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Apr 14

TELETUBBIES – “Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh!”

Popular66 comments • 8,320 views

#778, 13th December 1997

ehoh My main point last entry was that “Perfect Day” saw the BBC applying its gift for pop spectacle to the demands of a more curatorial time. This would become – on broadcast TV particularly – an era of tighter demographics and multiplying niches, and the BBC would respond. BBC3, BBC4, 1Xtra, 6Music, CBBC, and in 2002 CBeebies, its channel for the under-6s, anchored for years by Teletubbies reruns.

In the old TV model, Top Of The Pops and the charts had enjoyed a happy symbiosis. With that show well along its slow decline, the charts were left without a centre. Instead they had new outlets – the supermarkets, and Woolworths, increasingly determined what reached No.1. As James Masterton pointed out in the comments for “Perfect Day”, this meant a dramatic broadening of the singles audience – the number of people visiting Tescos or Asda dwarfed the HMV or Our Price customer base, and included millions of musical impulse buyers. Put a tempting single in front of them and your sales could be colossal.

“Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh” is where these trends meet. It’s plainly a niche record with barely an eye or a furry antenna on wider accessibility. But there are enough people in that niche (parents of pre-school kids, basically) to give it seven figure sales. An awful lot of Number Ones are loved by children – the playground reception of a song has always been crucial – but this is the first number one designed for infants.

Which is entirely in keeping with its show’s aggressively radical spirit. Teletubbies was hugely successful and immediately controversial – a clean break from how pre-school TV had been done. It ditched the reassuring adult presenter in favour of a toddler’s perspective on pacing and action. In practise this meant very little explicit education or storytelling: replacing it was scripted babble-talk from the four tubbies, long sequences of dancing and messing about, cutaways to pieces of real-world play, and stories based on endless repetition of simple actions. The formula of younger kids’ TV, with its avuncular bumblers and well-scrubbed ladies telling stories and stacking up bricks, had been torn up. In its place was a show parents might find agonisingly boring but that one- and two-year olds quickly found magical.

The Teletubbies were at once the Beatles and the Pistols of pre-school TV – dramatic commercial success, remarkable innovation and a scorched earth attitude. It’s notable that none of their successors has been as extreme as they did – to take the inheritor shows on when I was the Dad of very young kids, In The Night Garden reintroduces the gentle adult narrator, and Baby Jake keeps the baby-first action but within a stronger story structure. The Teletubbies went further than anyone, first.

Squeezing that radicalism into a pop single was tricky. The writers’ solution is to structure “Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh” around a sped-up take on the theme tune, and break it up with incident – the gurgling and squelching of tubby custard, or a drop-in of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” with a baaing, mooing barnyard orchestra. The vibe is benign chaos.

But even within this single, their abandon is bounded. Teletubbyland is a carnival space, a world to play with but one policed by the movement of the sun (voiced by Toyah Wilcox!) and by abstract, unseen authorities. “Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh” ends as it begins, with peace, quiet and gentle chuckles. As a parent, I wouldn’t have it any other way, but as a piece of children’s culture muscling into the semi-adult world – the charts – it becomes vulnerable to other interpretations. Not just the “is Tinky Winky gay?” faux-controversy, or the show’s being dragged into the recurring debates around ‘dumbing down’, but more playful parallels. The screen-bellied tubbies drew comparisons to Cronenberg, and their life in a kind of kindergarten holiday camp (and their habit of playing with a giant beach ball) recalled The Prisoner. My own contribution to this disreputable canon is that the male voice (“Time for Teletubbies!”) massively reminds me of Tony Blair.

But you don’t need these extra readings to find subtext in this record. Towards the end, where a middle eight might go, some flowers give a very pert take on “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary”. This is where the song tips its hand, giving two pudgy plush fingers to the kids’ TV Teletubbies usurped. The flowers, in their Received Pronunciation mimsiness, very obviously represent that didactic tradition of rhymes and stories, and after singing they tut at the Tubbies and their “racket”.

