Quatermass and the Pit

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This article is about the television serial. For the movie, see Quatermass and the Pit (film).
Quatermass and the Pit
The opening titles of Quatermass and the Pit.
Format Science fiction thriller
Created by Nigel Kneale
Starring André Morell
Cec Linder
Anthony Bushell
John Stratton
Christine Finn
Opening theme "Mutations" composed by Trevor Duncan
Country of origin United Kingdom
No. of episodes 6
Camera setup Multi-camera
Running time Approx. 35 mins per episode
Original channel BBC
Picture format 405-line black-and-white
Original run 22 December 1958 – 26 January 1959
Preceded by Quatermass II
Followed by Quatermass

Quatermass and the Pit is a British television science-fiction serial transmitted live by BBC Television in December 1958 and January 1959. It was the third and last of the BBC's Quatermass serials; the character reappeared in a 1979 ITV production called Quatermass. Like its predecessors, Quatermass and the Pit was written by Nigel Kneale.

The series continues the loose chronology of the Quatermass adventures and begins with Professor Bernard Quatermass forced out of his role at the British Experimental Rocket Group, with the organisation passed into military control by the British Government. Quatermass and his new colleague Colonel Breen are involved in the discovery of a bizarre object at an archaeological dig in Knightsbridge, London. Quatermass and his associates find the contents of the object have a horrific influence over many of those in contact with it. As this influence increases, affecting Quatermass himself, darker implications are revealed about the nature and origins of mankind.

The serial has been cited as an influence on Stephen King[1] and the film director John Carpenter.[2] It featured in a the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes compiled by the British Film Institute in 2000, where it was described as "completely gripping",[3] and in 2005 the BBC's own website declared it "simply the first finest thing the BBC ever made. It justifies licence fees to this day."[4]


The Quatermass Experiment (1953) and Quatermass II (1955) had been critical and popular successes for the BBC,[5][6] and in early 1957 the corporation decided that they would like a third serial.[7] Nigel Kneale had left the staff of the BBC towards the end of 1956, but on 2 May 1957 was contracted to write the new scripts as a freelance.[7] The director assigned was Rudolph Cartier, with whom Kneale enjoyed working;[8] the two had collaborated on both the previous Quatermass serials, as well as the literary adaptations Wuthering Heights (1953) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954).[9] Quatermass and the Pit had a larger budget than the previous Quatermass productions, with £17,500 allocated to the serial.[10] Kneale was keen to write a story as an allegory for racial tensions recently seen in the United Kingdom, which culminated with the Notting Hill race riots of August and September 1958.[11]

Pre-production began in September 1958, while Cartier was still working on A Tale of Two Cities and A Midsummer Night's Dream for the BBC.[7] As the two previous Quatermass serials had been scheduled in half-hour slots but, performed live, had overrun, Cartier requested 35-minute slots for the six episodes of Quatermass and the Pit.[7] This was agreed in November 1958, just before the start of production on 24 November.[7] The six episodes—"The Halfmen", "The Ghosts", "Imps and Demons", "The Enchanted", "The Wild Hunt" and "Hob"—were broadcast on Monday nights at 8pm from 22 December 1958 to 26 January 1959.[7]

Each episode was predominantly live from Studio 1 of the BBC's Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, London.[7] The episodes were rehearsed from Tuesday to Saturday, usually at the Mary Wood Settlement in Tavistock Place, London, with camera rehearsals in the morning and afternoon of transmission.[7] Not every scene was live — a significant amount of material was on 35 mm film and inserted during the performance.[7] Most filming involved scenes set on location or those too technically complex or expansive to achieve live.[7] The latter were shot at Ealing Studios, acquired by the BBC in 1955,[12] with Cartier working with the cinematographer A. A. Englander.[13] Pre-filming was also used to show the passage of time in the second episode, with the archaeological dig at Ealing shown to have dug deeper into the ground than the equivalent set at Riverside, enabling a sense of time that would not have been possible in an all-live production.[7]

Special effects were handled by the BBC Visual Effects Department, formed by Bernard Wilkie and Jack Kine in 1954.[14] Kine or Wilkie oversaw effects on a production; due to the number of effects, both worked on Quatermass and the Pit.[15] The team pre-filmed most of their effects for use during the live broadcasts.[10] They also oversaw practical effects for the Ealing filming and Riverside transmission,[7] and constructed the bodies of the Martian creatures.[16]

