A Day at the Archives… East Anglian Film Archive

Juliana Gisler (University of East Anglia)

20 June 2024


East Anglian Film Archive

The East Anglian Film Archive was the first regional archive in the UK. Established in 1976 by David Cleveland, much of the archive focuses on exactly what it says on the tin. Its holdings are mostly made up of content from six counties: Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk, and Suffolk. This includes a large collection of regional news and television, industry spots, amateaur films and home videos. However, it also goes beyond this by including works from the rest of Britain and the world. Lucky for me, the archive is only a short distance from the university. It is located just outside the centre of Norwich in a squat little building off of a roundabout (where it shares a building with the equally brilliant Norfolk Record Office).

For those who aren’t based near Norwich, a great feature of the EAFA is that a journey through its archives can begin from the comfort of one’s desk. Some 200 hours of film are currently accessible on their website and an additional 600 titles are available on BFI. However, an in-person visit is always exciting and will surely include the sounds of the latest tape being digitised. It can also provide access to the additional 12,000 hours of film in the collection and 30,000 more on videotape.

The online collection has curated selections on a variety of topics: climate emergencies, the home front, and travelogues to name a few. The historian or media scholar is bound to find something of interest but the appeal of these films goes beyond the academic. What consistently sticks out in the archive’s collection is its unabashed humanness. The selections often present people at their most honest and so, most interesting: capturing life in the midst of political upheaval, cultural turning points, and everyday monotony.

When I speak to the staff about their favourites in the archive, they choose creators with unrestrained creativity and sincere subjects. Senior technician and conservator Pete Fairchild finds it difficult to choose but settles on a BBC reel. As he describes it, it is at once hilarious, honest, heartbreaking. In it, children at Fakenham Primary School talk about their favourite belongings. They include football cards, a painting of a horse, lots of rocks, and a gas mask. One boy brings his deceased father’s RAF medal. One of archive administrator Flo Reynolds’ favourites is the collection of work by pioneering filmmaker and stop-motion animator Arthur Melbourne Cooper. Cooper creates bizarre and wonderful worlds where matches playing cricket and toys get into traffic disputes.

Crickets (Arthur Melbourne Cooper, 1899, St Albans). Courtesy of EAFA.

My favourites must be those that feature Norwich. I particularly love Muhammad Ali’s visit on tour for Ovaltine in 1971. Ali can barely pass through the train station as he is overwhelmed with fans. Then, there is the mix of shameless commercialism and genuine excitement of supermarket shoppers as he signs their cans of Ovaltine. It is difficult to watch without cracking a grin. Having lived more than two years now in the region, it always proves interesting to me to see how much life and the land  have actually changed. You also get to hear the local accents which are tragically disappearing today. And even if you haven’t spent time in East Anglia, you will no doubt still be charmed by such vivid records of its inimitable culture.

Copies of Amateur Cine World.

However, the archive’s collection is not just limited to regional. The pretence for my visit at the archives today lies in its paper collections, in particular the magazine Amateur Cine World. They are filled with ideas for interesting shots, advice on equipment, and wartime reflections. Again, it is revealingly personal. One article suggests how to film a keepsake of your baby. For best results try to capture everyday situations like waking up. If one can, have a rehearsal with the baby the day before. The more creative parent may like to animate the toys. Most importantly, don’t let the young actor look into the camera!

The magazines compliment the archive’s role as a repository for the Institute of Amateaur Cinematographers. In this internationally significant collection, one can find a wide range of documentaries and stories from West Yorkshire to Johannasburg to the Hawaiian islands. The result is a testament to the imagination and skill of filmmakers worldwide.

Many of these films have been created by women, either fully or partially, and many are in husband and wife teams. The archive has given special attention to these. In 2015, the University of East Anglia catalogued the amateur films made by women in greater detail. As the project’s report highlights, these films are significant as they contribute to histories of leisure, female authorship, and household dynamics. Indeed, many feature holidays, couples, families and farm life. One particular trend in the collection that piques my interest is that of women’s fantasies and the articulating of private dreams.