Which – of course – starts right up again with the series’ catchprase (and parents’ bane) “Again, again!”. If “Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh” is annoying (and it is, a bit) it’s the deliberate, confrontational annoyance of “Mr Blobby” turned to a more specific end: to tell adults that this isn’t for you. And in doing that it drives home Ragdoll’s point in making the show in the first place: Teletubbies isn’t for you because toddlers aren’t like you. They are not best served by culture that treats them as latent schoolchildren or adults but by culture that takes their play and their desires seriously as they are. If this song’s presence at #1 is a sign of nicheification, its content and success is a good advert for it.

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Comments

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  1. 31
    Ed on 7 Apr 2014 #

    @28 I’ve been had! Still a great album, though, and highly recommended for all ages, whether you’re a fan of the show or not.

  2. 32
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 7 Apr 2014 #

    My niece is 6 and a bit now, and grown out of what I’m about to describe — but until quite recently, when it was time for bed, her parents (my sister and her partner) deployed a device they called Winnie. This was a Disney Winnie the Pooh (dressed up in nightclothes) attached to a playback machine, which played a mechanical lullabye, to lull a baby to sleep. It was a single track, on a loop, about 12 minutes in duration — but mixed into the loop were dozens of fragmentary sub-loops, of bits of actual known lullabies softly sung (“rock-a-bye baby”), birdsong and babbling brooks, half-heard bits of conversation, and all manner of rushing and whooshing gently whitenoising in and out of everything. Listened to analytically, it was classic musique concrète: but its entire purpose is of course NOT to be listened to, analytically or any other way, but rather to be drifted away from into the land of tiny-tot nod. It had no discernible structure; it was a bunch of half-formed stuff moving in and out of focus. It is quite an odd thing to try and listen to, in fact — frustrating and not a little eery.

    And judging it next to, I don’t know, Mozart or James Brown would of course be nuts: that’s music to get mind or body active. Or even next to “Revolution #9” or “Index of Metals” — known concrète or ambient pieces. Unlike them, its *entire* purpose is getting someone to sleep; unlike them, it’s something you term “good” ifandonlyif it achieves this. Which it seemed to, and usually in a lot less than 12 minutes.

    But what I wonder (as a non-parent music critic interested in the odd craft corners of music and sound architecture) is, is there any kind of scale of quality here — and who judges it, and how? Are there lots of lullaby tapes of this type, some known to be better, some much worse? My niece was cathected onto Winnie and it worked: no other tunes (“tunes”) were tested out on her for comparison — and what kind of monster (and/or masochist) would ever try such a test? Is there an expertise here, a little craft tradition with tips and techniques, with rival companies invested in different theories and approaches? How do you achieve the random cut-up effect? Dice? Chopping up recording tape and throwing it in the air? How d’you even do this with mp3s?

  3. 33
    Tom on 7 Apr 2014 #

    #13 re. the best kids’ material being stuff parents can enjoy – ISTR Ragdoll being quite opposed to this idea, or at least arguing that very young children were a limit case here. This is kind of why I invoked punk in the review – Teletubbies is taking a particular alienating approach to an extreme, its successors (In The Night Garden included) back away from it to some degree but would, I think, have been impossible without it.

    And in general I dunno how much I believe your point anyhow. I think it’s really important for kids to have their own culture, specific to the moment they grow up in, as well as engaging with stuff alongside their parents. This is at the heart of the point Middlerabbit keeps bringing up, about how there’s a parental urge to both promote your kids’ development and monitor/control it – cf Dads who are proud of exposing their children to scads of old indie music. It’s inevitable and even healthy in moderation but kids also need their own space and culture. Middlerabbit and I obviously differ in that I see Teletubbies’ assault on the traditional storytelling of kids’ TV as a useful move towards kid-centric TV and MR seems to think its popularity was more about parents assuming their kids only wanted babyish stuff.

    (Where I completely disagree with MR is his/her comment about this single only being bought by parents without the imagination to entertain their kids – that’s nonsense, given that most parents try lots of different things and a single like this is only one tactic. My 5/10 is in the context of most kids’ music, which is, frankly, terrible – wan plods through nursery rhymes or the wheels on the effing bus, with a ninetieth of TTSE-O’s glee, inventiveness, bounce and structure.)

