Monday, 20 October 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: Once Upon A Time

You'll notice I've gone back to my original profile picture, it was a dare originally, but i quite like it. so sorry.
The end of this look at allegory is nearing with this episode, & you would be forgiven for thinking that I've rather lost my relish for the subject as I've gone through. What I was expecting to find was that the series was susceptible to numerous different allegorical interpretations, which it is in certain places. However I'm expecting my conclusion to be that some episodes lend themselves to an allegorical interpretation better than others. Notoriously not even McGoohan knew how the series would end while it was being filmed, & additional conflict about the number of episodes/series shows in a certain lack of direction as the series progresses, in my opinion.
Additionally in my inner INFJ world of making connections I've been distracted by the similarities of The Villages to totalitarian regimes, specifically Apartheid-era South Africa. That is the one about which I know most: as a young theology student I wrote an essay on the theological underpinnings of aparthied. This is the point at which people are either surprised I have a degree in theology or even more surprised that apartheid had (& has among the far-right) a theology. It may be found in some of the more bizarre Calvinist ideas of the Dutch Reformed Church.
Anyway, there is a relevance of all this to this episode. If you read about South Africa as it is now, it is a society deeply scarred by its past. I was shocked when I found out what the famous quote from Winnie Mandela - 'with our boxes of matches & our necklaces we shall liberate this country' - actually means. It is a particularly brutal form of murder with specific cultural connotations (if you are of a sensitive disposition do not look at http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necklacing). I was surprised to find that my (white) friend in South Africa has met Winnie Mandela, & speaks of her with respect, affection, even awe. She told me that what Winnie went through - the imprisonments, banishings, disappearances, beatings - were enough to send anyone off their head.
The relevance to this episode of The Prisoner is that it is a wonder Number 6 didn't lose it completely (or perhaps he did, in a true 1960s psychedelic enlightenment, but that's yet another layer of possible meaning). The implication of 'degree absolute' (in a very Freudian slip I found I first wrote 'decree absolute'!) Is that there is nothing more The Village can do to him. This is the point beyond which there is nothing else, & in the true style of the totalitarian regime, it is all portrayed as Number 6's fault. He is the naughty schoolboy or criminal - & if he had done something socially unacceptable as a result of the trauma he suffered in the Village, it is sure that this would have been used as further evidence of his rebellious spirit.
The allegory here is a very painful one - to our society. There is no help in the institutions of education, law, church - they are all implicated in Degree Absolute. It is very plain also that it makes a painful point about the sickness of our society. You can't come back from Degree Absolute. There's no possibility of it being mended, healed, reconciled. The message of this episode is far from the usual unreality of the series - it's about as bleak as can be.
I would like to end this post by quoting from an interview with Minnie Mandela (http://www.standard.co.uk/news/how-nelson-mandela-betrayed-us-says-exwife-winnie-6734116.html), which I think from the point of view of this post may well be read bearung in mind that she is talking about the sort of regime this episode of The Prisoner refers to:
'She looked towards my chair. Her grey glasses focused on my face. "Yes, I was afraid in the beginning. But then there is only so much they can do to you. After that it is only death. They can only kill you, and as you see, I am still here."
'I knew that the apartheid enforcers had done everything in their power to break this woman. She had suffered every indignity a person could bear. They had picked her up in the night and placed her under house arrest in Brandfort, a border town in Orange Free State, 300 miles from Soweto. "It was exile," she said, "when everything else had failed."
'At this remote outpost, where she spent nine years, she had recruited young men for the party. "Right under their noses," she said to Vidia, laughing with the memory of it. "The only worry or pain I had was for my daughters. Never really knowing what was happening to them. I feel they have really suffered in all this. Not me or Mandela," she said.
[...]
'"Look at this Truth and Reconciliation charade. He [Mandela] should never have agreed to it." Again her anger was focused on Mandela. "What good does the truth do? How does it help anyone to know where and how their loved ones were killed or buried? That Bishop Tutu who turned it all into a religious circus came here," she said pointing to an empty chair in the distance.
'"He had the cheek to tell me to appear. I told him a few home truths. I told him that he and his other like-minded cretins were only sitting here because of our struggle and ME. Because of the things I and people like me had done to get freedom."'