Still from Freak (Sharon Gasdon, 1988, Leeds). Courtesy of EAFA.

In “A Bench in the Park” (1958, Johannesburg) a woman reinvents herself as a wealthy, well-travelled, and glamorous woman while on break from her job as a waitress. In “Freak” by Sharon Gasdon (1988, Leeds) a young school-girl dreams of becoming a punk. The film allows these imaginings to be temporarily actualized. The waitress momentarily appears before us as the bejewelled beauty gambling untold sums away amongst young men at Monte Carlo. The schoolgirl shaves her eyebrows and cuts her hair into a mohawk. In these sorts of moments one desperately wants to peek behind the curtain and learn more about the lives and thoughts of these elusive women filmmakers.

Writing this blog post without a strict research objective in mind has provided me with a reason to explore far beyond what would normally occupy me. While it is a plentiful resource for research, I hope what has shone through is the importance of regional archives. The EAFA has extraordinary potential within it to engage larger audiences, build community, and stimulate conversation. A browse through its offerings is always thought-provoking. It repeatedly brings to the fore the “average” people and allows access into how they worked, how they lived, how they had passed their time and expressed themselves.


Juliana Gisler is studying history at the University of East Anglia. Her current research uses Hollywood promotional materials to explore changing conceptions of romance and desire.


Image disclaimer: Please do not reproduce the images published in this blog piece without written permission from the East Anglian Film Archive.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

A Day at the Archives… Media Archive for Central England (MACE)

Kat Pearson, University of Warwick

7 April 2021

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I am a PhD student at the University of Warwick, and my work on Cities of Culture (linked to Coventry’s year in 2021) is co-supervised by Professor John Wyver at Illuminations Media, and also by Dr Clare Watson the Media Archive for Central England (MACE). This collaborative way of working has given me a unique perspective on the work that MACE do. I encounter the archive both as a researcher (using the archive for my PhD thesis) and as a kind of representative for MACE because I am engaging communities in Coventry with the archive’s collections.

Founded in 2000, MACE is the charitable regional film archive and strategic lead organisation for screen heritage in the Midlands. The archive is based at the University of Lincoln but the area it covers is vast, stretching across twelve counties and regions in the East and West Midlands

Because I live in Birmingham, have previously studied in Birmingham and Leicester, and am now based at the University of Warwick – which is actually in the Coventry suburb of Canley! – I am fairly familiar with a lot of MACE’s geographical area. Before the pandemic I made a number of trips to MACE, spending days with their staff and collections to see and understand their work which was fascinating and really beneficial in understanding the inner workings of a media archive. However, rather than only talking about what I’m doing with MACE, I also spoke to Dr Watson (Director of MACE), to find out a bit more about how they work with the research community. She told me that, ‘MACE is proactively engaged in supporting the research environment in many more ways than beyond a simple repository.’ MACE is very interested in collaborating with researchers and students, for instance on research projects and through academic networks, and my Collaborative Doctoral Award comes out of that. In terms of more traditional access, MACE’s collections are available for research, and researchers have access to viewing facilities which can also be used to view external BFI content. Two recent research projects that have used MACE’s collections are Dr Christine Grandy’s article, “‘The Show Is Not about Race’’: Custom, Screen Culture, and the Black and White Minstrel Show,”[i] and Dr Rachel Yemm’s “Immigration, race and local media: Smethwick and the 1964 general election.”[ii]

Supporting access, MACE Senior Curator Phil Leach is an invaluable resource for projects which have public engagement outputs: for example, my supervisor Professor Helen Wheatley’s ‘Ghost Town’ project focussing on Coventry’s screen heritage. All this is to say that MACE’s role extends beyond preservation it is an active and engaged partner foracademic research and can help to translate outputs to the public.

