength: it really engages with serious issues in Cornwall, later 17th century. It may be said superficially but no more so (perhaps less so) than say, The duchess. Who will control the mines? Will it be a monopoly? The money to work them comes from English investors and will it be put back into the community. Our hero, Poldark is trying to use laws to hide his manipulation to try to keep and work his own mine and make money by the new process of smelting. Colonialism, the conditions of prisons, the class system -- each takes a turn within a story line.

I assume this is take-over from Winston Graham's novels.

I notice less anxiety about masculinity because the woman really do implicitly obey the males when it comes to public decisions. Sex is kept offstage and that made marginal makes this partriarchy easier to take for women (especially as the males do the right thing and are -- the good ones -- non-violent). At the same time there is no harridan female, though there are alluring ones. he types are older: the protective strong good male (good husband material in at least three heroes). A masculinistic (swash buckling ultimately) point of view shapes its soap opera and feminine aesthetic structure.

Finally the acting. The dramaturgy and cinematography is of the older stage scene kind; no montages, little voice-over, no mesmerizing computers and music. But the acting is often superb. I recognize a number of actors from other mini-series at the time, and find myself hard put not to love Robin Ellis.

I recommend it -- available in DVDS and Netflix I see.

May. 29th, 2010 01:39 pm (UTC)
Poldark Part 3 (6th episode)
Carrying on watching, my respect for the series grows. Among other things the use of movement- and time-images. A good deal is shot on location -- on cliff, near the edge of waters, on meadows. One noticeable difference from modern scenes of this type is the activity of women. They run free on these meadows; often they are running away from someone.

In one sequence when Demelza decides that after all she will have an abortion or else simply do away with herself, and flees the house of one of Ross Poldark's servants, we see her crossing a wasteland; naturally around this moment he discovers he has caused this pregnancy and being the good man he is (and also having affection for her), he chases after her by horse. He easily catches up, and stops her, brings her down to the ground and insists on bringing her back and marrying her. Their conversation is both touching and realistic. He is going the right thing and after all she doesn't want to die.

I cannot recall a similar sequence in more recent film adaptations. Either the woman is made unreal in her over-the-top challenges or aggression, or the man is made much less decent and to some extent feminized and sentimentalized.

In another a woman having an affair with a doctor leaves his home at dawn and wanders through the meadows. She comes to a bad end; also met by a man, this time her husband, he, Othello like, but knowing of a real affair murders her. I'm afraid the series is too sympathetic over this murder and in a later sequence we see Poldark helping this man to escape by boat to France (chased by militia) but again this sequence is well done, not overdone is the key.

When Francis Poldark, the "bad" cousin goes wild with drink and rage and resentment at his failures in life the acting by Clive Francis is perfect, again just right, with persuasive words (Jack Pullman who wrote the 1972 Golden Bowl)

I wish I had some decent stills to share. The stills on line are promotional -- where the faces are guarded or glamorized, very still and romanticized. When there are captured stills, they are usually of the principles made large. Hardly even do you see a landscape with people in it framed doing significant things. This tells me one of two things: the people watching movies don't realize what is compelling about them, or two, they really don't respond to what is valuable and respond only to stars they dream about in unexamined ways.

I've put what is a still from the scene where Poldark chases down the pregnant Demelza, and put it on the ECW site. All that is interesting about the sequence is not there. Instead we have a prettied up silhouette like version of the moment before he pulls her down and holds her on the ground to argue with her. Nothing of the walking, talking, chasing and whole atmosphere that counts. The only thing that gives any sign of interest is the grim expression on his face seen sideways.

At any rate, to get good stills one has to have a DVD and software that can capture them. I'm watching a VHS cassette.

I have bought an old battered copy of Volume I of Winston Graham's
series to see how much of the admirable characters come from the book.