    I actually don’t like Teletubbies, my kids both loved it when very small (responding to quite different things about it – L loved the sun and the rabbits, D really liked the interactions) but it’s very trying for grown-ups. There are some really magical moments, though – its lack of structure means that when something very odd happens it’s a genuine “what are they on?” surprise. I liked Night Garden more, but I don’t really trust my liking of it, it’s too classicist. Oh, and the Teletubbyland website was excellent – one of the absolute best free websites for very young children to play with, it justified at least a year’s worth of our license fee money by itself.

    Tweenies is a true abomination though, no argument there.

  4. 34
    Tom on 7 Apr 2014 #

    #32 Can’t help you with the Winnie tapes but there are whole channels that do something similar visually – weird loops and snatches and floating graphics, like an early 90s computer demo disk sent back to the nursery (or left out in the sun). There’s an Israeli (I think) channel you sometimes find on the farther shores of hotel TVs, called something like Baby Pop.

  5. 35
    Izzy on 7 Apr 2014 #

    I hadn’t heard this before. It’s a lot more structured than the comments had led me to expect, actually. You can quite easily predict where it’s going – eight bars of this, eight of that, hokey breakdown; an obvious hook, which now can’t be heard as by anyone other than Mr Blair; repetition as appropriate. The first key change is bewildering, but the second is pretty standard.

    I’ve cut my teeth, so to speak, on In The Night Garden, and tbh this is a lot less anarchic in comparison. You could easily make it sound much less random if you tried. Maybe the actual show was more unanchored?

    In short, a reasonable effort and not as unmarkable as I’d been anticipating. (4)

  6. 36
    Middlerabbit on 7 Apr 2014 #

    #33

    To be fair, it’s a lot more complicated an issue than I’m glibly dismissing it with.

    I think it’s fair to say that not every parent who bought this for their child is some kind of thoughtless dullard.

    Having said that, I made a point of listening to it before I wrote anything and I suspect it irritated me so very much that I lost any sympathy whatsoever for anyone who knowingly played this dreadful, dreadful racket in their own hearing. Sorry.

    I think that the telly and, to a far lesser extent, music can be used as a pacifier to stick kids in front of so that a distant parent doesn’t have to interact with them. It does happen, tragically. I’m guilty of stereotyping here. Again, I’d like to pass the blame onto this record. Perhaps that’s unfair, but I think I might get let off in front of a jury of my peers, providing they have to listen to this too.

    As for whether parents like kids growing up or not, again it’s more complicated. It depends on a lot of things, but at heart, I’m relatively happy with the idea that parents are more keen to preserve their children’s ‘innocence’ than their children generally are. I also think that there’s a lot of nonsense spoken about the ‘innocence’ of children. I mean in terms of bloodthirsty fairy tales more than anything.

    It’ still bloody awful though. ;)

  7. 37
    Mark G on 7 Apr 2014 #

    I think we got there in the end, yes.

  8. 38
    PurpleKylie on 7 Apr 2014 #

    I remember the Teletubbies all too well! I was a bit too old for them, I was more of a Winny The Pooh fan myself, but it was more something that I watched when there was nothing else on (we only had terrestrial TV at the time, oh how things have changed!).

    My favourite was the yellow one by the way.

  9. 39
    mapman132 on 8 Apr 2014 #

    #36 I definitely understand, and mostly agree, with everything you’ve said on this thread. I certainly realize it’s wrong to call someone a lazy parent simply because they bought a record that I happen to dislike, but, ooh, does this record, and what (admittedly little) I’ve seen of the show itself, bug me….

    #33 Tom, I know you’ve occasionally played records from this blog for your kids to comment on. Did you do that this time? I’m curious what they think now that they’re a bit older. I’d consider playing this for my 5 y.o. godson who certainly has his opinions on pop music, but A) I’m not sure I want to subject him, or his parents and sister, to that, and B) maybe I’m afraid his 5 y.o. tastes aren’t as discriminating as I think ;)

  10. 40
    hectorthebat on 8 Apr 2014 #

    Sample watch: Apart from The Teletubbies sampling themselves, there’s a blatant sample of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”.