The music was credited to Trevor Duncan, a pseudonym used by BBC radio producer Leonard Trebilco, whose music was obtained from stock discs.[7] Quatermass and the Pit also used sound effects and electronic music to create a disturbing atmosphere.[17] These tracks were created for the serial by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, overseen by Desmond Briscoe; Quatermass and the Pit was one of the productions for which Briscoe and the workshop became most renowned.[18][19] It was the first time electronic music had been used in a science-fiction television production.[19]

After Quatermass and the Pit, Kneale felt that it time to rest the character. "I didn't want to go on repeating because Professor Quatermass had already saved the world from ultimate destruction three times, and that seemed to me to be quite enough", he told an interviewer in 1986.[20] By the early 1970s, Kneale decided there were some new avenues to explore,[20] and the BBC planned a fourth Quatermass serial in 1972.[21] This was not made by the BBC, but Kneale's scripts were produced in 1979, as a four-part serial for Thames Television called Quatermass.[22]

Made just before videotape became general at the BBC, all six episodes of Quatermass and the Pit were preserved for a possible repeat by being telerecorded on 35 mm film.[7] Although this worked by pointing a synchronised film camera at a television monitor and filming the output, the process had been refined throughout the 1950s and recordings of Quatermass and the Pit were of high technical quality.[23] The serial was repeated in edited form as two 90-minute episodes - entitled "5 Million Years Old" and "Hob" — on 26 December 1959 and 2 January 1960.[7] The third episode, "Imps and Demons", was re-shown on BBC Two on 7 November 1986 as part of the "TV50" season, celebrating 50 years of BBC television.[7]


André Morell as Professor Bernard Quatermass, in a scene from the fourth episode.

A pre-human skull is discovered while building in the fictional Hobbs Lane (formerly Hob's Lane, Hob being an antiquated name for the Devil) in Knightsbridge. Dr Matthew Roney, a paleontologist, examines the remains, which are many thousands of years old, and reconstructs a dwarf-like humanoid with a large brain volume, which he believes to be primitive man. As further excavation is undertaken, something that looks like a missile is unearthed; further work by Roney's group is halted as the military believe it to be an unexploded bomb from World War II.

Roney calls in his friend Professor Bernard Quatermass of the British Rocket Group, an expert of unusual scientific background, to stop the military from disturbing what he believes to be an archaeological find. Quatermass and Colonel Breen, in charge of the Rocket Group over Quatermass's objections, become intrigued by the site. More of the artefact is uncovered, and additional fossils are found which Roney dates to five million years — suggesting the object is at least that old as well. The interior is empty, but a symbol of five intersecting circles, which Roney identifies as the occult pentacle, is etched on an interior wall which appears to hide an inner chamber.

The shell of the object is so hard that even a borazon drill makes no impression, and when the attempt is made, vibrations cause severe distress in people around the object. Quatermass interviews local residents and discovers ghosts and other poltergeist have been common in the area for decades. Meanwhile, a soldier is carried out of the object in hysterics — he claims to have seen a dwarf-like apparition walk through the wall of the artefact, a description which matches a 1927 newspaper account of a ghost.

Following the drilling, a hole has opened in the wall which allows Quatermass and the others access to the interior. There they find the remains of insect-like aliens resembling giant three-legged locusts, with stubby antennae on their heads giving the impression of horns. As Quatermass and Roney examine the remains, they theorise the aliens may have come from a planet habitable five million years ago — Mars.

Meanwhile, the borazon drill operator clearing his equipment from the craft triggers off more poltergeist activity. The operator is forced to run through the streets in a panic until he finds sanctuary in a church. Quatermass and Roney find him there, and he describes visions of the insect aliens killing each other. As Quatermass investigates the history of the area, he finds accounts back to medieval times about devils and ghosts, all centred on incidents where the ground was disturbed. He suspects a psychic projection of these beings has remained on the alien ship and is being seen by people who come in contact with it.