In the 1970s too we have real sympathy with the poor and vulnerable. The way monopolies and the privileged are treated is from a mildly left-of-center standpoint. I know I'm liking the series for what is made admirable and so sympathetic in the chief character I like and feel sympathy for. There is for example nothing hypocritical about either Ross or Demelza. They are really decent people; one sees such characters still, but they are presented as total aliens having to refuge themselves from the larger environment. Here they fight and occasionally have wins, though at this point in the series Ross does contemplate suicide at one point. He has lost his investment, is hounded by creditors, has helped criminals against the police (see above), one man he tried to help went to prison for longer becuase of his efforts, his baby by Demelza has died (sickened). But we know in the end all will be well enough ...

May. 30th, 2010 03:24 pm (UTC)
Poldark 4
Clive Francis as Francis Poldark. Francis has a wonderful resonant voice and he's superb in it: he was Willoughby in the 71 S&S and has played to acclaim in Orton plays. In this mini-series, in the 7th episode he is continually drunk, candid, and suicidal. I found a good still of him, and also one of Angharad Rees as Demelza as Ross Poldark (Robin Ellis) first sees her: a waif, an outcast young child who he takes into his household to do scrubbing work. She is now trying to save her husband from the gallows through a rigged up trial to get him out of the way of the coming monopol.

Both are in the ECW alburm for Poldark.


It's not exactly historically accurate.

The kind of money and attention spent to make a 13 part story (an hour long each) is not common today.

Jun. 2nd, 2010 02:55 pm (UTC)
Poldark, part 4 ends
I watched yet another episode of Poldark last night. In this one Poldark is acquitted of the crime he was accused of; we see him stubbornly refuse to manipulate and kowtow and almost ruin his own case. We also see that the loyalty he did engender in the servant the bribers depended upon won out -- as well as the servant's dislike and distrust of so much bullying. He speaks out in favor of helping the poor even if it means deprecating or taking off rich man's property. Of customs that are communitarian. Where would we hear this today?

The courtroom scene is powerful in itself -- they usually are.

The other story lines continue with Poldark and his cousin, Francis, now brought together -- through Demelza who also by her quiet politicking helped her husband's case along. She had met the judge (an honest man we are told) at the ball she went to and did all she could to make friends for Poldark and remind others of him.

At the close of the episode things are not going much better: he does not know Demelza is again pregnant; she hides it for it's a burden he says he does not want (though apparently doing nothing to stop this); she has been badly hurt by overhearing a conversation between him and Elizabeth where it seems he still feels love for Elizabeth and a sense of having compromised in his marriage; it's not clear -- as in life things are not.

There are old-fashioned steretypes no longer seen in these film adaptations: simply good people who act out of kindly motives, affectionate and well meaning talk. But these do not detract from the really strikingly good acting and complexity of a number of the major characters. The old dramaturgy which leaves time for acting is a joy. They make an effective use of landscape dynamics.

I see this continuity: generic tropes in scenery and scenes. The recent 2008 S&S has crashing sea on the rocks and waves; so does this one only there are now computer technologies to enhance. Tropes of love romance (the physician is slowly forming a relationship with a woman from an aristocratic family) and others are found in the praised later films said to be subversive in this way and that; but these punctuating archetypes are there.

Beyond the character of Poldark I'd like to single out how what is emphasized and what is omitted is unusual. For example the verdict of not guilty is not dramatized. You'd think it would be, but in a way it's a waste of time, for the characters would rejoice or sulk. Instead we see a quiet conversation between the father and son who were bribing everyone to destroy Poldark; now they'll call in loans, and can try to eliminate his oppostion to them in other ways. Pullman did write teh 1972 Golden Bowl, and I note it's Alexander Baron who wrote a number of the episodes in the second season (also a fine writer of these film adaptation in the 1980s).

Those interested will see I've added a whole bunch of photos and stills from the first and second season in our album:


I've commemorated Clive Francis's powerful performance with the only still I could find of him:


It's one of the many moments where the inner vulnerable man flinches beneath his public mask and he takes on a feminine look in his face.

Jun. 3rd, 2010 04:18 pm (UTC)
Poldark Season 2
Just to say I've discovered that after all Season 2 (the second set of 16 episodes) was not as popular as the first, and as yet is not out in modern DVDs available in the US. The characters changed, and some of the earlier typology fell away; the writer was a more pessimistic socially concerned one (Alexander Baron), but the DVD is available in a Region 2 version and I can play it on my computer so have bought it and will carry on watching and posting.