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Thursday, 16 October 2014

Paul Temple: First Impressions

An attentive reader of this blog recently called it 'my go-to blog for Brit shows' (you know who you are, thank you) & so when I noticed I'd left the discs for this post sitting on my laptop next to a cup of tea in a Harrods mug, I had to snap it as the illustration for this ultra-British post. Incidentally I made the tea with a bag in the mug, don't take sugar, & superstition would have it that the almost complete absence of bubbles on top indicates that buying a lottery ticket this week would be a waste of money. As it happens the largest audience for this blog is in the Ukraine (hello there) followed by the US, but I like to think we English people are as much of a mystery to non-English speakers as we are to Anglophones. Anyway back to the matter in hand...
Surely there can be nobody interested in the sort of vintage media talked about in this blog who has not heard of Paul Temple? But just in case anyone hasn't...
'Paul Temple is a fictional character created by English writer Francis Durbridge (1912–1998) for the BBC radio serial Send for Paul Temple in 1938. Temple is an amateur private detective and author of crime fiction. Together with his journalist wife (Louise Temple, née Harvey, affectionately known as "Steve" after her pen name "Steve Trent"), he solves "whodunnit" crimes with subtle, humorous dialogue and rare "action". Always the gentleman, his use of the phrase "by Timothy" was the nearest he ever got to swearing. Since 1938, the Temples have featured in over 30 BBC radio dramas, 12 serials for German radio, a BBC television series, four British feature films and several novels. In the Netherlands several of the radio plays were recorded with Dutch actors and with the main character's name translated to 'Paul Vlaanderen '. In addition, a Paul Temple comic strip featured in the London Evening News from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s.' (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Temple)
I have loved the radio serials for a long time. In fact I've developed my own countercultural theory that Steve is a lesbian (sometimes I think she's lovers with Charlie) who actually runs all sorts of dodgy operations without Temple knowing. Every time he gets to know of one he blames the wrong person & Steve gets away with it again. The series is wonderfully open to parody, for example when they come across yet another dead body & Steve says, 'Is...he...?', it is all too easy to envision Temple saying, 'Don't look, darling, he's working class.' An exhaustive account of Paul Temple's multimedia appearances can be found at http://www.thrillingdetective.com/temple.html
Anyway my own imaginative involvement with the radio serial has made me avoid the TV series so far. The reviews on the internet are distinctly mixed for a start. Also I've never seen any of the films, which I suspect might suit Temple's style better.
This suspicion of mine about transplanting Temple from a Boy's Own 1930s/40s milieu to a contemporary milieu in the 1970s, I now realise, has been awakened in part by the cover of the DVD box. It looks very much like any standard 1970s show, but now I know the reason:
'This was a co-production by the BBC and Taurus films of Munich, West Germany, and was shown internationally. According to star Matthews, both Paul and Steve Temple became fashion icons of sorts, creating a style that was to be imitated in ITV's The Persuaders!, while, in America, Ros Drinkwater's role was reportedly emulated by Susan Saint James in McMillan & Wife and Stefanie Powers in Hart to Hart. According to Matthews, Drinkwater chose her own "very expensive" designer clothes for the part.
'Paul Temple used overseas locations in France, Malta, Germany and elsewhere. The series was intended to last for five years, but despite its popularity especially in Germany, the BBC withdrew prematurely.' (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Temple_(TV_series))
The visual similarity to the style of The Persuaders is especially apparent. I'm inclined to say I don't like the updating of the Temples to the 1970s, but I'm not completely sure about that. What are missing are the elements of the novels & radio shows that made Paul Temple what it was: the upper-class attitudes, attitudes to the servants & criminal classes, & a plethora of cliffhangers in every episode. Given those essential ingredients there were clearly only two routes available - update using the characters or make it a period drama. Had it been the latter I really don't think I would have liked it, because I feel it would have stepped over a borderline into parody (certainly using this approach with Dick Barton was a complete disaster in my opinion - I'm referring to the series here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/aw/d/B001PQQVS8/ref=mp_s_a_1_2?qid=1413488813&sr=8-2&pi=SL75).