  11. 41
    James BC on 8 Apr 2014 #

    I only saw the Tellytubbies a handful of times, I think – certainly not enough to absorb the utopian/dystopian subtext detailed at post #1 (I also wasn’t aware that “we all become imprisoned by our former technological desires” – we do, do we?). It was certainly audacious TV – they would play a video clip, then the Tubbies would say “Again, again” and they’d repeat the exact same clip again. Obvious and inspired at the same time, but not really appealing to me as a 15-year-old.

    It’s hard for me to rate this record as I don’t feel like an informed critic. I’m sure it went down well with its target audience, but maybe only because they were already fans of the show. I wonder how much a toddler who had never heard of the Tubs would enjoy it.

  12. 42
    Tom Ewing on 8 Apr 2014 #

    #39 – I did play it to them! The 7 year old was horrified and hotly denied he could ever have been a fan, the 4 year old remembered quite liking them and enjoyed it, though not as much as “Barbie Girl”

  13. 43
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 8 Apr 2014 #

    it’s fascinating how very early the “seven ages of pop guilt” structure* digs back: just as 20somethings wriggle around at the thought of themselves at 15, and teens of themselves at 12, apparently kids are mortified by their taste as tots and toddlers redden when reminded of what they liked as actual real babies — so when does it end? when are we free of this terrible cycle?

    (ans = NEVER btw) (i have been looking at an essay on xenakis i wrote nine years ago, i.e. in my early 40s, and wincing at a couple of the words i used)

    *it’s presumably a consequence of “each age group having its own culture”, which is partly a marketing thing of course, but more than that too — with historical curiosities (many of the earlier works of adult fiction — pilgrims’ progress, gullivers’ travels, jules verne — ended up as books that only children read) and counteractive curlicues: the more we detest our most recently cast-off tastes, the more (as a consequence?) we become fondly fascinated by those things our foolish younger selves spurned so furiously…

  14. 44
    swanstep on 8 Apr 2014 #

    I’ve never given the Teletubbies much thought (although I was aware that it had that student/post-rave constituency that Marcello describes), so it’s interesting for me to read here about their programme’s radicalism. The record, however, leaves me cold – it’s no Wiggles! – which is presumably part of the point; no non-infant should be able to give this more than a token point or two (whereas The Wiggles are a shot to the heart of the slightly older, ready-to-rock, mash-potato-ing masses). My sense is that there’s a bit of a hipster battleground even for very little kids’ music these days including stuff like this NIN lullaby. That’s a little creepy, and taking the infant’s eye view as seriously as the Teletubbies did does avoid that problem at least.

  15. 45
    James BC on 8 Apr 2014 #

    There’s quite a lot of albums of music for kids made by ‘proper’ bands these days – mostly compilations but the Barenaked Ladies and probably others have done full albums. They are hit and miss; a lot of groups seem to fall into a trap of making an adult’s idea of what children might like, often taking on a sort of Flaming Lips-type wide-eyedness that gets a bit wishy washy for real kids.

    The best example I’ve come across is Jackie Jackson by Franz Ferdinand, a cautionary tale about a boy who eats too many cakes. It’s highly enjoyable by adults but also got a great reaction when I played it to my nephew.

  16. 46
    Billy Hicks on 8 Apr 2014 #

    I’m not sure entirely what got me into the Teletubbies despite being slightly too old for it at age 8. I fell somewhere in between the toddler and the ironic student crowd, enjoying it for its whimsy but able to view it from a slightly different perspective – which my parents contributed to who would deliberately make snide jokes about the show as I was watching it, ie “Po doesn’t know what the hell’s going on!” or “Tubby Custard looks horrible” to my great amusement. As mentioned earlier it felt very ‘grown up’ even at 8 to joke about something I would have watched with no irony whatsoever had I been about five years younger. There was even an issue of the much-missed ‘Buster’ comic which had all the characters pretend to be the Teletubbies, commenting on how everyone likes them even though it’s just for young kids.

    When Dad told me “The Teletubbies are number 1” I thought, like the song about the Barbie girl, he was joking. But in this case when I did find out the truth I was just incredibly amused that the grown-up pop scene could send the theme tune of this to the top. That Christmas I saw my younger cousin, then 3, and the cassette singles of this and Barbie Girl were essentially played endlessly for her continuous enjoyment. After every play? “Again! Again!” she’d shout.

