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Posts Tagged ‘Caroline Munro’

As hardly any new movies seem to be being released at the moment, I thought this would be an opportune moment to enjoy another classic from years gone by. So let us turn to a film which secured the services of a number of hugely successful stars and a couple of distinguished, Oscar-winning artists, yet which still languishes in relative obscurity: ladies and gentlemen, from 1978, I give you Luigi Cozzi’s Starcrash.

star-crash-poster

Starcrash is concerned with the doings of comely space-smuggler Stella Star (played by the cult actress and model Caroline Munro) and her partner Akton (bubble-permed evangelical preacher/conman-turned-actor Marjoe Gortner), who seem to spend most of their time being chased by the Galactic Police. During one of their death-defying escapes they come across a lifeboat ejected from a ship in the fleet of the benevolent Emperor of the Universe (Christopher Plummer – yes, that Christopher Plummer) – while searching for the, um, doom planet of the Emperor’s arch-rival Zarth Arn…

(I feel obliged at this point to stress that I am not making this up, this genuinely is a real film.)

…Zarth Arn, the ship came under attack and launched three lifeboats, one of which contained the vessel’s commander, the Emperor’s son Prince Simon (David Hasselhoff – yes, that David Hasselhoff). In order to put a stop to Zarth Arn’s evil plan to take over the universe, the lifeboat with Prince Simon in it has to be found!

But clearly not yet, as first there is a subplot about Stella and Akton being nicked and sent to prison to be got out of the way. Stella is sentenced to hard labour, which in the universe of Starcrash consists of dumping radium into a furnace, for fairly obscure reasons. Stella is vocal in her concern as to what the radiation is doing to her skin, although it has to be said her choice of outfit (essentially a bikini top and hot pants) is probably not ideal protective clothing. Soon enough she hits on an escape plan, which is moderately successful as she does indeed escape, although on the other hand everyone else in the prison is killed when the radium furnaces blow up.

Starcrash does not dwell on such trivial things as moral responsibility, however, and soon Stella has had her sentence quashed and, along with Akton, is helping the Imperial secret police look for Prince Simon’s lifeboat. The Imperial secret police consist of Captain Thor, who is a bald green man, and Elle, who, despite the name, is a robot bearing a striking resemblance to a man with a bucket on his head, with a yee-haw accent and personality.

So off they go on their quest, which takes in Amazons on horseback, cavemen, badly-animated rip-offs of classic Ray Harryhausen sequences, unexpected betrayal (Captain Thor has decided to join Zarth Arn as his ‘prince of darkness’), sparkling dialogue (‘No-one can survive these deadly rays!’ ‘These deadly rays will be your death!’), David Hasselhoff shooting lasers out of his eyes, and so on.

In the end Akton, whose supernatural powers have remained wildly variable and completely unexplained throughout, cops it in a laser sword fight with a couple of appallingly-realised stop-motion robots, leaving Stella and Prince Simon to carry on the battle, even though Zarth Arn has rigged the whole planet to blow up in a few seconds. Luckily, the Emperor shows up in the nick of time and Plummer, with an admirably straight face, proceeds to show everyone else what actual acting looks like. ‘You know, my boy, I wouldn’t be emperor if I didn’t have some powers at my command,’ says Plummer. ‘Imperial battleship, halt the Flow of Time!!!’

Everyone having thus been saved, with the Flow of Time restored they all go off to fight evil Zarth Arn and his space station of doom (which looks like a big hand – I was about to add ‘for no very good reason’, but pretty much everything and everyone in Starcrash is as it is for no very good reason). The ensuing battle looks much as you’d expect for a film with no discernible budget, but is noteworthy for the imperial tactic of shooting torpedoes in through the space station windows, said torpedoes then popping open and imperial soldiers jumping out, ray guns zapping.

But it is all to no avail, and our heroes are forced into the desperate tactic of finding a big space station of their own and crashing it into Zarth Arn’s one. (See what they did there? A big crash, with some stars in the background – hence, Starcrash! This film is so clever.) With Zarth Arn vanquished and Prince Simon and Stella Star engaged in hugging one another, it’s left to the Emperor to sum up all that has occurred, before heading off to the nearest pizzeria (Plummer has been very frank about the fact that he only took this part because it let him hang out in Rome, where his scenes were filmed, for a couple of days).

