Old books on set

I’m sitting in a very quiet room full of books in Manchester, wearing a vintage suit. Forty people are crammed into a corridor just round the corner, moving equipment. There’s the hum of activity and the occasional squawk of a walkie-talkie. Space is limited. There’s a lot of crew here and they’re all busy. We have a few things left to shoot, and an hour in which to shoot them.

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This little peaceful room has been designated the Green Room for us. As Green Rooms go it’s not so bad. Thousands of ancient tomes from the days when printing was not commonplace, collected by an earl and bought for a few hundred thousand in the 1890’s. Now they’re stored here, in sealed climate controlled glass cabinets, worth a good million now I expect. Operatic prompt books, scriptures, histories, books on philosophy and annals and languages. They are pretty even in their cages. So are we. We all look lovely all dolled up.

A few of us will sit here until we’re needed. This is often the reality of filming for an actor. Hours of sitting. Intense moments of activity. More sitting.

There are lots of extras somewhere as well. God knows where they’ve put them. They usually fence them off in a bus or a dungeon somewhere, but wherever they are I bet there’s tea.

Artificial light is streaming through the windows in the corridor outside confounding our body clocks once again. Outside the land is dark. The storm is rolling in. The wind’s gonna blow…

Once we’re done here I’ll have to go to back to unit base through whatever the weather has turned out to be. It’s on the other side of town. I’ll change clothes. Then I’ll have to come back – back to a hotel just round the corner from here. Sod it. I should’ve brought my stuff to set.

I’m hoping that Nathan and Dean will still be awake by the time I’ve checked in. I fancy a stormy night on the town in Manchester. It’s Saturday, and I don’t get to come to the city very often. It’ll be a good chance to catch up with old friends.

Even though time is running out, I have faith in the machine of this set finishing on time. They are very sharp at speeding up when they need to. My first time on this set a few weeks ago I was blinded by the efficiency of the unit, as they whizzed through the shots but got every one of them nicely done in time to wrap us bang on cue, not a minute to spare. I’m expecting they’ll work similar magic in the 45 minutes remaining.

There goes the call. “Rolling!” They’re shooting something which means they’ve set up.


Yep. Sure enough, lots of walking and I’m done for the day. It’s raining. I’ll throw my clothes back on and hopefully I’ll get to hang out with the lads in Chorlton. If not I’ll be me vs a 5 star hotel bar, which will leave me shirtless and still sober at 4am.

Old friend phone drop

I was getting home from the lovely day when I realised I needed a poo. The train left in 4 minutes. I rushed through it but there appeared to be no loos on board. No way I was going to make it home. Flustered, I got out of the loo-free train onto the platform at Guildford, where I accidentally punched my own phone out of my hand and hard into the concrete platform face down.

Barely caring in my time of need I swept up the phone and did the “is it working test” while hunting the loo on the platform. I found the loo on the platform, but the phone failed the test. Whilst I was in the loo on the platform the loo-less locomotive left and my phone stayed broken.

In the ensuing half an hour before the next train I paced the platform at Guildford somehow hoping against hope that resetting it would fix it. Nope.

My ticket was on that phone. My life was on that phone. Suddenly faced with a brick I found myself wondering what to do.

I’ve often disliked iSmash. Big chain, on the high street, charging way over the odds to fix your device. I haven’t got a spare phone though.

I got on the train. I tried Google assistant. “Ok Google, what time does iSmash on the king’s road close?” Miraculously, my phone told me: “iSmash King’s Road closes at half seven”. So the phone isn’t dead. Just the screen.

Ok. Sod it. A destination.

I get on a bus from Clapham Junction. I walk up to the King’s Road and get to iSmash at 6. I’m thinking I’ll have to pick it up tomorrow somehow but no. Half an hour! How much?