    It’s not something I’d actually want to listen to, but I’ll give it a 2 at least just for the amusement the show generated for me at the time.

  17. 47
    mapman132 on 8 Apr 2014 #

    #42 HA :) Funny thing about “Barbie Girl” though: recently inspired by the posting on this site, I sang, not played, the “I’m a Barbie girl..” part in the presence of my godson. He immediately started singing it too, despite the fact he had apparently never heard it before! And no, he had never heard of Barbie, and strangely his parents claimed to have never heard the song either, even though it was a hit here in 97 (maybe they were just blocking it from memory). Anyway, maybe he was just amused by Uncle Dave singing something so silly.

    FWIW, the first song I ever remember loving as a kid (probably around 4-5) was a kiddie version of “Yellow Rose of Texas” of all things. I was quite pleased to find out many years later the Mitch Miller version of YROT was a genuine #1 hit on the Hot 100’s precursor Best Sellers chart back in 1956.

  18. 48
    enitharmon on 8 Apr 2014 #

    So many of you are being so very hard on this. It’s not fair really; your toddler probably wasn’t going to be very impressed with the Spice Girls (although the strong rhythms of a lot of club music might have hit the spot nicely). It is what it is and because what it is now (ie in 1997) finds a place at the top of the charts means only that a reappraisal of what we mean by chart music might be in order. What separates this from something like “Grandma” (if such a horrible thought as something else like Grandma is bearable) is that I imagine that those responsible had some fun putting it together whereas those responsible for Grandma (and especially the singers) probably feel it as an albatross round the neck (I know of at least one who won’t have it mentioned within earshot).

    My daughter, born in May 1980, liked to go to sleep as a baby with the rhythms of the Rolling Stones (strictly pre-Exile on Main Street) coming from below. She had the usual 1980-type baby stuff too though. It’s not the baby music that’s the problem, it’s the slightly-older toddler stuff that is destined for endless repetition in a hundred different sharps and flats that is really annoying. I believe the bunny has something like that in store for us. And just be grateful we don’t have to deal with The Wheels on the Bus. I’d cheerfully strangle whoever it was came up with that one.

  19. 49
    Billy Hicks on 8 Apr 2014 #

    “And just be grateful we don’t have to deal with The Wheels on the Bus. I’d cheerfully strangle whoever it was came up with that one.”

    Five years later, I watch Top of the Pops and can’t quite believe what I’m seeing.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GuIJWG13wvE

  20. 50
    Paulito on 8 Apr 2014 #

    TELETUBBIES “BETTER THAN ‘HEY JUDE'” SHOCKER

  21. 51
    thefatgit on 8 Apr 2014 #

    #48 & 49 James Orchard Halliwell spins in his grave.

  22. 52
    flahr on 8 Apr 2014 #

    I can’t countenance giving more than a 4 to anything whose video steals so blatantly from that of “Poing” by Rotterdam Termination Source (1:53 in the TSE video)

  23. 53
    admin on 8 Apr 2014 #

    @46 I had to Google when Buster went er bust, and amazingly it was 2000. I was reading it in the 70s when it was (Great New For All Our Readers) Buster and Monster Fun. And wikip sez that in later days it absorbed both Oink (just 2 strips) and Whizzer and Chips. The latter of which I would never have believed to be the weaker brand. #comixchat

  24. 54
    Billy Hicks on 8 Apr 2014 #

    Yep, I bought the last issue. The story’s quite sad as to how it ended – through the 1990s as artists left, retired or simply died, the comic gradually began to be dominated by reprints, occasionally with crude edits to update some of the dialogue (£1 note = £5 note, etc). By 1999 there was only one artist left, Jack Edward Oliver, who drew the last new strips, wrote the letters page and basically kept the comic alive all by himself until the publishers axed it at the end of the year – the last issue was published at the very end of December 1999 but dated January 2000, just sneaking it into the next century.

    The last issue was rather glorious as Oliver, basically allowed to do what he wanted, ended the storylines of every single character in a variety of ways – some of them being killed off, others winning the National Lottery, one bizarrely being revealed as Jeremy Beadle in disguise, and eventually the Millennium Bug destroying the entire Buster universe.