Something that really highlighted to me the importance to MACE of the collections being used and engaged with was the experience of my friend Andy Howlett who produced Paradise Lost,[iii] a film about Birmingham Central Library. MACE worked with him to find footage of the library that fitted with his film and to organise rights clearances. I asked Andy about his experiences of working with MACE to get the filmmaker perspective and this was his response:

When I first searched MACE’s online catalogue for material pertaining to the modernist rebuilding of Birmingham, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of content. It was difficult to know where to begin so I got in touch and explained my needs and they very kindly invited me to come visit the archive to see the footage in person. When I arrived they had everything set up and I spent a fascinating few hours viewing everything from regional news footage to construction firm propaganda to polemical documentaries. The formats ranged from 16mm film to VHS and I got a real sense of the materiality of the archive and the incredible level of technical know-how required to maintain and operate it. It was like being given a glimpse inside a treasure trove and I came away with a much clearer idea of what I needed for my film and how to proceed with the licensing process.

Use of archive footage in this way usually attracts licence fees. Unlike some private collections, however, MACE tries to support non-commercial uses of its collection through reduced fees. In Andy’s film the archive footage is an important feature, adding historical context to a building that (at the time of making) was under-threat, controversial and familiar to many as a neglected part of Birmingham’s built environment. When constructed, the building looked and functioned differently, so the footage from MACE helps to contextualise the building and the ethos of planning in the city at different points in time. In support of MACE’s mission ‘to make film, video and digital materials of the region as accessible as possible,’[iv] the archive is very happy to work with film makers, local organisations and researchers like me to make sure that their archives are not only preserved but ‘discovered, watched and enjoyed.’ If you are interested in using material from the MACE collection within a project, just contact the team with your brief and they’ll be able to assist with research, access and that all importance copyright clearance. You can find out more about how to license footage on the MACE website.[v]

As part of my research, I was recently awarded a small grant to run a collaborative project and screening in Foleshill, a community suffering from economic deprivation just outside of Coventry city centre. Due to the impact of Covid-19 the screening was reconfigured to a small socially-distanced event hosted by the Foleshill Community Centre and Social Supermarket with an accompanying online version.[vi] Both events featured the same films from MACE’s collection focused on the local area and on food and drink in Coventry. We also included an introduction on the work that MACE does and the variety of material that exists within their collection. Although we were limited in number of participants and room layout, we even managed to facilitate a socially distanced group discussion afterwards. Having worked on this for over eight months (including a visit to Lincoln and then countless Zoom calls and planning meetings) it was really exciting to hear people’s opinions about these films which had become familiar to me, and which Phil and I had worked so hard to curate. Because these films really showcased Foleshill and Coventry, this screening brought home to me the importance to people of seeing their communities and histories on screen and the fact that this was obviously a very new experience to most of the people in the room. This was made even more obvious by people highlighting the communities and people who weren’t visible in the films that we had chosen and asking for future events to redress this absence.

While it is not often possible to bring people together to watch archive footage in this way, MACE’s collection is very easily searchable on their website[vii] and over 7,000 of their videos are available online. Over the years MACE’s cataloguers have done an impressive job of making the text associated with the films available as part of this search tool, so you can search via various criteria, like date ranges, key words and even whether the films are in colour or have sound. If there are films which you would like to view but which aren’t digitised then you can contact MACE and arrange an appointment for viewing. Depending on the format of the footage you want to view you will either need the help of MACE staff (for example if celluloid film needs to be viewed using the Steenbeck machine) or will be able to view it on your own.

MACE is based on the University of Lincoln campus around a 10-minute walk from the train station and overlooking Brayford Pool. Should you (in non-pandemic times) wish to visit MACE to view their collections, or to view BFI material (which is arranged through the BFI but MACE act as a screening facility) then you will find yourself in the heart of the city. You might also want to visit some of the sights of Lincoln such as the medieval Cathedral, the castle and my personal favourite Steep Hill. I recommend Coffee Aroma on Guildhall Street for excellent coffee and cakes, and the Tiny Tavern if you like a micropub, but as I learned when I stayed in Lincoln for a few days, the city centre pubs and restaurants are strangely quiet in the evenings, especially for a university town.

While I have used MACE for my research and for public screenings, I have also spent hours just browsing their collections online and finding videos which made me think and/or smile. This really short introduction reel which showcases things about Coventry from MACE’s collection gives you a sense of the variety of things they hold, as demonstrated by this short film put together about Coventry’s film history.