So Paul Temple therefore ends up a rather different series from the original. It is perhaps more inspired by the original. If you accept this fact, Temple actually translates rather well to the 1970s as one of the jet set.
The plots are less generic Paul Temple & more generic 1970s action mystery series. It aims for sophistication very clearly, yet also manages at times to get real suspense & emotion from the viewer.
Watch this if you like the things I mention above: avoid it if you're in love with the radio series & can't envisage Paul Temple any other way. I have never seen any of the films myself, but now want to so I can see how he was translated to the silver screen.
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Monday, 13 October 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: The Girl Who Was Death

Since the focus of this series of posts is allegory, I'm quite keen to make everything in the episodes refer to something else if I possibly can. The Girl Who Was Death is another of those episodes which apparently take us out of the claustrophobic world of The Village. It is certainly one of my favourite episodes & seems to be beloved of the fans.
But I must start by demolishing the way this episode is normally approached. If you actually watch the opening few minutes, it is apparent that Number 6 has woken up in The Village again. This episode is therefore set in The Village. Similarly the scenes with the story book are so brief as to be easily missed - or at least overlooked if you're not paying attention - & clearly indicate the point made so often in The Prisoner, that nothing is real, & the show is entirely focussed on The Village when it comes down to it. In a sense, it's a reverse allegory, where everything outside of it refers in some way to The Village itself. The unreality of this episode explains some of the stranger things that happen, such as the car chase scene. I have read the strange twistings & turnings of that scene explained by rationalising that the woman is a witch! Much simpler for the whole thing to be a story - a Village-storybook-induced story. The unreality is reinforced by the use of back projection & sets which either just feel unreal or are parodies.
Here the references to things apparently outside the Village are clear enough - cricket, sauna, pub, numerous sexual references of a peculiarly sado-masochistic kind. All of these are everyday situations turned insidiously dangerous. Once again the power of The Village is everywhere, & they'll get you if they feel like it. I can only guess that advantage was taken of the strait-laced televisual mores of the time to use numerous sophisticated Freudian phallic or vaginal symbols. The vaginal symbols of course are included in the dangerous ones. It may also have been that the staunchly Catholic McGoohan wanted the sexual symbols to be disguised, or open to different interpretations. You can fall to your death in a pit, but the femme fatale who leads you there is the real trap! Far from being the straight comedy it is sometimes portrayed as, this episode is a warning to be on your guard.
Of course it can't be neglected that this episode sends up every staple of the spy-fi genre ever: reference is usually made to James Bond's amorous exploits. McGoohan was critical of the promiscuity & disinterestedness of spies in the genre: his Number 6 is the exact opposite of the spy who would work for any power as long as the martinis & pretty girls kept coming. Not only Bond but also Holmes, The Avengers (this episode just *feels* so Avengers) & all manner of other shows are criticised here.
There is a further allegorical twist. It's not mentioned, which is what makes it all the more painful when you think about it. There's a realisation to be undergone here: if you bear in mind who is Number 1 as you watch this, this apparently comical show becomes a harrowing exercise in self-knowledge for Number 6. Everything in this show is actually his creation, he is Number 1, he literally only has himself to blame.
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Sunday, 12 October 2014

Jason King: Flamingoes Only Fly on Tuesdays

Image: Female fans being held back from Peter Wyngarde as he opens the Woolworths shop in Luton in 1973 (credit: http://m.lutontoday.co.uk/news/nostalgia/when-tv-star-peter-wyngarde-aka-jason-king-opened-luton-s-woolies-store-1-5552393)
Things have been a bit fraught recently, but I've now started a much-needed week of annual leave, & intend to prove my superficiality by starting with a post on the confection that is Jason King, rather than any more serious cult TV show. I'm sure I wrote in my general post about this show that my interest in this show was partly aroused by my godmother telling me - some shamefacedly - that she had a raging crush on Peter Wyngarde in the 1970s. And how much of the 1970s Jason King is!