Eye-watering. Two hundred and fifty quid. It’s like getting your car towed. Ow. But half an hour at six in the evening?! I guess that’s what you pay for. I’m off to Manchester tomorrow, early. I’ll need this phone. I’ll be paid more for tomorrow than I paid them to fix it. Balance?Karma? Fucknose. I’m just glad to be able to write on my phone.

I’ve been at the home of my dear old friend Dan. I’ve been recording some samples for a game he’s making. I haven’t seen him since I got politicked out of attending his wedding three days before the event in a way that still fills me with rage and powerlessness when I think about it. It was the single worst thing that has ever happened to me in the course of my job. I really hate some aspects of this insecure career.

It’s a mountain to climb to get back, but thank God we are old enough friends to stick the picks in and start hauling. We worked for a bit, then went for a walk in the park with Matilda who is a streak of lightning and hates anything speedy her size that doesn’t have nice smelling bollocks. Then we had a burger. Then a bit more work.

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It’s good to have his friendship back, and Guildford is highly accessible compared to his old haunt of Canada. I’m looking forward to more time hanging out there in the near future, especially since Jack is about to play Macbeth down there.

Next time, though, I’ll make sure I go to the loo before I leave the house. Or keep a tighter grip on my phone.

Things in random order

Normal service resuming. Yesterday was essentially a theatre review. I hope you enjoyed it.

I ended up naming people and writing what was both a blog and a review. I remembered a blog over the summer where everybody was mentioned but two of us in The Tempest and the two were very aware of the silence. I realised I had to name more names or nobody. It snowballed from there. I neglected to name people connected as well for fear of it becoming an unpalatable list – in particular the individuals in the production team that organised two tickets to a packed house for me and Tristan.

Someone in Oxford might have been smashing up effigies of me made out of teeth for failing to call attention to their creative input. I hope not. This is why I don’t write about theatre, though. It’s my world and I love it unconditionally, but it can get political in here.

“You should be a critic,” Kitcat said after I tried to answer one of her many many questions in detail after she said “What was the show like?” I disagree with her about being equipped to be a critic. I’ve got too much skin in the game to write about theatre successfully. What the hell happens if it’s made by friends of mine and it doesn’t work to my mind? I’m so glad I loved Bleak House.

I’m not one to compromise my integrity so I’d be compromising my connections instead if I hated something. I guess this is why we have the loosely anonymous online theatre writers that exist online these days.

I write unfiltered daily, sometimes drunk, sometimes extremely drunk, sometimes angry, sometimes cosmic. Occasionally maybe I can write a concrete review of something that’s struck me – that counts as a blog, aye? Just I can’t do that all the time, or transactionally. I need to choose my material or I’d probably have tried to solicit a column in a weekly rag somewhere. Al Barclay is unwell, anyone? I mean… It’s tempting. After all they pay you for the words. I’ve switched off ads for this, so I get bollocksycustard for a book’s worth of insight/ranting. In fact I have to pay WordPress ‘undred pahnd a year for the privilege of hosting it, the monsters. Better internet people than me might be able to help me port it to a website. I own albarclay.com. Tim Evans once did shit-tons of work porting old posts and then the hosting fell off and I wasn’t tech savvy enough to solve it and he hauled me out for starting again on WordPress.

My PayPal is alhimself@hotmail.com. But I’m not in financial crisis at all right now or doing a Wikipedia. I’m just looking at the shape of things in a little period of change and rethinking.

Bleak House was a wonderful watch. Go see it.

Full disclosure: I’d thought I might end up being involved in it, and sent a ridiculous tape from Chicago, but it fell another way. And thank God, because now I’m doing some filming which is not only lovely and very well paid, but will really bolster my CV. It wouldn’t have been possible if I was theatreing in Oxford. The lord giveth, the lord taketh away.

“This is what happens when you give us space to work,” says my agent, and I fucking love her for it.

Onward. Bedtime.

All this thought about Oxford has made me REALLY WANT A FUCKING MOTORBIKE AGAIN… This too shall pass.