Well, I think we all know what’s going on with Starcrash – ever since George Lucas struck gold with one of his movies in 1977, other people have been trying to mine the same seam with varying degrees of success. Some of these Lucas knock-offs have been pretty good. Others are, frankly, exquisitely terrible. Starcrash is definitely one of the latter kind. (The Italians seem to have had a special talent for making dreadful Lucas rip-offs – the year after Starcrash they came up with The Humanoid, starring Richard Kiel, which is probably even worse.)

Starcrash has a terrible script, terrible production values, and (mostly) terrible performances – I suppose on some level the really surprising thing is that some parts of it are not as terrible as the rest. Plummer’s presence we have already dealt with, but how to explain the participation of legendary composer John Barry, who provides (as you might expect) a decent score? Maybe even better than decent: it has been suggested that Barry reused much of his Starcrash score when doing the music for Out of Africa some years later, a film for which he won an Oscar. But that brings us much too close to comfort to using the words ‘Oscar-winning’ and ‘Starcrash‘ in the same sentence, so I prefer to say that most of John Barry’s later scores sounded pretty samey anyway.

The thing is, though, that by looking at Starcrash in all its terribleness, you do get a much stronger sense of just how remarkable George Lucas’ own movies in this genre are. On paper, the plot of Starcrash and that of the movie I am pointedly not naming are both fishing from the same pond – space smugglers and laser swords and galactic monarchy and space stations of doom abound in both, and yet Starcrash seems to be slapping these elements together at random, whereas Lucas weaves them into the fabric of a cohesive larger backdrop. That certain other franchise of Lucas’ did not achieve the success it did because of its radical characterisation or innovative plotting – I think the true reason it has continued to have some small measure of success and popularity is due to how utterly convincing the world it depicts is, so flooded with detail and colour like no fantasy film before it. Even when the budget falls short or the acting is less than stellar, it’s still disconcertingly easy to believe in the wealth of background detail.

I’m not sure it’s just a question of budget or acting talent, either, for all that Starcrash was made for a small fraction of the money George Lucas had at his disposal when making his first foray into this genre. Lucas, if nothing else, is a man who knows his film history and his anthropology, and there is surely a purposefulness to his work which is so often lacking in that of those copying the superficial elements of his films.

These days, it seems to be perfectly acceptable to love Lucas’ earlier films while holding the man himself in a sort of amused contempt, which seems to me to be rather like hating the author of your favourite book. It is, I suppose, the most backhanded of compliments – Lucas’ world is so totally believable as a real place that it’s too easy to forget that, in the end, it came out of his own head, and assume he is somehow dispensable when it comes to realising or reinventing it. And while hardly anyone would seriously argue the later films are not flawed, they have an honesty of purpose and willingness to innovate which is impressive and laudable: they at least try to do something new and different, rather than taking the easy route of revisiting past glories and riffing on the same few ideas and themes.

Ultimately, you cannot dismiss George Lucas’ contribution to the fantasy genre, let alone what he has brought to his own movies. Lots of people have spent many years and huge amounts of money making a long, long line of films essentially knocking off his vision. Some of them have been motivated by sincere affection, others by purely mercenary concerns, others are somewhere in between. Some of the films, like Starcrash, have been awful – others, genuinely accomplished. But George Lucas brought something unique to the productions he was involved in, and also to the genre as a whole, which is surely what has made them, and it, so popular to this day. He can be copied lovingly, carefully, respectfully – but I don’t think he can really be replaced.