I have to give it full marks for the tropical establishing shots in the opening scenes. I have read criticism that this stock footage has not worn as well as the film used for the actual series, but my recollection of seventies TV's use of stock footage was that little effort was made to hide the different colour register & film. This was the time before CGI! The seventies were also an incredibly troubled time in all sorts of ways. I only recently realised that I keep candles in the house in case of power cuts, & that this is an expectation I developed as a result of many candlelit hours in my childhood, even though I can't remember a major power cut here for over thirty years & younger people don't seem to keep candles in that way. Anyway, the troubled elements of the 1970s are brought firmly into focus in this show by the sight of a journalist imprisoned unjustly: there is the suggestion of torture in the flashing light & the warder's cane.
Into the middle of this strides Jason King, looking about as unreal as you could wish for. I love the way the torture for King consists of tearing up pieces of his wardrobe. The title of this episode also comes across as unreal. The apparent criminal conspiracy with its emphasis on flamingoes is bizarre. In my real/unreal television divide, we've long left Kansas behind.
On the other hand there remains a very real sense in which the brutal reality of the 1970s - in this case a revolution on a Caribbean island - is knit together with the unreality of Jason King, with the added unreality of Mark Cain, his fictional creator. It is precisely this mixture I like about Jason King - he meanders through a world of revolutions & car bombs, wearing a caftan & having champagne & strawberries for breakfast. It is obviously not to everybody's taste, but I like this outlandish combination enormously.
Of course King's allocated minder has to be a woman, giving him full opportunity to display his misogyny, even mentioning rape as a means of 'persuasion' for a woman at one point. King really is an odious character in so many ways.
On the other hand, given some of the troubled relationships between black & white people at the time (I'm specifically thinking of the then Rhodesia under Ian Smith & the apartheid regime in South Africa) relations are unstrained & natural here. For the time these easy relations strike me as surprising for a British TV series - my impression is that you'd be more likely to find them in a contemporary US show. It gives a positive impression of the black people shown - none of the derogatory references to Vodou or superstition that you find in The Champions, yet this portrait itself also manages to be unreal, with a complete lack of poverty. This Caribbean island looks & feels like a first world country of the time transported elsewhere. It's strange.
Of course the sketchy scene setting is explained by this episode as a vehicle for King's detective ability, pure & simple. Well, & also to allow his colourful personality to lift a rather pedestrian plot into a world of fantasy. Pedestrian plot elements include a mysterious release from prison & the sudden appearance of a CIA man. I feel that given the base elements of the plot here, Mission Impossible or The Man From UNCLE would have done it much better as a spy/action/adventure show, but Jason King takes it into unique territory. Another wonder, of course, is the ease with which King walks into this volatile situation & sorts it. In reality, at the point at which the police chief is thinking of deporting him, you'd really be begging to be put on the next flight back to London.
All in all, I like this episode enormously. The only thing stopping it being stonking good television is the corny script, with huge credibility gaps. This is perhaps one of the shows that is best not looked at too closely, since these faults would otherwise be overshadowed by the larger-than-life character of Jason King.
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Sunday, 5 October 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: Living in Harmony

Usually, when I start my dissection of a defenceless classic TV programme, I have a read round on the internet to see what other people have to say about it. In terms of the shows I've talked about so far, this is particularly easy in the case of The Avengers & The Prisoner, but seemingly not when it comes to Living in Harmony.
I ended my piece on Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling by saying that I had no idea what I would do when I got to this episode. One of the things I'm finding useful about going through The Prisoner thematically, is I'm finding I watch the episodes in different ways - I would like to say the episodes lend themselves to different interpretations - & Living in Harmony is one that doesn't seem to attract much in the way of allegory. So let me invent the phrase argumentum a silentio for how I must start here: either this episode doesn't lend itself to allegory or the idea of an allegory of an allegory in an already allegorical show is just too much for most commentators. At any rate, its standing among the fans seems to be that it's seen as an odd episode out - almost outside the 'canon' - & tends to be neglected.
After tying myself up in knots trying to do something inventive with an allegorical approach to this episode, & repeatedly falling flat on my face, I'm forced back to the conventional allegorical interpretation of The Prisoner: the Village represents our world & the Villagers people or powers within it. I feel the extension of that principle to this episode which best holds water, is that Harmony is an allegory of the Village. The fact that it is another 'Village' makes the message all the more depressing - the Village authorities are everywhere, every medium we see is infiltrated. There is truly no escape.
