The Great Detectives of Old Time Radio The great ones are back in action.

21Jun/140

Big Finish Celebrates Fifteen Years of Doctor Who Audio Dramas

In July, Big Finish Productions celebrates  fifteen years producing licensed Doctor Who audio dramas.  In celebration of this milestone, we'll take a look at the history of Big Finish's work this week and next week we'll review one of their latest releases as we take a look at some of the most successful contemporary audio drama being produced.

From 1963-1989, BBC aired Doctor Who which chronicled the adventures of the Doctor, a time travelling alien known as a Time Lord. Every few years, the Doctor would "regenerate" and take on a different face and a somewhat different personality than he had previously. This element introduced when the first actor to play the doctor, William Hartnell was ailing. This served to allow the recasting of the role and since then had served to allow both the lead and the direction of the series to change while still remaining Doctor Who. 

There were seven doctors in those twenty-six years, the most popular of which was Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor which ran for seven years. Baker's multi-colored scarf became iconically associated with the show. Still eight seasons, after he'd left the show left the air with a whimper in the final Seventh Doctor story, "Survivor."

After that, Doctor Who went off the air for most of the next sixteen years. 1996 saw a joint U.S./British effort to revive Doctor Who with a made for TV movie that aired over Fox and starred Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor. When the TV was made,  McGann hoped to star in a brand new Doctor Who Television series, but that failed to materialize.

The series would finally return to television in 2005 and become an international sensation.

However, during the intervening years, that didn't meant Doctor Who wasn't being made...it just wasn't being made on Television.

Doctor Who and Radio

Doctor Who and the Pescatons
During Doctor Who's television run, audio dramas didn't play a huge part in the series. The fourth Doctor recorded two audio dramas in 1970s, one of which was a 20 minute educational piece on geography, as well as a 45 minute commercial release Doctor Who and the Pescatons which was kind of a hybrid of audiobook and radio drama.  In 1985, during an eighteen month hiatus for the TV show, the Sixth Doctor played by Colin Baker starred in a radio serial Slipback.

In 1993, Doctor Who returned to BBC radio with an intriguing idea. The Doctor present was not the last doctor to appear on television, but the Third Doctor played by Jon Pertwee who'd left the series nearly twenty years before. The story Paradise of Death was set in the midst of the eleventh season of Doctor Who.

Paradise of Death

The program was a success and fans demanded more. Pertwee made a second program in 1994 but there were snags in getting the program to air as the BBC was wrangling with potential suitors to purchase rights to the series according to Pertwee and the story, The Ghosts of N-Space didn't end up airing until January of 1996, a few months before Pertwee died.

The demand for Doctor Who audio continued through the series' dedicated fan base. Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Allred who had played the Seventh Doctor and his companion Ace starred in a series of audio dramas called The Professor and Ace which while avoiding flagrant copyright violation, was obviously an attempt to tell a Doctor Who story without the Doctor's time machine The TARDIS  or other tropes of the series. 

In addition, many fans made unauthorized productions of Doctor Who. One of these being the Audio Visual tapes in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. Many of those involved in these efforts helped to start Big Finish Productions in 1996, a company focused on producing audio dramas.

Big Finish’s first release were audio dramas featuring Bernice Summerfield, a character who had first appeared in Virgin’s New Adventures Doctor Who novels but was licensed seperately from the Doctor Who series. Some novels that had featured the Doctor were rewritten to feature the Summerfield alone.

However, Big Finish would quickly move on to bigger things. They negotiated non-exclusive rights to produce new Doctor Who audio dramas secured the involvement of Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy who had played the fifth through seventh doctors on the TV series. The format of the new Doctor Who Adventures would be much like the Pertwee BBC dramas except there would be one new Doctor Who Adventure per month beginning with the Sirens of Time, an adventure which would feature all three Doctors in it. From there on out, each month Big Finish put out a new Doctor Who full cast audio drama featuring one of the three doctors.

Sirens of Time

Big Finish added Paul McGann’s Eight Doctor to its lineup in January 2001, thus allowing him the chance to realize the hope of being able to play the Doctor in a series of dramas rather than just the single telefilm.