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Horror movies are a slightly culty genre as a whole, and within that genre the movies made by Hammer have a very healthy cult following of their own. Even so, some of these films have a particularly dedicated following far out of proportion to their profile or financial success – which makes them cult movies made by a cult studio within a cult genre. Cultiness cubed! Is this even possible? Well, anyway: one such film is Brian Clemens’ Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter (this is one of those films where no-one seems able to agree on how to punctuate the title), made in 1972 but only released a couple of years later (a fate which befell a few late-period Hammers). The only way to describe Captain Kronos is as ‘different’ (well, Sir Christopher Lee has gone on record as saying it was ‘the worst film Hammer ever made’, which surely only suggests he hasn’t seen Prehistoric Women, to name but one). I’ve always really liked it; it’s one of the very few Hammers that I recorded off the TV and kept, back when commercial VHS releases were beyond my pocket. (Happily the copyright holders have made it freely available to view over a popular video-sharing website.)

kronos

Our story opens in the tiny village of Durward, somewhere in central Europe in the 18th century (according to the trailer, anyway: the film is typically vague about this, but we’re definitely in the heart of Hammerland). Durward is a tiny little place, as you’d expect from a very low-budget film, and its young people are living in fear: a dark figure has begun preying on the rosy-cheeked young maidens of the village, reducing them to raddled old hags who peg out from old age almost on the spot.

Luckily, local doctor Marcus (John Carson) knows someone who may be able to help, calling in his old army buddy Captain Kronos (Horst Janson, but dubbed – bizarrely retaining a German accent – by Julian Holloway) and his sidekick, hunchbacked professor Hieronymous Grost (John Cater). Kronos and Grost are professional vampire hunters and are quickly on the case, assisted by a young gypsy girl they’ve picked up on their travels (Caroline Munro, in probably her best role for Hammer). But, given the wide variety of vampires apparently on the loose in Hammerland, the question is not just one of finding the beast, but working out exactly how to kill it, too…

As I say, for a long time Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter was a very obscure film, but its profile does seem to be rising: a novelisation was released a few years ago (the 39-year gap between film and book may constitute something of a record) and when Midsomer Murders did their Hammer-pastiche episode a while ago, it was two of the stars of this film that they recruited.

I think one of the reasons for its obscurity was that in many ways it inverts the traditional horror formula. It occurs to me that, structurally, the traditional monster or vampire movie has a lot in common with the classic superhero film, in that you’re waiting for the set-piece sequences where the central character appears and starts doing their thing, whatever that may be: these moments are pretty widely spread in the early part of the film, but slowly get more substantial until the climax rolls around. The main difference is that superhero films are invariably focused on and named after the protagonist, while horror movies tend to much more about the antagonist. When you get what’s purporting to be a horror, or horror-themed movie, but which is named after the hero, it’s usually a sign that you’re really in for much more of an action-adventure caper.

This is a rule-of-thumb I’ve just made up, but it holds true of Van Helsing, Solomon Kane, and Captain Kronos too. The film’s emphasis on action and colour over suspense and atmosphere probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the film is a product of the same creative team responsible for The Avengers and The New Avengers (it has been widely commented that Captain Kronos, which is relatively light on gore and nudity for a late-period Hammer, often looks more like a feature-length TV pilot than a proper movie). Certainly the film has some of the freewheeling style and offbeat humour of The Avengers, with an equally quirky hero – there’s a touch of the Man With No Names about Kronos, who smokes cheroots made of ‘Chinese herbs’ (yeah, right) and carries a samurai sword as well as a cavalry sabre.

Clemens directs with a huge amount of invention and energy, if not much subtlety: flowers wither with the passing of the vampire and the shadow of a crucifix warps as one attacks a young girl in a church. To be honest, he’s making a huge amount of the ‘vampire lore’ in this movie up out of whole cloth – different kinds of vampires attack and can only be destroyed in different ways, vampires have a resuscitating effect on the corpses of toads, and so on – but this is done with enough conviction and imagination to be convincing.

It’s almost enough to stop you noticing the clearly tiny budget on which the film was made – the village of Durward only appears to contain one family, who are progressively wiped out by the vampire as the film goes on (the script doesn’t play this for black comedy, which almost comes as a surprise). If the film is short on peasants, it sometimes seems a little short on plot too: the need for incident results in a large number of set-piece vampire attacks, which get a little repetitive, and a rather preposterous western-pastiche sequence in which a mysterious stranger hires Ian Hendry (who looks vaguely embarrassed to be participating) to pick a fight with Kronos down the local pub. Hendry’s dying-acting is extremely funny, but you have to be paying really close attention to note that the mysterious stranger is actually the villain’s butler (the viewer is bombarded with red herrings as to the vampire’s identity, but there’s never much doubt that the trail is going to lead to the door of the local aristos), rather than just some random bloke.