MACE’s collection was originally formed around the ATV regional television archive so features a lot of news footage, but now includes a wider range of materials and I have really enjoyed trying to understand Coventry’s history, heritage and different communities through this lens. I considered the fashion trends (and sexist attitudes) of the 1970s while watching this piece about a milkman looking for a wife[viii] and enjoyed seeing some much loved (and now slightly neglected) Coventry architecture in the context of modernity and forward-thinking.[ix]

MACE’s collection has also provided me with opportunities to understand more about Coventry’s history of industry and industrial action. There are lots of moving films about people in various trades especially striking miners and automotive workers, but one of my favourites is a more light-hearted film about a strike over the amount of tea given to workers which both the presenter and a striking worker take great delight in calling ‘a storm in a tea-cup’.[x]

In 2020, while thinking about Black Lives Matters protests across the country, Coventry as a City of Sanctuary, and Steve McQueen’s Small Axe films, I have looked at the MACE archive to reflect on the history of race in Coventry. I watched films ranging from this difficult to watch 1966 vox pops clip capturing public responses to the first black policeman,[xi] to a film about racial tensions in the 1980s[xii], but also to a celebration of the 2-tone scene and the importance of the ‘Coventry Sound’ to a new generation of Coventarians.[xiii] All of these examples demonstrate that even if the collections at MACE don’t seem to fit with your research at first glance, it is an excellent resource for understanding aspects of socio-cultural histories captured on film.

As I’ve been writing this, I have become increasingly aware that I am essentially composing a love story to MACE! Perhaps because I have spent pretty much all of the last year in the West Midlands, I have found MACE an invaluable resource not only for my work but as a way of encouraging myself to look at the region through fresh eyes.


[i] Christine Grandy, ‘‘The Show Is Not about Race’: Custom, Screen Culture, and the Black and White Minstrel Show’,  Journal of British Studies, 59: 4 (2020) 857–84.

[ii] Rachel Yemm, ‘Immigration, race and local media: Smethwick and the 1964 general election’, Contemporary British History, 33:1 (2019) 98-122.

[iii] Paradise Lost: History in the Unmaking http://paradiselostfilm.uk/ [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[iv] MACE, About MACE, https://www.macearchive.org/about-mace [Accessed 10 November 2020].

[v] MACE, How to License Footage, https://www.macearchive.org/how-license-footage [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[vi] Vimeo, MACE Archive- Foleshill Community Centre Screening, https://vimeo.com/468531427 [Accessed 19 October 2020].

[vii] MACE https://www.macearchive.org/ [Accessed 10 November 2020].

[viii] MACE, ATV Today: 05.02.1970: Coventry milkman looking for a wife, https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-05021970-coventry-milkman-looking-wife [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[ix] MACE, Midlands News: 01.05.1962: Opening of Rebuilt Coventry station, https://www.macearchive.org/films/midlands-news-01051962-opening-rebuilt-coventry-station [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[x] MACE, ATV Today: 13.07.1972: Coventry Tea Strike, https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-13071972-coventry-tea-strike [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[xi] MACE, ATV Today: 08.02.1966: Vox Pops on Black Police Officers, https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-08021966-vox-pops-black-police-officers [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[xii] MACE, ATV Today: 06.05.1981: Coventry Racial Tension, https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-06051981-coventry-racial-tension [Accessed 16 February 2021].

[xiii] MACE, ATV Today: 13.12.1979: The Coventry Sound, https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-13121979-coventry-sound [Accessed 16 February 2021].