Big Finish continued to expand its line of programs, adding several Doctor Who spinoffs including a series about Doctor Who enemies the Daleks and Cybermen as well as one about 1970s Doctor Who companion Sarah Jane Smith, one about U.N.I.T., a military organization from the series, as well as a series of alternate dimension looks at the Doctor.

The revival of Doctor Who on television didn't end Big Finish’s run on Doctor. In fact, one of the Big Finish Audio plays actually became the basis for one of the revived Series’ most acclaimed episodes, “Dalek.” However, Big Finish was only allowed to use stories featuring the first eight doctors and scripts for radio dramas were scrutinized by the production team for the television series in Cardiff to be sure that nothing would in the radio drama would conflict with the television series.

These limits haven’t really hurt Big Finish as they’ve continued to expand their Doctor Who spinoffs including the very popular Jago and Lightfoot series, while also obtaining licenses for new audiobooks and audio dramas based on programs such as the gothic horror classic Dark Shadows, Stargate: SG1, and the British Sci Fi classic, Blake’s 7.

On the Doctor Who front, after nearly three decades of refusing to reprise his most famous role as the third doctor, Tom Baker joined Big Finish in performing a series of new adventures, joined by his former compatriots. In 2013, as Doctor Who celebrated its fiftieth anniversary Big Finish put on its own fiftieth anniversary special featuring the fourth through eighth doctors, Light at the End, which some fans consider to be superior to the internationally broadcast television special featuring the two latest Doctors.

Light at the End
In advance of the fiftieth anniversary television special, McGann’s Eighth Doctor finally has his regeneration scene and recognized all of his companions from the audiobooks which many interpreted as making all (or most) of the audio dramas canonical within the Doctor Who universe.

When Big Finish began doing Doctor Who fifteen years ago, it was taking advantage of huge demand from fans who demanded more of a series they loved, and having the cooperation of original actors certainly helped.

However, the audio dramas proved to be winners all around.  Big Finish Productions was able to make a wide variety of stories including large tales with relatively small casts. Actors enjoyed a family atmosphere as well as the unique opportunity radio opportunity afforded to play a wide variety of characters. And many fans discovered the benefits of radio drama. One of the chief challenges of the Classic Doctor Who series was that its special effects budget were often quite limited, but the power of audio is that you can have as big of an effect as you want when you're playing the theater of the mind.

Thus, Big Finish's Doctor Who work has survived and thrived for fifteen years. Well done and good luck on many more.

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3May/140

The Top 5 Yours Truly Johnny Dollar Serials

After a year’s hiatus, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar returned to the air in October 1955 with Bob Bailey in the title role and with a new format. The series was broadcast five days a week for more than a year.

Collectively, the fifty-five Johnny Dollar serials are the best run of radio drama for a non-anthology series in terms of writing, talent, and music. With the exception of the nine part Phantom Chase Matter, and the six part Kranesburg Matter, each of these serials were five parters. The serials stories generally allowed more complex and engaging stories. Of course, there were a few times it didn’t quite work out that way but these were the exceptions rather than the rule.

Of the fifty-five serials, which were the best? That’s a tough question. Here, I offer my answer as I look at the top five serials. As this is a top five list, there were several stories that I couldn’t quite fit in.  So I’ll begin with some honorable mentions.

The Primrose Matter did a great job setting the stage and building suspense, and part four of that matter is one of the best installments of the entire series. The Kranesburg Matter had a really great plot and some great characterization. The Plantangent Matter showed Johnny’s dogged tenacity and honor in solving the murder of a woman he met only once. The Confidential Matter gave keen insight into the character as he coped with learning one of his oldest friends was a crook and undertaking to get some of the stolen money back for the insurance company. The Shady Lane Matter was fascinating in the way it put Johnny opposite a town constable in a small New England town who seemed to always insist that the suspects Johnny found didn’t do it because “it’s not in their nature.”

Of course, none of those episodes made the list. Her'es a look at those which did:

5) The Broderick Matter  (Parts One and Two, Three and Four, and Five)

Air Dates: November 14-18, 1955

The Broderick Matter starts off on a positive note. One day an eleven year old girl helped a poor man sell newspapers. The man took out a $1500 life insurance policy and faithfully paid the premiums for more than a decade to thank her. Johnny is looking forward to the case and to meeting the girl who got this type of faith from the old man. But even by part two, Johnny’s finding that her life turned out far differently than the old man would have bet.