I see when I wrote about this in my series of posts examining the identification of John Drake with Number 6, I commented on this episode as a commentary on the Vietnam war & also gave a personal opinion that the Kid represents the Butler (http://culttvblog.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-prisoner-living-in-harmony.html). I like the latter idea enormously, since I still like the idea, which unfortunately I don't think will hold up under scrutiny, that the Butler is Number 1. In addition to the Vietnam War reference, references to apartheid-era South Africa have been seen in this episode. All of these events are now firmly in the past for those of us uninfluenced by them, & in my usual principle of trying to read these shows from a contemporary perspective I think there may be much more ground in treating this one as a reference to High Noon, & in turn to American anti-Communist witch hunts.
High Noon was already referenced in the title of the last episode, & thus also in the setting for this one. There are echoes in the plot also. Of course as usual in The Prisoner, no final identification is possible, but it is as if McGoohan is very subtly saying here, 'The Prisoner is about what High Noon is about'. I had no idea it was so controversial until I started reading it up for this episode. Remember the Number 2 here is apparently American, & the setting is an archetypally American one:
'In the Soviet Union the film was criticized as "a glorification of the individual."[7] The American Left appreciated the film for what they believed was an allegory of people (Hollywood people, in particular) who were afraid to stand up to HUAC. However, the film eventually gained the respect of people with conservative/anti-communist views. Ronald Reagan, a conservative and fervent anti-Communist, said he appreciated the film because the main character had a strong dedication to duty, law, and the well-being of the town despite the refusal of the townspeople to help. Dwight Eisenhower loved the film and frequently screened it in the White House, as did many other American presidents.
[...]
'Actor John Wayne disliked the film because he felt it was an allegory for blacklisting, which he actively supported. In his Playboy interview from May 1971, Wayne stated he considered High Noon "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life"[16] and went on to say he would never regret having helped blacklist liberal screenwriter Carl Foreman from Hollywood. Ironically, Gary Cooper himself had conservative political views and was a "friendly witness" before HUAC several years earlier, although he did not name names and later strongly opposed blacklisting.
[...]
'Zinnemann later said in a 1973 interview: "I'm told that Howard Hawks has said on various occasions that he made Rio Bravo as a kind of answer to High Noon, because he didn't believe that a good sheriff would go running around town asking for other people's help to do his job. I'm rather surprised at this kind of thinking. Sheriffs are people and no two people are alike. The story of High Noon takes place in the Old West but it is really a story about a man's conflict of conscience. In this sense it is a cousin to A Man for All Seasons. In any event, respect for the Western Hero has not been diminished by High Noon."' (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_noon#undefined)
In just such a way as High Noon *may* refer to the House Unamerican Activities Committee (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_Un-American_Activities_Committee), does Living in Harmony refer to The Village & the world. Interestingly, in this it turns another recurring theme almost on its head, that is that of the internationalism of The Village. In an age when it was supposed to be abundantly clear on the world stage who were us & them, The Prisoner normally muddies that picture, yet here references a time in history where the threat was considered very real & abundantly subversive. As usual, & as is the case with all other apparent threats in The Prisoner, the whole point of it is that nothing is real. Whether or not Harmony is a drug-induced hallucination, the whole point is that nothing is real. The Communist threat isn't real. The Iron Curtain isn't real. The First World is a fantasy. In reality you don't know who is who, nothing is real, & anybody could be anything. Heavy, man.
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Monday, 29 September 2014

Man in a Suitcase: First Impressions

I have had the box set of Man in a Suitcase for some time: I bought them on spec from ebay, because it's one of the series that's always mentioned in the same breath with all the other TV series that you'll read about here. I have been watching the episodes in a rather desultory fashion on & off, but this series has come up in the cult TV blogosphere recently, & I thought I'd stick my neck out.