Kat Pearson is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Warwick studying television and UK Cities of Culture.  Because Kat’s work is a Collaborative Doctoral Award, partly supervised by the Media Archive for Central England (MACE), archival television is central to her research. Kat’s thesis will use television programming and archives to look at the two previous UKCoCs (Hull and Derry) and at Coventry’s year in 2021 and evaluate the role of television in placemaking and reputational change. Alongside, and feeding into- this research, Kat is working with MACE to create and run outreach events (including one in Foleshill which was reconfigured due to the pandemic https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/film/tvhistories/blog/foleshillscreenings). These events aim to take the archive out into the community and during Coventry 2021 will hopefully also provide opportunities for new material to be added to the archive. Another strand of Kat’s PhD is working with Professor John Wyver at Illuminations Media (an independent production company) who have been commissioned to make an archive focused documentary about Coventry Cathedral which will be screened in 2021.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

A Day at the Archives: BBC Written Archives Centre

Tom May, Northumbria University

9 November 2020

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Figure 1: Part of a wall display in the locker room of the BBC Written Archives Centre in Caversham (Photo taken by author, 15 January 2020).

 

My last trip to the archives was in January 2020 and it was to the BBC Written Archives Centre in Caversham, near Reading, Berkshire. This wonderful resource was originally opened in November 1970, so is now celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. I was actually due to go again for a couple of days in mid-March, but my better half and bioinformatician Rachel rightly told me in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t best for myself or others for me to travel hundreds of miles down south and back on a train amid the growing public health crisis of Covid-19. It was to take the British government another two weeks or so to start taking the situation anything like as seriously.

But, anyway, for the moment: enough of “These Interesting Times”…! I’ve got an archive to extol. Any researchers of British media, television, history or politics should be chomping at the bit to get inside the unprepossessing white building of the Written Archives Centre whenever this is again possible. Depending on what your research area is, you will be able to access the BBC’s full holdings of micro film, paper files, as well as specialist books on the shelves in the Reading Room and no doubt much else I have yet to discover…

The main thing to be aware of is you will need to book by appointment well in advance to visit. You will be allocated an archivist who will source and bring the archival material you need on a large trolley to the reading room. In a way, this person is like an informal collaborator in how vital their facilitating role is. Across my visits, I have been assisted by two supportive and professional archivists.

Now, I have found the WAC absolutely essential for my personal research: for my PhD, I am writing a history and analysis of BBC1’s influential drama strand Play for Today (1970-84), which is just one month older than the WAC itself! Before I obtained funding to study full time, I had visited the WAC on several occasions in holidays while I was a full-time lecturer in FE. It has always seemed to me like a goldmine, containing not monetisable riches but cultural wealth. To a television and cultural history nerd like myself, this surpasses the Klondike. As well as looking through personnel files and a catalogue of the work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, I have accessed a full set of audience research reports for The Wednesday Play and Play for Today – which contain the contemporary opinions of the BBC’s carefully calibrated audience panels. As a researcher, you are allowed to photograph such material provided you include the correct copyright card within your photos (either BBC, Crown or third party) and get permission before quoting from or using them in any way.

Figure 2: BBC Audience Research Report of PLAY FOR TODAY: ‘Baby Love’ by David Edgar, 3 December 1974 [BBC WAC, VR/74/651] (accessed: 30 July 2015).

See my article on David Edgar’s unduly neglected Play for Today Baby Love at Royal Holloway’s Forgotten Television Drama website here. Suffice it to say, I am not at one with the ‘small group’ of contemporary viewers who found it ‘sordid and depressing’…

In addition, I have consulted BBC Daily Viewing Barometers – which were records of a whole day’s viewing on every terrestrial channel. These are essential to gain detailed audience data from any programme before October 1981 when the Broadcasters Audience Research Board (BARB) took over and provided one standardised set of audience measurements. I have also treated myself to the recondite delights of the Television Weekly Programme Review minutes. These were meetings where all the senior BBC managers would gather on a Wednesday morning and mull over what the perceived merits and audience figures of the previous week’s BBC TV programming. You can infer occasional personal animosities and, more frequently, turf wars between departmental fiefdoms. You can even chance upon bizarre, stern addendums which signify something about the organisational culture, such as the fifty-ninth and very last minute taken at a meeting on 24 February 1971. This recorded widespread concerns within the BBC that a non-BBC employee and current TV critic had taken to hanging around the BBC canteen ‘unattended’… The tone of this minute seemed coolly indignant, with a touch of Reithian imperiousness. And it named this transgressor: Elkan Allan, who for many years wrote TV previews for the Sunday Times.