I'm also interested to see how the re-make in the 1990s positively enraged the earlier fans. ON the websites they talk of how "it should not have been permitted," and "should not be available for sale." Strong language.

Alas, there is no articulation of the myths the first season flattered so so I cannot know why this first mild falling away, and then the resentment.

As I've written, for me to see the difference between this mid-20th century hero turned into a 1970s figure of stubborn integrity and Fielding's Tom Jones is instructive. I take it the difference does show some improvement in the way a good man is supposed/allowed to treat women sexually.

Jun. 5th, 2010 01:37 pm (UTC)
Poldark, Part 5, middle episode: history, powerful portraiture, pleasing archetypes
I carried on with my Poldark fix last night. I shouldn't put it this way as this series is very good. I need to read the books; like the best series, this one profits from the viewer having read the book because the film does is weak on the history. The novels must be about how the Cornish were driven to smuggle to evade the taxes, and how hard it was to make a living for Ross in this episode is now letting the smugglers use his house, hide their nefarious goods under a floorboard.

We have the militia represented again seeking out these people. But it turns on Demelza managing to put them off and flirting with the captain. So too the financing issue and debts are shown but not with much depth -- enough to make us see the struggling pair but not the larger context which is colonialist -- English power and wealth came from exploiting these people.

The spread of scurvy, and the desperate need for fresh fruit is brought in to by the story of our doctor (Ennys played by the man who did Bunter) and his growing romance with a rebellious aristocratic woman who I surmize is the one who has funded Ross's mine. This is a male wet dream but she wears very pretty hats and would fit in well in 1940s Gainsborough (UK company) film costume movies. Pleasing archetype for women here too.

The riveting part of this episode is the death of Francis Poldark: he drowns himself, half an accident but one is led to surmize half-unconscious death wish. He imagines that he finds copper in the mine he now shares with his cousin, Ross. He wants so badly to find it. It would solve all their problems; it would make up for his betrayal of Ross to the capitalist monopolizer, old man Warlegan; he would gain self-respect and respect from others. He seems suddenly to forget he can't swim -- we see him almost drown early on in the series. We also have scenes where he articulates his knowledge of Elizabeth, his wife's lack of love for him -- or Ross Poldark -- remember she married him for his money and rank over Ross to whom she was engaged, and she would have run off with Ross a few years later but that Demelza got pregnant and Ross did the right thing in marrying Demelza. He expresses the loneliness of life. Clive Francis is a high point in the series for me (his performance).

While the historical part of the novels do not come across sufficiently what is probably the core issue of the novels autobiographically does: again when Francis dies, we see Ross willing to express to Elizabeth that his married life represents a compromise and maybe he'd have rather married her after all; he even for a moment seems to suggest that if he might just chuck the whole life he has, rejoin his regiment and pension Demelza off (in effect). But there are words he suddenly spouts -- poetry where he speaks of what is his real commitment to Demelza for her character, his love for her has grown, and by the end of the episode, having been given money mysteriously, far from chucking it all, we see him rush home to Demelza with a gift and the good news and they go up to bed together.

A fun scene in the series is him changing their baby's diapers. I mentioned yesterday that anxiety had been created over Demelza's new pregnancy. She keeps it from Ross; he didn't want it; she goes out fishing endangering herself. As the episode opens even though she has now told him, she goes fishing again and we are made to worry -- as the camera watches her struggle in her boat, maybe it will capsize, maybe she will drown, maybe she will have another miscarriage or a stillborn (as she did the first pregnancy). We hear her breathing hard and struggling on land and we think she's about to drop it, but cut to another scene and it's been delivered safely, a boy. Jeremy Poldark -- I see a later novel is named after him so he lives to grow up.

Now the diaper scene is wholly anachronistic as are the scenes of women refusing to obey absolute orders from the men -- but it is fun for a 20th century woman to watch this.

I'll have more stills when I get the second season in DVD. Alas though none of Clive Francis.

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