In the end, everything is resolved with a cameo from Wanda Ventham, a near-enough continuity reference to the Karnstein family from other early 70s Hammer vampire films, and a rather spiffy sword-fight between Kronos and the villain. The villain is played by William Hobbs, for many years the doyen of cinema fight choreographers (other works include the 1973 version of The Three Musketeers, Excalibur, and Musical Chairs Game of Thrones) and so this duel is significantly better than you might expect from a low-budget genre movie. Kronos rides off into the sunset, heading for new adventures which never actually materialised.

How much the box-office failure of Captain Kronos was a result of poor distribution, and how much down to the quality of the film itself is a little difficult to say for certain. Perhaps a film as distinctive and strange as this one, with its peculiar juxtaposition of swashbuckling action, vampire horror, and deadpan black humour, was always going to struggle to find a mass audience. At least it seems to be more appreciated now. I could not honestly describe Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter as a classic Hammer horror, but it is still a hugely entertaining film.

 

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When I was but a lad, one of the joys of public holidays and the dog days of summer was the tendency of the TV programmers to fill gaps in the schedule with low-budget SF and fantasy films from the 60s and 70s. (These days you would probably get a programme about antiques or a repeat of the Britain’s Got Talent semi-final, and this is supposed to be progress.) As a lad, I always used to turn up to these things wide-eyed and undemanding, but even so there was a subset of the films which I always suspected weren’t quite up to scratch. These were what my elder male relatives would refer to as ‘Trampas movies’.

At the time I had no idea what they were on about, but now of course I understand this is a reference to the character in the TV show The Virginian played by Doug McClure, and it’s McClure who’s the face of the films I’m talking about: The Land That Time Forgot. The People That Time Forgot. (But not Creatures The World Forgot, a Hammer dinosaur movie which omits to include any dinosaurs.) Warlords of Atlantis. And, in 1976, Kevin Connor’s At The Earth’s Core, perhaps the most perfect time-capsule of mid-70s pop culture imaginable.

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Based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, on this occasion McClure plays David Innes, who with his old mentor Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) is testing their new invention: the Iron Mole, basically a big metal drilling vehicle (the model is, by the way, beautiful). Things inevitably do not go according to plan and the machine goes out of control. The intrepid duo eventually find themselves in a barren wasteland populated by hostile, savage, subhuman creatures. It obviously takes them a while to figure out that they are not in the Welsh countryside (their intended destination) but Pellucidar, a vast subterranean otherworld.

After a somewhat underpowered action sequence with the first of many extraordinary Pellucidarean beasties (most of them realised through the wonders of suitamation), Trampas and Cushing are nabbed by the Sagoths, homuncular thugs intent upon enslaving the local human tribes. Cushing is surprised by the fact that the Sagoths seem to be in charge, declaring that the humans are clearly intellectually superior, but as the only innovation they seem to possess over the Sagoths is their mastery of the bubble-perm hairdo, it’s unclear what he is basing this on (maybe the doc is just speciesist). Present among the slaves is Princess Dia (Caroline Munro, an iconic actress if ever there was one), but things between her and Trampas are not allowed to get soppy.

Everyone is dragged off across the soundstage to the City of the Mahars, the Mahars ruling the roost in Pellucidar. This is literally true as the Mahars look awfully like birds (strictly speaking, awfully like stuntmen in extremely ambitious bird costumes) – Cushing identifies them as ramphorynchi, and as it’s Peter Cushing I would not dream of arguing with him. The Mahars seem to have mesmeric powers (possibly everyone is just knocked into a stupor by the dreadfulness of the monster suits), which they use to dominate the lesser races and be generally gittish to everyone in Pellucidar.