Like the TWPR minutes, you can access the full Camera Scripts of television and radio programmes on the micro film machines. These have been significantly upgraded from the more laborious totally manual system they apparently once were. Once you have fastened the tape in place correctly – during my 2019 visit, this proved a steep learning curve! – the pages will now appear digitally on a computer screen and you can use what is an accessible interface to fast forward and rewind through the reel to find what you are looking for. Especially usefully, you can also take snapshots of pages and then get a PDF emailed to yourself. I did this for several of the Camera Scripts from the thirty or so “missing” Play for Today episodes that were taped over for economic reasons by the BBC in the 1970s. These Camera Scripts are practically the only way to get a detailed grasp of these plays’ dramaturgy and the writer’s prescriptions for visuals and tone. It took around 25-45 minutes to go through a whole script and send the emails to myself. Laborious, yes, but a vitally worthwhile process for gathering missing fragments of televisual history.

Figure 3: Small extract from the camera script to PLAY FOR TODAY: ‘Hot Fat’ by Jack Rosenthal, 1974 (accessed: 15 January 2020).

My archivist helpfully located all of the microfilm I needed, including locating the exact position on the microfilm of a Play for Today Camera Script that had been mislabelled on the reel. This showed the intensely skilled nature of the archivist role.

Figure 4: My annotated copy of the sheet specifying the micro-film reels I was looking for.

Due to the large amount of material I wanted to view in my 2019 and 2020 visits, I curtailed my lunch to ten minutes, a Granny Smith’s apple and some water from the locker room tap. In my 2015-17 visits, it had been possible to lunch at the BBC Monitoring canteen within Caversham Park, a Grade II-listed stately home, built in 1850 which the BBC had used during the Second World War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. This was an almost preposterously grand, neo-Classical white building that you were able eat in, provided you obtained a visitor’s pass. But such are the straitened times that the BBC has put it up for sale, in 2017 and again in 2019 after a mystery bidder’s purchase fell through. BBC Berkshire moved out in 2018, ending the BBC’s 75 year use of the building. However, instead, there is the opportunity to fulfil your lunch needs or wants at Bite, an apparently excellent independent café in nearby Emmer Green.

Reading Station is around 37 minutes’ walk from Caversham, but the bus goes from the station to a stop on Peppard Road very close by the Centre. I wouldn’t recommend walking from the WAC to Caversham after the place shuts at 5pm in winter, as the busy roads only have a handful of proper pedestrian crossings with lights! There are plenty of good public houses to enjoy in non-socially distanced times. I have also sampled at least three curry houses on my various visits to Reading and by far my favourite was the one I visited last time: River Spice, overlooking the Thames. The repast was absolutely delicious and I would urge anyone else to go there – and I sincerely hope to go there myself again, when the time is right!

A visit to the cultural motherlode that is the BBC Written Archives Centre is, remarkably, free, given certain conditions. And, not just for UK licence fee payers! Academics worldwide are allowed to visit for research projects, as are those working on specific written publications. I have been fortunate for my 2019 and 2020 visits that my institution, Northumbria University, have kindly paid my train travel and hotel costs. This was massively appreciated given that all of my previous visits were entirely self-funded.

Of course, we are in uncharted territory with a major global pandemic with deeply questionable public health decisions being made by the UK government. So, my recommendations to visit the WAC in Caversham come heavily caveated. When it is safe to do so, and when it re-opens to researchers, go forth, masked if necessary, into this wonderful, vast repository of our cultural pasts.

BBC copyright content reproduced courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.


Tom May is a Post-Graduate Researcher at Northumbria University, in his third year of study of a funded PhD research project constructing a history and analysis of Play for Today with attention to its aesthetics and style, representation and reception. He also blogs at May’s Britain and Opening Negotiations. He has written for The Conversation and has had articles published online about David Edgar’s Plays for Today Baby Love (1974) and Destiny (1978).


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

 

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