Quatermass plans to use an invention of Roney's, an "optic-encephalogram", to see these visions. The device will record impressions from the optical centres of the brain, in effect showing whatever the subject is seeing, hallucinatory or not. He wears the device and goes into the craft, but it is Roney's assistant, Barbara Judd, who is affected most. Placing the device on her, they record what she "sees"—a violent, bloody purge of the Martian hive, to root out unwanted mutations.

Quatermass begins to have a working theory as to what is going on. He believes that in its most primitive phase mankind was visited by this race. Some apes and primitive pre-humans were taken away and genetically altered to have special abilities such as telepathy, telekinesis and other psychic powers. They were then brought back to Earth—the buried artefact was one of the return ships that had crashed. The idea was that, with their home world dying, the aliens had tried to change humanity's ancestors to have minds and abilities like theirs, created in their own mental image, but with a bodily form adapted to Earth. Humanity are descended from the Martians.

The plan was a failure: the aliens died out before completing their work, and as the human race bred and further evolved, only a percentage of it retained these abilities, with even these only surfacing sporadically. For centuries the buried ship itself had been occasionally triggering these dormant abilities. This explained the reports of poltergeists; people were unknowingly using their own telekinesis to move objects around them, the ghost sightings being traces of a racial memory. It also explained the history of witchcraft and why people attributed it to a being they identified as the devil; the pentagram would have been the symbol for this alien race.

The government authorities, and Breen in particular, find this explanation preposterous despite being shown the recording of Barbara's vision. They believe that the craft is a Nazi propaganda weapon and the alien bodies fakes designed to create exactly the impressions that Quatermass has come to. They attribute the vision to an overactive imagination, and intend to hold a media event to halt the rumours that are already flitting through the population. Quatermass realises that if these implanted psychic powers survive in the human race, there could also still be ingrained in us a compulsion to enact the "Wild Hunt" of a race purge. Quatermass is concerned that the memories encoded inside the ship, which have already been picked up by sensitive people near it, will trigger that impulse and that those affected will begin to slaughter their own.

Despite his warnings, the media event occurs, and the power cables that string into the craft fully activate it for the first time. Glowing and humming like a living thing, it starts drawing upon this energy source and awakening the ancient racial programming. Those people of London in whom the alien admixture remains strong fall under the ship's influence; they merge into a group mind and begin a telekinetic mass murder of those without the alien genes, an 'ethnic cleansing' of those that the alien race mind considers impure and weak.

Breen stands transfixed and is eventually consumed by the energies from the craft as it slowly melts away and a holographic image of a Martian "devil" floats in the sky above London. Fires and riots spread, and even a passing aircraft is affected and crashes into the city. Quatermass himself almost succumbs to the mass psychosis, attempting to kill Roney, who does not have the alien gene and is immune to the influence. Roney manages to shake Quatermass out of his trance, and together they realise that the floating image is the source of the mass psychosis. Even without the craft and electricity, it is now draining the combined psychic energy of London.

Remembering the legends of demons and their aversion to iron and water, Roney deduces that a sufficient mass of iron connected to wet earth may be enough to short the apparition out. Quatermass (via another soldier, Captain Potter) gets a length of iron chain and tries to reach the "devil" but succumbs to the psychic pressure. Roney manages to walk up to the "devil" and hurls the chain, and both he and the craft are reduced to ashes.

Some time later Quatermass holds a television broadcast, in which he praises Roney's sacrifice, saying that they now are armed with knowledge that will allow them to deal with any more Martian artefacts. He also warns that now that we are aware of the dark urges implanted within us all, we have to be careful about wars, witch-hunts and other communal violence—lest we Martians turn the Earth into a second dead planet.

Cast and crew[edit]

For the third time in as many serials the title role was played by a different actor, with André Morell being cast. The part had initially been offered to Alec Clunes, who declined it.[24] Morell had a reputation for playing authority figures, such as Colonel Green in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957),[25] and had previously worked with Kneale and Cartier when he appeared as O'Brien in their BBC television adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954).[26] He had also been the first actor ever offered the part of Quatermass, for the original serial The Quatermass Experiment in 1953, but on that occasion he had turned the part down.[27] Morell's portrayal of Quatermass has been described as the definitive interpretation of the character.[28] The actor found that it became the role for which he was best remembered by the public in later years.[7]