Anyway, soon enough Trampas manages to escape, though not before stumbling upon a scene of the Mahars ravaging some attractive some tribeswomen (cue many gobsmacking shots of the Mahars ‘taking wing’, i.e. swinging inelegantly across the set on the ends of wires). Trampas solemnly swears he will liberate the humans from the oppressive Mahar regime, and then (one can only guess) sack his agent. But first he’s got to rescue the lovely Dia from her captors, Hooja the Sly One and Jubal the Ugly One…

Yes, as you may be able to tell, this script is the work of Milton the Unsubtle One, or Mr Subotsky as he was actually listed on Amicus’ letterhead. The thing about Milton Subotsky is that here we’re talking about someone who had a reasonably successful career as a producer of genre movies, but whose ability as a screenwriter was not, er, always apparent. He seems to have had only the shakiest grasp of either SF or fantasy as genres, though this does result in the charming ‘bit’ recurring in his work where, preparatory to any kind of scientific undertaking, someone solemnly announces that they’re going to ‘check the gyroscope’. Possibly this was just a favourite euphemism in the Subotsky household.

Anyway, the script for At The Earth’s Core is not really what you remember the film for. (Though it’s not a million miles away from that of the more recent, more notorious ERB-adaptation John Carter of Mars.) It just about services in terms of getting the various characters from place to place and inserts to required sequences of mayhem and jeopardy, but it certainly doesn’t linger in the memory and it’s very hard to shake the sense that the whole thing is a bit juvenile: for instance, there are many significant looks exchanged between Trampas and the princess, but never the slightest indication that he has actually got around to checking her gyroscope.

Seemingly sharing this view as to how the movie should be pitched is Peter Cushing, who goes all out as the comedy relief character. Cushing, of course, has a well-deserved reputation as a consummate professional with a near-miraculous ability to lift dodgy movies through sheer force of will. Except here: in this movie he’s just plain bad, the most jaw-droppy-open moment coming with his delivery of the line ‘You can’t mesmerise me, I’m British!’ followed by a comedy cross-eyed gurn.

Doug McClure, on the other hand, actually seems to be taking proceedings seriously, which is rather sweet. He’s really a good leading man for these films – he’s big and inelegant and unsubtle, but then so are they. McClure alone is not a good enough reason to watch this film, and neither is the garish art direction or Mike Vickers’ prog-rocky score. The special effects are striking, as I’ve said, but not really in a good way.

And yet, and yet: by any objective measure, At The Earth’s Core is thorough-goingly terrible, but the fact remains that it’s a hard film to actively dislike, and it was a substantial box-office hit back in those dim pre-Star Wars days. (It was #18 on the UK chart for 1976 – a position held in more recent years by respectable films like The Great Gatsby, War Horse, and Black Swan.) Nothing with this kind of kitsch grandeur is made any more, and so it has a certain charm simply as a period piece. But I would be reluctant to recommend it any more enthusiastically.

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It’s usually the case in cinema that the success of a good film results in the appearance of a host of imitators, most of which are horrible. However, every once in a while a bad film does good business, which can occasionally lead to the production of knock-offs better than the original. I’d certainly argue that while the Heisei Godzilla movies made by Toho in the 90s are by no means bad, they can’t hold a radioactive candle to the Gamera trilogy released by Daiei in the wake of their success. (Still can’t make my mind up about the original versions of Rollerball and Death Race 2000.)

Well, anyway, in 1970 a movie called Count Yorga, Vampire, did very good business. This movie is a loose updating of the original Dracula, in which the undead gentleman of the title buys property in a modern city (in this case, Los Angeles) and starts about his business in the usual fashion. It is also a lousy piece of schlock (possibly because it started off as a soft-core porno-horror). But, anyway, it did do good business, which prompted Warner Brothers to get on the phone to Hammer and suggest they do something in the way of vampires-in-the-present-day themselves, too.

Hammer’s trademark Gothic mittel-European fairy tales were starting to look a little bit tired by this point, so they jumped on the idea and the result was Alan Gibson’s Dracula AD 1972. This movie kicks off with a distinct set of mixed signals. On the one hand, it opens with a gruelling and protracted death-struggle between Dracula (Christopher Lee) and Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), and as always the presence of the two stars together is a guarantee the movie will at least stay watchable.

On the other hand, this sequence does a good job of looking like a reprise of the climax to the previous movie (as had previously been done at the opening of Dracula, Prince of Darkness and Taste the Blood of Dracula), which it isn’t: this is the end of a previously untold tale of the two characters (and one which looks like being a lot more interesting than the actual preceding film, Scars of Dracula). And it jettisons the continuity of the previous six movies in this series entirely, which is understandable, but still a shame.