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Bleak House at Creation Theatre

Bleak House is one of Dickens’s long form serial novels, turned out in the 1850’s, telling a story about love and identity against the backdrop of a seemingly endless legal case, mired in dense fog at the Court of Chancery.

It isn’t necessarily the most obvious choice for a piece of musical theatre, but Creation Theatre are not the most obvious theatre company, and they’ve got the creative team and the raw experience to make something very special.

They’ve been lighting up the town of Oxford for decades now, making beautiful theatre in all sorts of different spaces. And for this Bleak House they’ve chosen one of my favourite places in the world. Blackwell’s Bookshop on Broad Street, Oxford.

It is after hours when we arrive but the tills are open. We are presented with 15% off vouchers as we walk in. I’m already thrilled. The shop is a treasure house of wonder bound in paper. So many books, so beautifully laid out. It feels so full of books that you can almost hear them sing. The smell of it! The feel of it! Oh I love it so. There’s nothing like a good book, and doubly so in this age of scrolling.

We descend into The Norrington Room, where a stage has been built amid the books. A little grey square of wood tricked out with trapdoors and crawl-spaces.

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The last time I was here was 2012 for The Odyssey as a performer. This stage is a clear evolutionary leap from the one I knew so well, and it’s beautifully and cleverly lit by Ashley Bale. I am able to appreciate it more as well, knowing that I’m not going to have to make up a whole Homeric Odyssey for 200 strangers. Other people will be doing the hard work tonight, turning the bookladen shelves into other worlds in other times for our entertainment.

And there they are, the actors, immediately pinging out in simple but effective flexible costume skillfully organised by Ryan Dawson-Laight. Three women and two men standing around the edges of the stage, in the reflected murmur of the settling audience, screwing on their show-heads, watching the watchers wander in, adrenaline speeding up their thoughts: “have I got my plectrum oh look there’s the bishop of Oxford is the bird-book set in the right place have a good show guys God I’m a bit nervous ok so the director’s sitting over there is my fly zipped up what’s that line again”.

It begins and I’m immediately lost in it. This sprawling strange book has been crystallised beautifully by Olivia Mace, who fits everything we need in, keeping the spirit and poetry and theatrical vigor and adding a dash of mischief and a wash of music. Not content with just adapting and converting Dickens’s opus, she provides us all with songs and some tender choral moments.

Deborah Newbold’s direction encourages truth and focus so that the broader characters can ping with movement when they need to, and uses every method possible to shift and change the space and keep her audience following this complicated tale through its many changes. All the actors are playing multiple parts, aided in changes and safety by movement director Cydney Uffindel-Phillips. Frequently they’re grabbing instruments as soon as they are out of the main action of the scene and feeding back into the soundscape. When they can they keep that soundscape going, but there’s only five of them so I guess it couldn’t be a constant underscore without totally frying all of their brains. I wished there could have been, but budgets are budgets, and we all tend to have a maximum of two hands.

Eleanor House brings violin and great humour to her work, making, among others, a fantastically awkward singing prat of Mister Guppy and a delightfully funny Hortense motormouthing GSCE French. Some of my most unexpected laughs were courtesy of her choices. Joanna Holden has the job of playing the most characters, and pulls all sorts of shapes and voices out while swarming up and down the ubiquitous stepladders in boots with surprising assurance, snapping from high status to low and back again, bringing surprising humanity to Lady Dedlock. Sophie Jacob is the heart of the play with Ester, setting the tone with the opening lines, and working with such specificity and clarity that it came as a surprise to read that this is her professional debut. Offstage she brought great music as well on keyboard. Bart Lambert is still and sharp, smouldering in moments and bounding in others, veering deftly from warm to cold. And my old mate Morgan Philpott, playing a load of parts plus guitar, heartbreaking when he had to be, when the wind was in the west.