Colonel Breen was played by Anthony Bushell, who was known for various similar military roles—including another bomb disposal officer in The Small Back Room (1949)—and preferred to be addressed as "Major Bushell", the rank he held during World War II.[29] He had also worked as Laurence Olivier's manager and as a television producer.[29] Before Quatermass and the Pit he had most recently been seen as Arthur Rostron in the film version of A Night to Remember (1958).[30]

Roney was played by Canadian actor Cec Linder. Linder had appeared in various American television series, such as Studio One, and later appeared in Lolita (1962) and the James Bond film Goldfinger (1964).[31] John Stratton played Captain Potter; later he become a regular guest actor in a number of British television series.[32] Christine Finn played the other main character, Barbara Judd; she later voiced various characters in the popular 1960s children's television series Thunderbirds.[33]

For the first time, Kneale used a character from a previous serial other than Quatermass himself. He brought back the journalist James Fullalove from The Quatermass Experiment, and the production team had hoped that actor Paul Whitsun-Jones would be able to reprise the part.[7] Whitsun-Jones was unavailable to appear, so Brian Worth was cast instead.[7] Appearing as an army sergeant was Michael Ripper; Ripper had been in Hammer Film Productions' adaptation of the second Quatermass serial, Quatermass 2, the previous year.[34] He had the distinction of appearing in more Hammer films than any other actor.[35] The drama also featured future Dad's Army actress Nan Braunton as Miss Dobson.

Nigel Kneale continued his successful career writing for film and television after Quatermass and the Pit. He wrote feature film screenplays for The Entertainer (1960), H.M.S. Defiant (1962) and The First Men in the Moon (1964).[36] He returned to the Quatermass character for a final time with Quatermass (1979), a serial for the ITV network.[37] He continued writing for television until the 1990s,[36][38] and Quatermass and the Pit was often cited as the most successful work of his long career.[2][39]

Quatermass and the Pit was the last original production on which Kneale collaborated with Rudolph Cartier, although Cartier did direct a new version of Kneale's 1953 adaptation of Wuthering Heights for the BBC in 1962.[40] Other later successes for Cartier were Anna Karenina (1961) and Lee Oswald: Assassin (1966).[41]

Reception and influence[edit]

According to the BBC's research figures, Quatermass and the Pit gained an audience of 7.6 million people for its opening episode, jumping to 9.1 million for the second and increasing sequentially each week, with the exception of episode four, until it concluded with a viewing figure of 11 million for episode six, just under 30% of the potential audience.[7] The overall average figure for the serial was 9.75 million; this was the best figure the BBC had obtained since the programme Opportunity Murder in 1956, the corporation not having managed to beat the rival ITV network in the ratings since the other channel had launched in 1955.[7] The trade paper Variety reported that according to the Nielsen Company's ratings data, the final episode of Quatermass and the Pit had lost out to the quiz show Keep it in the Family on ITV, being viewed in 2,560,000 households as opposed to 2,996,000 for the commercial channel's programme, and failing to feature in the week's top ten shows.[7] The same paper also stated that on the night of episode six's broadcast, British cinemas reported their worst evening's takings in "a long, long time."[42]

The Times newspaper reported the day after the final episode that members of Hereford City Council had "rejected last night a proposal that they should suspend standing orders to adjourn so that members could watch the final instalment of Quatermass and the Pit, the BBC television serial."[43] BBC radio and television journalist John Humphrys recalled being frightened by the serial as a child in a feature on television memories published by The Guardian in 2006.[44] Recalling the frightening qualities of the Quatermass serials in 1981, journalist Geoffrey Wansell wrote that "when the third series, Quatermass and the Pit was shown, three of my school friends insisted on leaving the room whenever it started."[45]

The Times's television reviewer praised the opening episode the day after its transmission. Pointing out that "Professor Bernard Quatermass ... like all science fiction heroes, has to keep running hard if he is not to be overtaken by the world of fact,"[46] the anonymous reviewer went on to state how much he had enjoyed the episode.

