Richard Armitage in Urban and the Shed Crew, first reaction [some spoilers]

[edited for typos]

Not in the film, I think? Does anyone remember this scene?

Caveats first:

  • Thanks to the person who weighed in with “try Safari.” That was the trick for me. I was stupid to trust Candida Brady’s apparent assent that the thing wouldn’t play on my MacBook Pro. Note to Blenheim Films: people shouldn’t have to pay £9.99 a pop to do your platform compatibility tests for you.
  • This review was written after I watched the film from beginning to end, twice.
  • It includes spoilers, but I assume that you know what the book is about, so I don’t think they are very spoilery. This doesn’t have my usual detailed summary but it does have some plot description. If you know nothing about the film or the book and want to be completely fresh when you see it, however, close this window now. Thanks.
  • Hence: trigger warnings for violence, drug abuse (including by children), suicide attempts, profanity, a bit of sex, and moments of poverty porn.
  • There are things I am not in a position to comment on. One of these is the performance of the Leeds dialect, which predominates in the film and makes comprehension of Sparkhouse child’s play in comparison. Hebden Bridge is only about 30 mi west of Leeds, but apparently a world away in other regards. Most non-UK watchers would profit from subtitles (that are not included yet, although I thought this was something for which fan donors were paying). Wearing headphones and listening to it at full volume helped.
  • While I am not confident that I understood every word, I am nonetheless reasonably certain I understood the film. The specific dialogue is often not necessary to the plot (or: I knew what happened anyway so it didn’t matter?)
  • I also have no opinion about the realism or not of the drug-taking scenes. I have no personal experience and I haven’t watched it enough on film to know if there are cinematic conventions at work. It’s clear Richard Armitage knows how to roll a cigarette, but we’ve known that for at least four years now.
  • Keep in mind that I really liked this book, the book’s attractions as the basis for a film adaptation were obvious to me, and for unsurprising reasons I was predisposed to like this film. So I was prejudiced in favor of the film before watching it. Your mileage may vary.
  • I’m also going to try to factor out my consideration of the film as a work of art from my frustration with the business model (or lack of one) that stood behind it. My ire about the second theme actually rose while watching.

The last missing film from Richard Armitage’s “lost period”

One of the earlier stills we got from the set back in May 2014.

Over time, I’d come to think of the period between the summer of 2013, when pickups for The Hobbit were completed, and the filming of Berlin Station in early 2016, as the “lost period” of Richard Armitage’s career, with the majority of his work apart from Hannibal and audiobooks being devoted to four independent films, all of which had distribution troubles. Urban and the Shed Crew was the earliest of these, filming in late spring 2014 (the others were Sleepwalker in October / November 2014; Pilgrimage in mid-spring 2015, and Brain on Fire in August 2015). When this project was announced in March of 2014, there was a huge sigh of relief, as 2013 had been such a dead year for him apart from Hobbit work and film promotion. But it was a premature celebration, for just like his early work, which had largely disappeared entirely, this work was inaccessible, even though theoretically it was still all available — somewhere — in limbo — waiting for release. The first finished work was the last visible. Now the “lost period” has ended and we’ve finally had an opportunity to “see” them all (although I’m aware that distribution has been really uneven and many of those who have seen some of these have done so illegally).

Among the films of the “lost period,” Urban and the Shed Crew is clearly the best representation of Armitage’s skills, while simultaneously feeling like the most frustrating of the projects as a whole.

Leeds in the 90s [here are most of the spoilers]

Chop’s and Greta’s first encounter. May 10th, 2014. Stars Anna Friel, Neil Morrissey and Richard Armitage are seen filming re-shoots on the set of ‘Urban & The Shed Crew’ in Leeds. Exclusive – All Round WORLDWIDE RIGHTS Pictures by : FameFlynet UK © 2014 Tel : +44 (0)20 3551 5049 Email : info@fameflynet.uk.com Picture Shows: Neil Morrissey, Anna Friel, Richard Armitage