He discovers a trail of con jobs, thefts, and broken hearts and Johnny finds himself disillusioned about the young woman and humanity in general. He tracks her down to a hotel at the end of Part Four and finds her about to jump out of a building leading to a very intense and unforgettable Part Five with Bailey and Virginia Gregg turning in a spellbinding and intense performance.

4) The Valentine Matter (Parts One and Two, Three and Four, and Five)

Air Dates: October 31-November 4, 1955

The Valentine Matter is a beautifully tragic story. Johnny meets an old time bootlegger named Valentine at a hotel. The old guy has settled down to peaceful retirement and painting in New Orleans. However, inexplicably there are attempts on his life and Johnny is on the case.

The story really drives home the humanity and decency of Johnny Dollar as portrayed by Bailey. It relies on human drama and suspense rather than any sort of cleverness. Given the insane hatred that’s driving the villains in this story, cleverness would pretty much about.

Beyond Bailey’s performance, the show was bolstered by Betty Lou Gerson’s great acting as Valentine’s daughter at Part Four, and the opening to Part Five was simply the most powerful beginning to any Johnny Dollar serial episode and it relied on sound effects alone to get the job done.

3) The Meg’s Palace Matter (Parts One and Two, Three and Four, and Five)

Original Air Date: September 24-28, 1956

This an episode which became great in the hands of its guest star. Virgina Gregg plays Meg, an Irish Woman who owns a tavern and has faced threats on her life and property. Johnny, of course, arrives representing her insurance company and has to try to keep her alive.

The suspense and the details of a mystery are good but not spectacular. In fact, there was one scene where an accomplice delayed telling Johnny who the killer was for such an absurdly long amount of time so that the killer could do away with his accomplice. In addition, Johnny uses a bluff to solve the case.

But none of that matters becauseVirginia Gregg carries the serial with her performance as Meg, a fiery character who swings between roaring angry to kindly. In the hands of a less competent actress, Meg would have been little more than a bundle of Irish stereotypes but Gregg turns that caricature into one of Johnny Dollar’s most memorable characters. Her final scene was emotionally evocative but not hammy. The whole serial served as a showcase of the unique talent that was Virginia Gregg as she elevates this story from good to great.

2) The McCormick Matter (Parts One and Two, Three and Four, and Five)

Original Air Date: October 3-7, 1955

The first serialized story of Yours Truly Johnny Dollar had to be good. It was CBS’ third try at a serialized mystery drama in the mid-1950s and those efforts had been doomed in a matter of weeks. How long Johnny Dollar would stay on there would have a lot to do with the momentum built by this story.

“The McCormack Matter” did everything it needed to and them some. It centers on a dying prisoner who tells Johnny about something he overheard a recently released prisoner say and with that Johnny sets off to investigate.

The serial showcased the show’s strengths in terms of rich characterization of guest characters, solid expansions of previously used scripts. The mystery was well-written and engaging, and also featured some fantastic action scenes. Part Four ends with Johnny being shot and in Part Five we learn our hero isn’t perfect as he accuses the wrong person before arriving at the astonishing truth.

The McCormack Matter set the tone for the rest of the series and remains one of Johnny Dollar’s best stories.

1)      The Nick Shurn Matter (Parts One and Two,  Three and Four, and Five)

Original Air Date: December 19-23, 1955

Christmas episodes rarely show very high on top episodes lists for crime series. Either a series will tell a story that’s different from what they do the rest of the year or they’ll tell a story that’s very true to the tone of the series but is awkwardly tone deaf to Christmas.

This is a serial that does neither. It manages both to remain true to the series and to the spirit of the Season.

In it, the partner of night club owner and racketeer Nick Shurn is murdered. The only likely witness, one of Shurn’s employees, Kathy O’Dare, is missing  Johnny sets out to find her, eventually tracing her to her hometown, a small timber town in Michigan. Johnny has to find Kathy before Shurn does.