This expository episode was an excellent example of Mr. Kneale's ability to hold an audience with promises alone; smooth, leisurely, and without any sensational incident, it was imbued in Mr. Rudolph Cartier's production with unearthly echoes of horrors to come. Sharing them for the next six weeks with Mr. Andre Morell and Mr. Cec Linder is an unnerving prospect.[46]

Criticism of the serial was also expressed. Although Kneale went on to use the Martian "Wild Hunt" as a deliberate allegory for the recent Notting Hill race riots,[47][48] some Black British leaders were upset with the depiction of racial tensions in the first episode. "Leaders of coloured minorities here to-day criticized the BBC for allowing a report that 'race riots are continuing in Birmingham,' to be included in a fictional news bulletin during the first instalment of the new Quatermass television play last night," reported The Times's Birmingham correspondent.[49] The report quoted Dr. W. C. Pilgrim of the city's West Indian community as saying, "I do not agree with this sort of thing, fiction or not. No trouble of this kind has happened in Birmingham, where our problems do not find expression in violence."[49] The BBC replied to the criticisms with the assurance that:

This was a completely imaginary news bulletin in a fictional programme set in the indeterminate future that contained such items as a rocket landing on the moon. It was all Jules Verne sort of stuff. No slur on Birmingham was implied and no reference to past events nor prophecy of the future was intended.[49]

These themes and subtexts were highlighted by the British Film Institute's review of the serial, when it was included in their "TV 100" list in 2000, in 75th position—20th out of the dramas featured.[3] "In a story which mined mythology and folklore ... under the guise of genre it tackled serious themes of man's hostile nature and the military's perversion of science for its own ends."[3] The theme of military takeover of peaceful scientific research was also praised and compared to the contemporary outlook by Patrick Stoddart, writing for The Sunday Times in 1988.

Last week I watched a BBC drama in which a scientist fought against smirking government ministers and power-crazed army officers to stop his peaceful rocket research group being turned into a Star Wars vehicle to put missiles on the moon. They won. If you are wondering how you missed the ritual complaints which now follow every programme like this from offstage right, it is because the play was Quatermass and the Pit, which the BBC has just released on video. It was made in 1957, when the Macmillan government presumably believed that defence policy was a reasonable thing for the BBC to debate, even in drama. You seriously wonder how much internal angst would be generated if the BBC was offered the same plot now.[50]

The serial has also been an influence on other television science-fiction productions. Mark Gatiss wrote in The Guardian in 2006 that "What sci-fi piece of the past 50 years doesn't owe Kneale a huge debt? ... The "ancient invasion" of Quatermass and the Pit cast a huge shadow ... its brilliant blending of superstition, witchcraft and ghosts into the story of a five-million-year-old Martian invasion is copper-bottomed genius."[51] Gatiss was a scriptwriter for Doctor Who, a programme that had been particularly strongly influenced by the Quatermass serials throughout its history.[52][53] Derrick Sherwin, the producer of Doctor Who in 1969, acknowledged Quatermass and the Pit as an influence on changing the format of the programme.

What the producers had been trying to do—and what ultimately they achieved in Quatermass and the Pit—was to get some reality into it. So I said that this was the solution: that what we had to do with Doctor Who was to forget wobbly jellies in outer space and create some reason for bringing the stories down to Earth.[54]

The 1971 and 1977 Doctor Who serials The Dæmons and Image of the Fendahl contain many very similar elements and themes to Quatermass and the Pit. Comparing The Pit to The Daemons, many people have noted the similarities between this story's plot and that of the 1958 BBC serial and 1967 Hammer film. Both involve the unearthing of an extraterrestrial spaceship, an alien race that has interfered with human evolution and is the basis for legends of devils, demons and witchcraft, and places with "devilish" names—Devil's End in The Daemons, and Hob's Lane in Pit. Similar themes also appear in Image of the Fendahl[55] which deals with beings, the Fendahl of the title, that after the destruction of their home world came to Earth and influenced the evolution of humans to possess psychic powers. When its "skull", marked with a pentagram, is discovered in an archaeological dig, it proceeds to take over the descendants of the engineered humans in an effort to colonise the Earth.[55]

The writer and critic Kim Newman, speaking about Kneale's career in a 2003 television documentary, cited Quatermass and the Pit as perfecting "the notion of the science-fictional detective story".[56] Newman also discussed the programme as an influence on the horror fiction writer Stephen King, claiming that King had "more or less rewritten Quatermass and the Pit in The Tommyknockers".[56]