I’ll start with the film, which is an adaptation of Bernard Hare’s 2005 non-fiction work, Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew. (Non-fiction is not quite right as Hare admits that some elements in the book were fictionalized, starting with the characters’ names). Seen from the largest possible perspective, the film is an observation of social breakdown among the 1990s Leeds lower class with an emphasis of its increasingly feral children, who can neither be accommodated by society nor controlled by the social welfare structures set up to “help” them. The mums are stoned or addicted and vulnerable to various kinds of abuse, the dads are all gone, and the only male authority figures the children encounter apart from teachers, police, or social workers are their mothers’ “joeys” (transitory partners; local slang term for “idiot”). The children are neglected at home, under-served at school, vulnerable to sexual predators, and engaged in petty criminality in order to enliven their lives and finance their solvent abuse. In this atmosphere, a group of children teams up to provide a limited affective “family” and practical support structure for themselves: the Shed Crew.

Fraser Kelly as Urban.

The film opens with a few scenes narrated from by the Urban (Fraser Kelly) of the title, who has five siblings, all of whom are neglected and being removed from their mother’s care. The story proper begins, though, when the film abandons Urban’s perspective (permanently) and we see how Chop (Richard Armitage), a resident of the neighborhood who had grown up there as well, with a hiatus for education and time in London, encounters a wildly behaving woman named Greta (Anna Friel). Both are worn at the edges and not inclined to be fussy; they strike up a relationship as Chop finds Greta “a laugh” and supplies her with a home and drugs. As a former social worker, he also tries to help her figure out how to get her six children back, but she is either too addicted or too wild or not self-disciplined enough to pursue this goal with much single-mindedness. Chop is simultaneously amused and bothered by her crazy behaviors, some of which he facilitates; it seems like he’s pursuing her precisely because it can’t get all too serious. Greta messes up their relationship with infidelity pretty quickly, but Chop attaches a bit to Urban, her second youngest son, and tries to shelter him from the chaos and teach him a bit about the world, particularly on days they spend together working on Chop’s moving business. The attachment becomes mutual as Urban realizes that Chop is fundamentally ethical and does want to help him. Gradually, Urban, who has warned Chop that his mother will ruin his life, initiates him into the world of the Shed Crew, whom Chop tries to elevate and educate with stories, literature, poetry, and chess.

But Urban’s family is spiraling out of control. Moreover, Urban is not simply amoral, he is emotionally disturbed (something the film plays down, implying throughout that he is always “salvageable”; this may be Chop’s partial perspective at work). The Shed Crew becomes ever more uncontrolled and the kids and Greta, all of whom already have habits, become addicted to even harder drugs. Chop’s life is increasingly disrupted by collateral effects of his involvement with the always disobedient, often criminal Urban; Greta draws Chop into her deeper addiction and then dies after overdosing. But all is not lost. Urban is taken into a Church of England safe house and a social worker of Chop’s former acquaintance (implied: former girlfriend?) comes to him to plead that he take Urban in, as Urban will run from any other situation. Urban uses this inspiration to clean his apartment and kick his habit. Together they drive a drug dealer from the neighborhood and enroll Urban in school.

A frustrating film

The Shed Crew.

Some positives first — every performance is outstanding. I’ll talk about Chop later, but it’s a shame for Fraser Kelly’s sake that this piece couldn’t have been released earlier, because this is a really difficult role, extremely far from his real life, and to me, Kelly was always believable and often moving in it. There’s a sort of preternatural awareness here that the character is balanced on a knife’s edge where mischief and the willingness to have fun are the flip side of the chaos he creates when his life is thrown upside down or when he’s trying to defend his territory. I’m sure some discreet editing helps here, but I thought it was key that he has the same expression on his face when he’s listening to Chop tell the story of King Arthur as when he’s “solving” a problem with one of his mother’s sexual partners. In fact, it’s a bit eerie, I’m sure unintentionally, as this film is well disposed toward the Crew, even when they’re committing the worst of crimes.