Anyway, Dracula and the Professor are duking it out in Hyde Park in 1872, when they’re involved in a coach smash. Van Helsing is killed and Dracula gets a spoke through the heart. But as he crumbles, a mysterious man appears on the scene, takes his ring and starts collecting up the debris. This is never a good sign in a Dracula movie.

The story leaps forward a century and we find ourselves in the company of a gang of rather polite hippies, notable for their ridiculous dialogue (you don’t need a biographical dictionary to work out that screenwriter Don Houghton was in his forties) and glittering future prospects (group members include Michael Kitchen, fantasy icon Caroline Munro, Stephanie Beacham and Christopher Neame). Their freak-outs and grooves are getting, like, totally dullsville, man, and one of their number (Neame) suggests something a little more extreme: a Black Mass in a deconsecrated church!

This is obviously inadvisable, but just to drive the fact home, Neame was also playing the guy collecting up Dracula’s ashes at the start, and his character’s name is Johnny Alucard (it’s a little unclear if Houghton’s inclusion of this weary old anagram is a wink to the audience or just the sign of someone unfamiliar with previous Dracula movies). Beacham’s character has slight misgivings about the Black Mass, but then her family has a tradition of occult study. This is because she is the great-great-grand-daughter of the Van Helsing who died back in 1872. Her grandfather (Cushing again) tries to warn her off but to no avail.

Soon enough the hippies are enjoying a new kind of freak-out, as Neame chews the scenery, large quantities of blood splash engagingly across Caroline Munro’s heaving bosom, and Dracula himself materialises out of a cloud of smoke. He has vengeance against the Van Helsing dynasty on his mind, starting with the grand-daughter…

The contemporary setting aside, the first act of Dracula AD 1972 bears a startling resemblance to that of Taste the Blood of Dracula: there’s a coach accident, Dracula’s apparent demise, jaded-thrillseekers led astray by a disciple of evil, and Dracula’s return following a dark ritual in a ruined church. Having said all that, the present-day setting does work, up to a point, breathing new life into the series. (One of the regrettable consequences of this, however, is that Gibson opts for a funky-groovy contemporary score rather than one of James Bernard’s wonderfully atmospheric compositions.) 

It’s just a shame that the film doesn’t explore this angle more fully. We never get to see Dracula hitting the nightclubs or even walking contemporary streets; all he does is hide in the church waiting for victims to be brought to him. This may have been due to Christopher Lee’s distaste for the film – certainly he has very little screen-time, considering he’s playing the title character: less than fifteen minutes, I’m sure. This is a shame, as Houghton writes him some half-decent dialogue when he does show up. 

‘Bow ties are cool.’

With Lee absent for much of the movie it falls to Peter Cushing to pick up the slack. I don’t think there’s such a thing as ‘a bad Peter Cushing performance’ but here he’s simply exceptional, completely selling a rather dubious story. He’s not winking or even suggesting camp or archness – he’s playing it as straight as a laser beam and it somehow works.

Elsewhere in the cast, Michael Coles is rather effective as a police detective baffled by a string of murders, while Christopher Neame has fun as Dracula’s proxy. There’s a sequence in which he learns that the old rule about vampires being vulnerable to running water even extends to his shower, which is unintentionally funny, but that’s not his fault. (We don’t get to see the moment when Lee bites Neame, presumably as it might generate entirely the wrong kind of erotic charge – impalements, Black Masses, and slaughter are all very well, but one man appearing to kiss another? Clearly there were limits to what an audience would stand for.) We do get to see Lee get his teeth into Caroline Munro, of course: but she’s in the film less than you might expect.  

‘Hey! My neck’s up here!’

There are gaping holes in the plot and the climax leaves a little to be desired, but this is still a much classier film than you’d expect and a distinct improvement on the previous Hammer Dracula (not to mention Count Yorga, Vampire). It doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the premise, but Cushing and Lee (when he shows up) redeem whatever flaws it has. The next film in the series would go on to do new and interesting things with the idea of a present-day Dracula, but that’ll have to wait for another time. Dracula AD 1972 is not nearly as bad as you might think it would be – which sounds like the faintest of praise. It’s not intended to be. Daft, but fun.

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