There's one thing that I'm finding repeated all over the internet about Richard Bradford, that he is a method actor (for example it comes up on the wikipedia, tv.com & amazon.co.uk pages referring to the show rather than Bradford himself). This is where my problem with this show begins. Method acting refers to a collection of inward techniques, pioneered by Stanislavski, where the actor creates the part within himself, as opposed to the purely external techniques used in classical drama training. And here's the nub: I get suspicious when an actor's technique is talked about too much. The whole point of acting is that the *part* is the thing the viewer sees, & all the great actors can project a part in such a way that you don't notice the acting. I am not sure whether I am referring to Bradford's actual acting or the hype around the show.
Because there is something wrong with Bradford's performance, for me. After much thought, I've concluded that he's not pissed off enough. For a man who is supposed to be scraping a living from his wits after a great injustice by his own country, he is remarkably equable. If you want to think your way into his part you've got to have elements of a grieving process - including anger, & so on.
For some reason Man in a Suitcase reminds me of The Persuaders! I feel this may be the...I suppose it would have been called Pan-Continental at the time - setting of the show (incidentally I remember my mother getting terribly excited about us going over to what she called 'continental quilts' - it is only afterwards I've discovered Terence Conran is credited with the introduction of the duvet to France).
The plots also strike me as somewhat generic. I have watched most of the series now. I'm afraid it has failed to grab me. Many of the TV shows I talk about here grabbed me on first viewing. I'm ashamed to say I can't remember the plots of the episodes I've watched. I have also recently watched through Jason King in the same manner & pace (usually while eating or doing something else), but I can remember the plots of Jason King episodes. The more colourful figure of King has made more of an impression.
None of this manages to square my impression with the rave reviews this series gets on amazon.co.uk. And they really are rave reviews. However I would note that many of them are by people who either watched Man in a Suitcase at the time or would have liked to. I wonder whether it hasn't travelled as well as some of the more outlandish TV series of the time.
Or it may just be me. I certainly *ought* to like it, but I have a feeling this box set will be in the next bag of stuff, along with Hazell, that I sell to Cex.
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Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling

Right. This is where I really get to go to town on my own theories with allegory in The Prisoner. Of course this is the odd episode out. Of course McGoohan is barely seen, & the wole episode isn't very 'McGoohan' at all. The majority of the episode even takes place outside of The Village. These are all the things that make this episode...I can only use the phrase 'stand out' from the rest, & it is the aspects that make people dislike this episode that must be grasped onto for the meaning here.
The episode opens with a unique opener of men looking at transparencies. Much is made of slide Number 6. I'm not going to labour the wholly obvious point there. The presence of the great & the good & photography introduce the allegorical themes of this episode. It is about intelligence/technology (I suppose what we would now call information technology), & it is about power.
The key intelligence here is the knowledge Selzmann has developed of transferring the psyche from one person to another. The main power play here is that the great & the good are desperate to get the intelligence, & the power that would go with it.
But the nub of that is that the unconsidered discoverer of this intelligence trumps the powerful to win at the end. In a true allegorical way, this story warns against the misuse of power. It is like the hare & the tortoise.
The fact that Number 6 is not 'himself' for much of the episode merely recalls the process in Schizoid Man where Number 6 becomes 'whole' by becoming Number 12. It makes this episode truly the odd one out, but Number 6 is apparently a 'Village man' here. He has actually arrived at what he could be in The Village.
Similarly the fact that the action of the episode deliberately takes place outside The Village reinforces the importance of The Village to the series, the authorities, & Number 6 himself. Remember my personal theory that The Village represents Number 6's dream escape from his workaday life as a secret agent, but one he is at best ambivalent or sometimes doesn't want at all? In this episode his ambivalence swings, causing the other side of his dream world to come to life. He leaves The Village, his supposed dream, to do a work of national importance. His dream escape, which he has himself created & is a reflection of all his own foibles & faults, gives way to the reality. He doesn't really want his dream - it is too painful because it is his own. It is with this episode that I feel the allegory of Village-as-Number-6's-Dream fits better than Village-as-allegory-for-society. The latter view falls down here because of the journey out from the Village, whereas this episode can be explained in the terms of my own theory. Having sung the praises of my theory, I'd have to say I'm not at all sure what I'll do when I get to Living in Harmony!
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