Anna Friel as Greta takes a star turn as the crazy woman — this is really believable; I think we’ve all met women like this, who have good intentions but are completely and utterly incapable of living up to them. It’s revealed very late in the film why Greta might have been this way and I’d have liked this information earlier as I’d have been able to sympathize with her likable portrayal of this horrible mother a bit more. At least three times she offers moving portrayals of her character in a drug-influenced stupor or semi-stupor. Although it’s a smaller role, Neil Morrissey as Chop’s friend Doc is also powerful. And overall, although some of the kids (the girls in particular) seem a bit too squeaky clean in these roles, the child cast is excellent. Worthy of mention: Charlie Heaton as Fraser’s elder brother is suitably mean and creepy (and has gone on to bigger things in the interval since filming), as well as Olive Tomlinson as Kara and Nadine Mulkerrin as Amber, who has a huge range of emotional states to cover.

Olivia Tomlinson as Kara (at right).

There are some unanticipated levels on which the film works effectively. In particular, I felt, it effectively communicates the logic of violence and substance abuse in the milieu that it’s observing. As an outsider, I found myself wondering why these people always seem to conclude even their most pleasant life moments in brawling. Why is every party an occasion for excess? I don’t know if this was the script as much as it was camera work, but every time a fight starts, the viewer gets a sense that it’s almost natural that it did — as a threshold is crossed a mood of celebration moves ineluctably into chaos, but it makes total sense: every man for himself, and every man is continually ready to act for himself and enforce those boundaries. The film really effectively conveys that all kinds of masculinity are under challenge in an atmosphere in which the adult men with the most constant presences are likely to be policemen. This mood is particularly clear in the street scene with the bouncy house, but also in the scenes between Armitage and Morrissey, which inevitably seem to end up in a throw-around.

These sorts of transitions from peace to war are figurative for the Shed Crew’s problems — there’s never really time for Chop to influence them as the next thing is always happening. He tells them an inspiring story about King Arthur that, one assumes, is supposed to give them some pride, but as his story becomes more expansive, he gets a machete involved, and the kids get involved with the machete and — well,  you can imagine. In consequence, everyone has to run away and start all over, in a deficit that makes for even greater problems the next time. The constant violence also underlines the attractiveness of the brief moments of peace; I can see why they always want to have a bit of a party, because who wouldn’t in circumstances like these? The scenes in the film around drinking and smoking weed in particular convey the inevitable slide into unconsciousness that accompanies every minor victory.

Chop (Richard Armitage), stoned, drunk, happy.

It’s a bit of a one-off observation, but I also thought the film made the Leeds streetscape surprisingly picturesque, considering most of what we see is a slum. I was trying to figure out how well this works, or if it’s not a distraction — because the film’s characters are very much living in the ruins of the ruins of the past, if that makes any sense. Their parents were already living in ruins and now they are living in the ruins of that. The vivid reds of the sets and backgrounds draw the eye invitingly. There’s a lot of crumbling, destruction, and trash, but it’s unduly picturesque. The book seemed to have more contrast between the cityscape and the country, where Chop and Urban go on their moving trips. But here, the city seems more visually inviting than the countryside (aurora borealis notwithstanding).

Richard Armitage as Chop, between takes.

However, in the end, although I enjoyed watching the film and will do so many more times,  I couldn’t figure out what exactly it wanted. At times, it’s just really slow; at other times, so much is happening I couldn’t really keep track of it all. I got the feeling that a car chase was supposed to be humorous, or maybe absurd, but it was too long without being exciting. As an Armitage fan I loved the lengthy retelling of the Arthur saga (and many of the closeups that accompanied it), but as a filmgoer I was thinking “when will this end?” (I felt that way in the book, too.) The backstory that makes Chop’s perspective intelligible was mostly cut (I understand why, but this is something that would have deserved a lot more thought), changing the politics of the film entirely and making the parameters of the character much less interesting to me. I’m not sure why they decided to move the opening scene of the book (Urban’s adventure in the sewer) so late into the story or change the perspective of the beginning of the film. A book that opens with a sense of crisis is transformed into a friendly narrative film that to me smoothed away so many of the rough edges that made the book a provocative, if often disturbing, read.

Chop (Richard Armitage) and Urban (Fraser Kelly) and Tyson stop for a cigarette break on their way back from their sewer / canal adventure, in Urban and the Shed Crew.