  25. 55
    Mark G on 9 Apr 2014 #

    Ah, remember him from Record Mirror, RIP J. Edward

  26. 56
    Steve Williams on 9 Apr 2014 #

    I was going to suggest this was the last number one single to be released on BBC Records, but in fact it looks like another artist – who has two number ones to come – takes that crown.

  27. 57
    Tom on 9 Apr 2014 #

    #54 That’s a great story (if a bit sad). I was a Buster reader in the late 70s/early 80s, after it absorbed JACKPOT, my original choice. I bought a pile of Jackpots at a car boot sale a few years ago and my god they were shoddy – flashes of quality in the art (Steve Bell doing the Gremlins is a standout) but mixed into a big heap of lazy shite. The memory cheats, indeed.

  28. 58
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 9 Apr 2014 #

    So among the multiple unspoken sadnesses in the life Andy Capp, he was predeceased by his child?

  29. 59
    Cumbrian on 9 Apr 2014 #

    At least Andy has the, fantastic, statue immortalising him in Hartlepool.

  30. 60
    ciaran on 11 Apr 2014 #

    I was subjected to the Teletubby craze due to my then 3 year old nephew who was a massive fan.1996 and 197 consisted of this, Banana’s in Pyjamas and Barney (which oddly as a teenager was one of the funniest things I ever watched!).I even spent part of Christmas day 97 watching a teletubby video and whats worse I might have actually enjoyed it.I think it even got to a point where Homer Simpson acted as a Teletubby to bond with Maggie at one point.

    No enjoyment from this Number 1 though.The goodwill I would have to the show would not extend to the single. Though it wasn’t the first time something as bad as this was Number 1 in December it’s a sign of things to come as from here on there’s all manner of dodgy singles awaiting us as we approach Christmas in the popular years ahead.

    1

  31. 61
    Jimmy the Swede on 12 Apr 2014 #

    It seems oddly fitting to me that our forum has had something of a bunfight over the vexed question of the Teletubbies. My brother’s kids (now all young adults) were very much of the Teletubby generation so I am familiar with what the show’s about. Unlike Punctum, I can never claim a post-clubbing Sunday morning viewing of it, but where he and I certainly see eye-to-eye is that I look at that show and say “They’re in the Village!” I’m so pleased that I’m not the only one. But then Marcello and I have a history of lobbing Prisoner quotes at each other. I particularly liked the Teletubbies episode when La-La was declared “Unmutual” and the other three formed a committee to cure him. It was a success and La-La went to the stand and confessed. “Again! Again!” went up the cry. Yeah, that was The Prisoner all right!

    For the record, my own shows were “The Woodentops”, which now sounds like a comedy about the Old Bill, and of course “Sir Andrew Pandy”, where we were introduced to the eternal triangle, which was Andy, Teddy and that little raver Louby-Lou. And don’t get me started about Little Weed, which sounded more like a discreet offer rather than a kids’ tv character.

    Happy days!

  32. 62
    Kendo on 31 May 2014 #

    #27 – I don’t think that the sainted Sykes is the Blair voice on this. All that Sykes provided for the show was his “One…two…three…four….TELETUBBIES!” announcement. The Blair voice is clearly provided by someone far younger and far more inane.

    I despise this record with a passion. I appreciate that I’m not its intended audience, but when you’ve seen twenty-year-old Student Grant wankers trying to do this as a karaoke number (and fucking it up royally) any tiny amount of charm that it may have had swirls down the plughole. “Sly” jokes for students? “Oh ha ha, dworling, look – LaLa’s ball turned into an E!” Grow up. This is the auditory equivalent of a Shaun the Sheep back pack. And don’t get me started on bleeding Timmy Time. Grrrrr.

  33. 63
    Cumbrian on 13 Jun 2014 #

    The revival starts here:

    http://tbivision.com/news/2014/06/cbeebies-bringing-back-teletubbies/289152/

  34. 64
    Rory on 13 Jun 2014 #

    Amusing coincidence that the site name can be read as “tubby vision”.

  35. 65
    CriticSez on 7 Jun 2016 #

    #66: That comment is INAPPROPRIATE! Delete it NOW!

  36. 66
    Mark G on 10 Jun 2016 #

    Trousers.

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