Other media[edit]

As with the previous two Quatermass serials, the rights to adapt Quatermass and the Pit for the cinema were purchased by Hammer Film Productions. Their adaptation of the serial was released with the same title as the original in 1967, directed by Roy Ward Baker and scripted by Kneale.[57] Scottish actor Andrew Keir starred as Quatermass. This became the role for which he was best remembered, being regarded particularly highly in comparison to the previous film Quatermass, Brian Donlevy.[58][59][60] The film, made in colour, is regarded by many commentators as a classic of the genre.[2][61][62] The film has been released in DVD and Blu-ray formats. In the United States the film was retitled Five Million Years to Earth.[57]

A script book of Quatermass and the Pit was released by Penguin Books in April 1960, with a cover by Kneale's artist brother Bryan Kneale.[7] In 1979 this was re-published by Arrow Books to coincide with the transmission of the fourth and final Quatermass serial on ITV; this edition featured a new introduction by Kneale.[7] The theatrical company Creation Productions staged a live adaptation of Quatermass and the Pit in a quarry near Nottingham in August 1997.[28][63]

The BBC made Quatermass and the Pit available to buy on VHS videotape in the 1980s, edited into a two-part compilation format. This was a new compilation made from the episodic film recordings, which had optical sound and telecined film inserts; for unknown reasons the BBC chose not to master it from the existing 1959–60 compilation, which had magnetic sound and film inserts reinserted from the original shoot (see information on box set remastering below).[23] This version was re-released on VHS by budget label Paradox Video in 1995,[64] and later put out again, this time by Revelation Films, on DVD.[23] The full, unedited, episodic version of the serial was released on DVD by BBC Worldwide in 2005, as part of The Quatermass Collection box set. Also included were the existing first two episodes of The Quatermass Experiment, all of Quatermass II and various extra features.[4]

For the box set release, Quatermass and the Pit was extensively restored.[4] A process called VidFIRE was applied to all of the scenes originally broadcast live, restoring the fluid interlaced video look they would have had on transmission, but which was lost during the telerecording process.[23] For the pre-filmed scenes, most of the high-quality original 35 mm film inserts still existed, as they had been spliced into the 1959–60 compilation repeat version in place of the lower-quality telerecorded versions of the same sequences.[23] As this compilation also survived in the BBC archives, these film sequences were able to be digitally remastered and inserted into the newly restored episodic version for the DVD release. The compilation used a separate magnetic soundtrack, and although the original had decayed a safety copy had survived. This yielded better sound quality than the optical soundtracks accompanying the original episodes, and was therefore the main source for the audio remastering except in the case of scenes that were not in the compilation, and in a few cases where faults on the magnetic tracks necessitated their replacement by the optical versions.[23]


A 1959 episode of The Goon Show, a BBC radio comedy series, parodied Quatermass and the Pit.[7] The episode, "The Scarlet Capsule", was written by Spike Milligan, and used the original BBC Radiophonic Workshop sound effects made for the television serial.[7] The episode has been released on several LP and CD compilations by EMI, but due to copyright restrictions the show's musical interludes have been removed and the closing playout heavily abridged. A more complete version has been broadcast a number of times on BBC Radio 4 Extra (formerly BBC7).

The serial was also parodied by the BBC television comedy series Hancock's Half Hour, in an episode entitled "The Horror Serial", transmitted the week following the final episode. In it, Tony Hancock has just finished watching the final episode of Quatermass and the Pit, and becomes convinced that there is a crashed Martian space ship buried at the end of his garden. (It is in fact an unexploded bomb, although Hancock claims that the warning "Achtung!" is really the Martian for Acton.) This episode no longer exists in the BBC's archives but a private collector's audio-only recording has been discovered.[7] It was parodied a third time in a sketch from the final season of The Two Ronnies in 1986: the sketch featured a guest appearance from Joanna Lumley.[7]


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  • Murray, Andy (2006). Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale (paperback). London: Headpress. pp. 192 pages. ISBN 1-900486-50-4. 
  • Brass, Tom (2010). "Fiends, friends and fools: screen images and/as rural struggle". Dialectical Anthropology 34: 105–142. doi:10.1007/s10624-009-9125-6. 

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