I assume Brady & Co. were seeking reception for this film like that of her previous impact piece, the documentary Trashed (2012). I haven’t seen it, but this film isn’t that kind of piece. It lacks the go-for-broke script, even if it shares some of the subject matter of City of God (2002); the authorial presence of Chop in the book and the film interferes with that feeling of “here’s a camera, observing escalating entropy,” because Chop has recognizably positive, if sometimes ambiguous, values and they are juxtaposed with those of the Shed Crew. In the book, Chop works well as a picaresque hero who can’t quite prevent himself from contributing to the chaos he’s trying to reign in, but the film backs away from his increasingly uninhibited participation and gradual assimilation into the group around Urban’s family with a different emphasis, choosing to cram the details of his descent into only two scenes at the end. I can completely sympathize with this move, insofar as audiences are going to have a hard time identifying with the screen Chop as a hero, even a flawed one, if he sinks too deep into the debauchery as a regular matter. But this directorial choice brakes the gonzo quality that some of the best parts of the book let loose. The scene with the moving van crashing into the overpass seems almost thrown in, rather than evidence that Chop is an ambivalent example. It’s funny but completely marooned from the rest of the film; we wouldn’t miss it if it weren’t there. The move away from Chop’s chaotic neutral alignment in the book also has the unfortunate effect of re-introducing a moralizing element that is minimal in the novel, because Chop himself is so problematic and hardly one to sermonize. In the book, Chop is himself the representative of an earlier kind of social disintegration; he comes from a time when there was a working class and Hare contrasts his working class values to the those of the welfare generation that the Shed Crew are heirs to. In the book, he’s also always at risk of getting just a bit too involved in the fun. Here, he verges too far over into the role of the man telling the kids to behave and trying to prevent them from wasting their lives, and there’s no real explanation of why it is that he sinks further into addiction when he does. Chop must have demons and the book and Armitage’s work make clear that he does, but the film doesn’t really signal what they are. In the book, Chop’s not a convincing target for redemption because he doesn’t want to be redeemed and thus isn’t; in contrast, this film puts a happy ending on everything, and Chop’s and Urban’s redemptions via social re-integration are symbolized by their (crooked) ties.

Finally, the problem of the film’s politics had been a reservation of mind from reading early reviews, and I was devastated to see it confirmed here. “It only takes one person to care” as both a subtitle and a guiding principle for the film reintroduces exactly the kind of neo-liberal individualism that I took Bernard Hare to be writing against.

Ready to scrap with each other, but united against the cops.

The book lacked a bit a narrative arc; it was mostly episodic, although there were certainly low points, and there was no real resolution. That, along with Hare’s / Chop’s ambiguous moral position, made up its greatest strength. The film messes that up quite a bit. It very much made sense to me that they’d try to give the film more of a dramatic trajectory than the book has, but as executed here, it just doesn’t work very well. The scene that I remember as being really horrific in the book is redistributed in the film (I assume to make Chop seem less culpable), but with that, the alienation effect of the book is largely eliminated. Apart from some slow scenes (another example: the scene with the kids reading their poetry, sorry!), the problem seems to be that the filmmakers have zero time and less sympathy for their own crisis (or in this case nadir): Greta’s final scene. You can’t put a scene like that in a film — particularly with the camera angles taken — and not have any one of the characters react to it! (This is a point at which the abandonment of the first-person narration at the beginning becomes truly enraging.)

In this case, that decision makes the end of the film really troubling. I honestly thought I was in an American film for the last twenty minutes or so — the filmmakers have such a need to restore order at the end that they tie up every loose end and not a single one of the plot resolutions is even mildly credible. Particularly not, given that we know now what happened to Lee Kirton, the person the character Urban is based on after the events of the film. It’s not just that “it only takes one person to care” is a contradiction of much of the substance of the book; it’s that the entire plot of the film, such as it is, demonstrates that one person caring is definitely not enough.

If I say this film is the most frustrating, it’s because it had the most potential of any of the “lost period” projects. It had the best basis materials, the most complete realization, the best prospects. To see it fail to live up to its potential feels like a missed opportunity.

Richard Armitage as Chop

Richard Armitage as Chop.