It’s a series of wonderful contrasts as tough guy stuff melds with warm sentimental moments. Johnny punches out one of Shurn’s thugs and later has to kill a man in self-defense on Christmas Eve. On the other hand, Johnny helps a woman with a broken arm wrap her Christmas presents and Kathy’s fire Mike takes a liking to Johnny pretty quickly.

Part Four contains one of Bailey’s  best scenes as Dollar as Dollar stumbles through a snow storm unable to see at all. Part Five is another fine episode as Johnny awakening on Christmas morning leads to a very wistful item in the expense account showing Johnny considering what might have been.

The serial’s contrast of Christmas and sentimental warmth against violence, mayhem, and suspense might be best explained by the conversation Mike and Johnny had in which Johnny referenced King Herod when talking about Shurn’s though searching for Kathy illustrated a key idea: warmth, goodness, and truth don’t come in just nice places with little danger. Herod’s violent reaction in the midst of the miracle of Christmas helped explained the violent reaction of Nick Shurn and Benny.

The end is also priceless and a great twist once it’s all said and done. Overall, the Nick Shurn Matter was a Christmas masterpiece that’s good for a listen all year round.

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28Dec/130

Radio Drama Review: Gregory Keen: Deadly Nightshade

The character of  Gregory Keen was introduced in the Australian radio serial Dossier on Dumetrius. In that serial, Keen, a MI-5 Major played by New Zealand Actor Bruce Stewart, hunted down an international war criminal named Dumetrius through the streets of London. (see review here). The second Keen serial turns to more familiar territory for the writer and original audience: the streets of Sidney, Australia.

In Deadly Nightshade,  Stewart returns as Keen. Also returning was the actor who played the villain from Dossier. The character of Felix Huberman is the half brother of the Keen's archenemy. (Yes, it's contrived but work with us.) Huberman is an official with Australian federal law enforcement who is also the chief lieutenant of Carla Mingione who is trying to get organized crime established in Sidney. Keen is sent by MI-5 because of the disappearance of scientist Bruno Kesselring who is feared to have defected to the Russians, though this is largely forgotten through most of the serial as Keen finds himself trying to find the truth behind the Nightshade ring, believing it will lead to Kesselring.

Deadly Nightshade has its strong points. Like its predecessor, it is a  highly addictive and is a fairly complex 104-part story.  In many ways, it's a better  Keen story.  Dossier featured our hero, Major Keen as a somewhat dense character who did majorly stupid things for a huge number of episodes including his 40+ episode manhunt for innocent bystander Peter Ridgeway and believing the treacherous Heddy Bergner innocent for nearly 70 episodes because he was in love with her. Here Keen is not gulled for that length of time. To be sure, there are some stupid moments. Early on, Keen concludes that Huberman's up to no good but decides he has no choice but to play along with him which involves not introducing himself to the police and not meeting up with the contact that'd been designated for him by London. This stupidity ends after less than ten episodes and other lapses of sanity and reasonable judgment are short.

Keen in Deadly Nightshade  is a man to be feared in a story that's far darker than Dossier. Keen is clearly a much more ruthless character than in the previous serial.  Keen is driven and at times, seems almost mentally disturbed in his pursuit of the Nightshade Ring, even being willing to kill unarmed men to achieve his ends. He's still haunted by his memory of Heddy Bergner, much to the chagrin of Sherry Reed, a party girl who fell for Keen and became involved in his adventures, only to find Keen constantly spurning her.

The story is darker but not necessarily better in places. While Deadly Nightshade is a far more logical tale with a minimal number of plotholes, it was also a little less fun than Dossier.  The story is interesting due the concerns with organized crime making its way to Australia and the wide variety of plot twists that can fit into a story of this length.

This makes a decent listen, but definitely not for kids under 13.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5.0

14Dec/130

Audio Drama Review: The Father Brown Mysteries Volume 5

Colonial Radio Theatre's fifth collection of Father Brown Mysteries starring JT Turner showcases CRT's increasing  production values. The whole collection is graced by a much more polished theme, and the general quality of acting and dialects were also up from when the series first started.