When we look at this as an individual performance for Armitage, in contrast, this is the best of the “lost period” works and it’s the only one in which he gives us something both substantial and substantially new. He’d already played a heroic dad in Into the Storm; he’d already played a medieval knight in Robin Hood; and his role in Sleepwalker was intriguing but (like the other two) supporting. It’s an additional reason that the long delay of release of this piece is so frustrating: I had been thinking lately I need some new Richard Armitage acting and I’ll take this — but it is four. years. old. Right now I’m just happy to see it, but I’m going to have to revisit it a bit later to put it in the right place in his work trajectory. Right now, the theme for me is control / lack of control — this is a central element that the film itself circles around, but the way it affects Armitage’s work is new and interesting.

Chop at Urban’s birthday party — a happy moment of the film and I love the image.

To start with, Chop is a really interesting character, of the variegated, complex sort that Armitage is in position to make the most of; he has highs and lows, and an absurdist, often comic side that may square with Armitage’s own worldview but which we have so rarely seen in his characters. He has enough screen time, and the camera takes enough of it, to deploy again those complex facial expressions that we loved so much before The Hobbit and of which we have seen so few since Hannibal. The left mouth smirk reminded me of Guy, Standring, and Lucas, and I was glad to see it again.

The camera takes as much time to capture him observing scenes as it does when he’s the main focus of one of them. This is the first work in two years that really repays the viewer’s close visual attention. For scene after scene, I have notes — “see him observing the shed, I see at least five different expressions here” — or “see his expression develop, deepen and fester as he sees the trouble coming toward them” or “look at that look on his face as he stares up at the stars.” He gets so much in atmosphere just from looking around a room or into a closet, and as a result, so do we. I found particularly compelling the scenes at the beginning when his relationship with Greta is still working, how happily uxorious he looks, how contented, contrasted only minutes later with the many shades of betrayal on his fact when he discovers her in flagrante with someone else, and his inability to control his reactions. This is an interesting moment in Armitage’s oeuvre because truly uncontrolled violence is something we don’t see a lot of: from Gisborne to Lucas North to Thorin to Francis Dolarhyde (after Chop), what Armitage consistently reveals is mastery of his body, calculation. Here we see again some of the pure, unrestrained fury that caught our attention with Thornton. In turn he contrasts this with his frequent gentleness with Greta or the girls, and there are enough raucous scenes with Greta where he really has to have himself under control but not look like it. Someone told me she felt like a strong subtext of one of the events with him in Newcastle had been “I’m not a violent person” — after seeing this film I can see why he’d want to affirm that. And yet, the fisticuffs as masculine preening, the immediate preparedness at all times to get into a fight for any reason, seem so organically built into the character. There’s also a charming, bit of a know-it-all “philosopher of the street” aspect of the character that I felt he could have played up more expansively (or the script could have given him more leeway for).

This is the beginning of the moment that most convinced me, but it doesn’t really convey just how stoned Chop (Armitage) is.

But in line with my reaction to his violence, my favorite moments, and the things I’m going to want to watch on infinite replay if there’s ever a disc, are Chop’s worst moments, his moments of humiliation and suffering and lack of control. I’m thinking in particular of the part near the end of the film, where his addiction is full-blown and he’s playing chess with Doc and Doc wins. He gets up, and his and our feeling of vertigo is palpable; there’s a long moment when Doc is shaking him — and then he musters the energy to knock Doc’s head. It’s followed by a scene in an alley that is the absolute low point of the film for Chop.

I should not neglect to mention the voice. It’s his normal baritone here, which is my favorite option. It’s also “North” (and, I guess, Leeds?) but not to the depths that Greta offers. This is explained as him being “la di da” and having lived in London for a while. His immersion in the accent varies — it’s extreme in the first scene where he’s encountering Greta, or when he speaks to the Crew — milder most of the time — and then almost gone in the narration of the Arthur myth (for which I was grateful). But overall, it was just lovely and it gave me a renewed perspective on the beauty of the English accent: here not the crisp enunciation at all, but beautiful, drawn out dipththongs. (Serv sighs deeply.)

The (non-)business model at work here

So, point blank: this film in the form I saw it today was never going to get a large screen distribution in the U.S. If a comparative novice like me can tell you that, Brady et al. certainly should have known. At least two scenes in the film would almost assuredly trigger an NC-17 rating, which means that the number of theaters that would even consider showing it would be small. Our local theater chain still shows some “arty” stuff but nothing un-rated. Some media outlets would not advertise it. (For comparison: Trainspotting removed scenes from its English cut in order to get it under the “R” bar in the U.S. so that people would see it; and even the UK cut shown in theaters was different from that allowed onto UK DVD.) Between the drug scenes, the violence, the non-stop obscenity, and the additional comprehension obstacle of the Leeds dialect, in the U.S. it would always have been limited to venues that show NC-17 or non-rated films, i.e., arthouse venues, university campuses, and very large cities. To be honest I am also concerned that if the film hasn’t been rated yet, Brady et al. may have a hard time accomplishing that without deleting scenes that are essential to the plot. I don’t know how that works in the UK legally, but in the U.S. the major outlets would be unlikely to carry an unrated DVD for sale. Add to that that the subject is not one of high interest to U.S. audiences outside of universities. When the film didn’t get any distribution, I wondered if the problem was that it wasn’t sufficiently cinematic, if it was the sort of thing that could be shown on TV instead. This is emphatically not something that would be shown on US TV, except possibly on a cable TV network very late at night.

Which raises the question for me: who did they make this film for? Obviously not for mass audiences, but also not really for arthouse audiences. Even if I looked at people who presumably should be interested in this film despite the obstacles (say: social workers, people from Leeds, people who care about social issues, drug film lovers) the group seems almost vanishingly small.

So what is the point of making a film to raise awareness of an issue if no one sees it?

If a junkie shoots herself up to death on film and no one watches, did anyone notice her die?

If the film had been more “arty” but less obviously graphic, it might have made it into theaters. Or if it had been less arty but more plot-driven and not quite so obviously preachy and gooey in the conclusion, it might have reached critics and filmmakers. As it is, its decision to balance on too many stools (cinematographic realism, improve the universe, loyalty to the episodic quality of the book at the expense of narrative arc) probably means that almost no one will see it. And who does that serve?

~ by Servetus on April 9, 2018.

11 Responses to “Richard Armitage in Urban and the Shed Crew, first reaction [some spoilers]”

  1. Lots to talk about, and I want to read your post again, but for now, I’m amused that we both set the stage ( where we were in Armitage work) when the announcement of this film was released.

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    • I do think it matters a lot to think of this performance as one after a year of very little work, as opposed to how we see it now. (A cultural historian would say both are important, just as data for different questions.) But this is on the trajectory toward The Crucible and while he didn’t know that for the entire shoot, as he was cast during it afaik, it’s significant to me that this is a performance that precedes Yael Farber and her “visceral” direction style. I can’t imagine Candida Brady ever yelling at anyone.

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      • Yes it was. I checked the timeline too, and he filmed this before TC and during the time we knew about it. I wondered whether this perf benefited TC or the knowledge of TC affected this perf too. I wonder too, ( didn’t want to discuss it in the post proper) just how much direction he needed or took for Urban. Also, I want to explore ( on your blog actually – in comments) what earlier roles poked out int Urban. I saw some.

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        • Hmm, my understanding was that he had already started this shoot when the final decision about casting for TC was made. Either he or Yael said that she made a trip to talk to him about it. I will look for the reference.

          I saw a few earlier “references” too.

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    • oh — and we had a number of overlapping similar reactions. Interesting.

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      • And some differences. I need to read your post again. I hope we get a good conversation started, and thank you for the links,, but I’m happy to talk about this on either site.

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        • I think it’s going to be hard for any Candida Brady fan to talk here as this review is so critical of her choices (and I pulled punches). I think more people will be comfortable discussing on your site for that reason.

          I’m also going to rummage through my boxes and see if I can find my copy of Urban or if it got “lost in the move.” I remember where it was in August of 2014 but it’s not there now.

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          • I didn’t find your review that critical of her choices as writer, and very few, if any, as director.

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            • I don’t know how aggressively she directed this, so I was missing the information. My issues are mostly with the script choices.

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              • Yes they are. I think she would have had to direct the children – but sure – there’s a possibility that more experienced actors worked alone or with other, or with the kids. This did not come up in any interviews, as I recall.

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