This collection features three of the most popular Brown stories.  Three of these were adapted for the 1970s ITV Father Brown television, and two by the 1980s BBC radio series and Colonial's adaptation is at least the equal of these previous adaptations.

The stories included are:

  • The Hammer of God: The wealthy reprobate brother of a local minister is found murdered with a small hammer that hit him with a seemingly impossible amount of force.  This is one of Chesterton's most thoughtful and clever stories. JT Turner's portrayal of Brown's compassion even in the midst of confronting the murderer really gives a whole new spin on that part of the story.
  • The Curse of the Golden Cross: A professor  acquires a rare golden cross, but also a deadly enemy who is determined to kill the professor and claim the cross. The professor he's been followed to England where a vicar claims to have found the rare cross' twin. All is not as it seems. The original story wasn't Chesterton's greatest, but this is a faithful adaptation that hits the key points quite nicely.
  • The Mirror and the Magistrate: A respected magistrate is murdered and suspicion falls on a radical poet who had a grudge against him. However, Father Brown is certain the poet is innocent. This one is a fun case as we hear Brown's deconstruction of the prosecution's case and how the fact that the prosecutor wears a wig plays into the startling conclusion.
  • The Wrong Shape:  If there was one story in this collection I expected not to like, it was this one. I didn't get Chesterton's original story when I read it. The written version seemed a little too metaphysical. However, I have to say I really enjoyed the radio adaptation. Colonial did a great job of bringing this more obscure but still very clever mystery to life.

Overall, I was thoroughly entertained by this set.  CRT continues to bring  these great stories to life with the humor and social commentary that Chesterton brought to the originals.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

Note: I received a copy of this production in exchange for an honest review. 

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30Nov/130

Audio Drama: The History of Harry Nile, Set Six

The History of Harry Nile Set 6 covers 24 cases in which the late Phil Harper portrayed the Seattle Private Detective, set between May of 1956 and Summer of 1958.

At this point, it’s tough to add much to what I’ve written in the previous five reviews. The series while produced in the 1990s and early 21st century sounded just like a vintage detective series from radio’s golden age.

Both Harry (Phil Harper) and his red-headed assistant Murphy (Pat French) were well-established in their roles and had them down to a tee. And producer/writer Jim French really knew how to do a 19-23 minute radio drama and make it shine.

The stories are mostly typical PI fare but with a few surprises thrown in such as, “Submarine Warfare” which has the owner of a new subshop asking for Harry’s help with vandals while his wife is sending Harry notes that her husband wants to kill her. Harry’s cases take him to New Orleans, to California, and to three different western cities where a salesman is keeping different girls and runs into predictable problems. There’s a theft at a mission around Christmastime. And the story of a missing fire extinguisher salesman where Harry has to live up to the bill of one of America’s top ten private investigators.

These are well-done tales with no real clunkers, but consistent quality from episode to episode. The only downside is that on occassion, the motive may be a little thin. Some listeners may be bothered by the relationship between Harry and Murphy with Harry, with Murphy pining for Harry but Harry showing no interest whatsoever. However, this too is a throwback to some golden age programs like Let George Do It.

Overall, this set lives up to the high standards of its predecessors and is a must for fans of Phil Harper’s Harry Nile.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

The set is available at French's website for $49.95 on CD or as a digital download for $25.

The History of Harry Nile, Set 6  (along with Sets 1-5) are available on Audible for $19.95 for members or 1 Credit. I bought this set with my an Audible listener Credit ($14.95).

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12Oct/130

Radio Drama Review: Fort Laramie

Fort Laramie  came to radio in 1956 in the midst of both the decline of radio and the rise of the adult Western on both radio and television that began with Gunsmoke and featured such programs as The Six Shooter and Have Gun Will Travel.

The program centers around Lee Quince (Raymond Burr in the series, John Dehner in the pilot) a Captain of Cavalry assigned to B Company at Fort Laramie under the command of Major Daggett (Jack Moyles). Their job is simple: keep the peace by enforcing the treaty and avoiding a war with local Indian tribes.

The series sets a high standard for realism on every level.  It takes a look at life on an old West fort from so many different perspectives. What happens when the company payroll is delayed? How are outbreaks treated? What type of people joined the Cavalry during this time? What would life be like for a widow of a soldier or for a young wife married to an officer and unused to the rigors of the West? The series uses thorough research, mixed a solid imagination, and good human drama to create memorable scripts.

The ugly reality of war is portrayed. The series is brutally honest about the terror of falling into the hands of Indians. In one episode, a woman talks about using a gun to defend herself but saving the last bullet for herself to avoid being captured by cruel Indian tribes. At the same time, the series also shows the prejudice, neglect, and in one case, outright insane slaughter that was heaped on Native Americans. The series keeps in balance.

The cast of the show is great. This series is Raymond Burr's only starring role over radio. Usually he played heavies, but he shines as the experienced, sly, and Indian-wise hero. He's ably supported by Moyles, the former star of Rocky Jordan Vic Perrin as the veteran enlisted man Sergeant Gorce, and Harry Bartel as the green Lieutenant Siberts.

With such a talented cast, Director Norm Macdonnell was able to do some interesting things. For the first half of the series, Quince was constantly cutting down the inexperienced naivete  of Siberts until Daggett called Quince out and said he was going to ruin Siberts, which forced Quince to address his own bad attitude and get Siberts to feel free to relax. This was really not the type of topic you'd see discussed with two ongoing characters a series in the 1950s.

However, the show dealt with a lot of very human issues, not all of them dark and serious. There were the humorous episodes that brought lighter touch. What made them work well was that these humorous shows were not thrown in randomly. They'd often come before  a very dark and serious episode,  as if to deepen the emotional impact of the next week's show.

Like many shows from the mid-1950s, the programs that survive are in wonderful condition, making for great listening.

The full run was done by Andrew Rhynes as a podcast over at the Old Radio Westerns and is definitely worth a listen.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0 stars.

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28Sep/130

Radio Drama Review: The Thinking Machine

The period between Sherlock Holmes and the coming of iconic characters such as Hercules Poirot, Nick Charles, Philip Marlowe, and Nero Wolfe is littered with a series of mostly forgotten detectives. One of these Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen created by Jacques Futrelle. Van Dusen appeared in one novel and fifty short stories between his creation in 1905 and the tragic death of Futrelle aboard the board the Titanic in 1912.  Colonial Radio Theatre has brought Van Dusen back to life in its new series, The Thinking Machine.

In the early 20th Century were viewed primarily as puzzles and the two mysteries in the first volume of stories released by Colonial falls firmly into this category and they're quite good puzzles: "The Problems of Dressing Room A" deals with an impossible disappearance from an actress from backstage during a performance in attire that could hardly be worn on the street. The second, "The Phantom Motor" deals with a motor car that impossibly disappears when passing between two police officers across a road known as, "The Trap."

Professor Van Dusen (Lincoln Clark) is a genius (which he'll gladly let you know) but he is not a detective. His process for solving mysteries is not so much deduction as thinking through the problem and finding a way to the solution. That's one of the great highlights of the stories is how Van Dusen and newspaper reporter Hutchinson Hatch will hash out nearly all conceivable solutions with incisive and clever logic. Then Van Dusen thinks through a way to find the solution that most of the professionals have missed.

If there's a downside to the production, it's this: Van Dusen, like  many amateur detectives during this period,  knew they were smarter and better than you and had no qualms about letting others know it. In the early 20th century, readers were kind of tolerant of this as long as the detective  got the job done.  We live in an age where really don't like people being better than us, and we certainly don't like them making a point of it. Hercule Poirot has this problem to an extent but he makes up for it with a ton of charm. Van Dusen has no such endearing qualities. With Clark's solid acting, the character could grow on listeners, but with only two mysteries in this first set, it's kind of hard to gauge how successful he could be.

However, Clark ad the rest of the cast are solid, showcasing the high production values I've come to expect from Colonial Radio Theater. Overall, these are well- acted well-produced puzzle mysteries that's worth a listen particularly if you're curious about forgotten detectives of the early 20th cenury.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5.0

Disclosure note: The reviewer received a free review copy for an honest review of this production.

The Thinking Machine is available as an audible download here.

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