It’s easy to forget when you watch theatre how many people go into the making of it. So many people from conception to execution. This show was rumbling along in summer when I was up in Oxford doing the Tempest. The Creation Team and Olivia literally made it from nothing but an idea and now hundreds of people will come to Blackwell’s and buy lovely books and watch lovely actors and have a lovely time in Oxford from now until the 7th March. You can be one of those people!

This is a very warm hearted telling of an eccentric and wonderful novel. It moves along at great pace guided confidently by good people in a beautiful place. Catch it if you can!

Up to Oxford

Terrible traffic on my bus up to Oxford but for the first time in many journeys from London to Oxford I don’t have a lump of fear in my throat about time pressure.

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Sure I’m going up to SEE a play. But usually I’ve been going up to be in one. It’s not such a high pressure thing… If I miss the start, the show goes on anyway. I just miss seeing the beginning.

I’ll likely dedicate a blog to writing about the show tomorrow. Today I’ll just use this moment of downtime to write something, so I can have a few drinks at the press night and catch up with old friends without feeling the weight of 500 words pulling at the edges of my fun.

Tristan and I are off to see Bleak House. It’s Creation Theatre, who I did The Tempest with over summer with the scary commute. The show will take place in The Norrington Room of Blackwell’s Bookshop. We made The Odyssey there with The Factory far too many years ago when we were all so young and foolish. The smell of the room will almost certainly trigger huge strange memories. I look forward to it. I dread it.

It’s a strange and beautiful bookshop, Blackwell’s, as Bleak House is a strange and beautiful book. I studied it closely at university. My personal tutor Nicola had written the foreword to the most recent penguin classic edition, and her knowledge and passion for the piece were both contagious. Time has allowed me to forget most of it – although how could I forget the spontaneous combustion? But I’m sure it’ll come back to me in the watching. And knowing this company it will be a sparky and unusual fun telling, rather than an earnest worthy and ultimately dull endeavour such as you might get out of a different company’s theatrical re-working of Dickens. In the same bag as our Christmas Carol, you could argue. Tell the story, mark the changes, have fun while you’re doing it and bring in some music. It’ll be fun.

That’s if we ever get there through this traffic. Tristan’s brother’s son was finally born this morning. The news and the need to celebrate it slowed us down considerably. And the daytime fizz made me slow and fuzzy. This bus is unpredictable at the best of times. The first time I used it to get to rehearsal it broke down. This time it’s gridlock.

Still, we have two hours before the show starts and we’re almost out of London now. Fingers crossed we make it. I might have a doze.


Still not at Oxford, and I’m contemplating the fact that I genuinely believed it would be a good idea to commute by motorbike for three weeks. I am so glad I didn’t get through the test in time. I’d be dead for sure. I was livid at the time. It’s a long dull fast road. I was so tired at times over the summer. Phew.

Quiet Monday

Back in the afternoon to Moorgate – one last journey to get back my tools. It’s funny how close the building I’ve been working in is to my old drama school. I partly love it, partly hate it. I wonder what the fresh faced cadet would’ve said about me working as a carpenter twenty years later. If you’d told him, he wouldn’t have believed you.

Here are my tools after a week. I really punished those kneepads.

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But I’m coming to feel that this is what it means to be an actor, properly. Split focus.

I’m doing some filming on a series with a name to conjure with, under NDA. For a fortnight I’ll wake up and get on the tube through all the rush hour paranoia in order to spend my body tearing up floors and taking down walls and ceilings. The next day someone will pick me up at home in a car with blacked out windows and I’ll go off and pretend to be someone else for considerably more money than I’ve earnt in that fortnight. But I guess I’ve got a bankable skill now in that I’m unruffled on set and know how to focus on my work and turn it in. That took time and maturity.

But there are many days in the year and it’ll be hard to make sure they’re all spent using that skillset, even though that’s the dream.

I’ve always had an advantage with the ability to just turn my hand to something else for a while without question. This time it’s been carpentry and wrecking. I’ve learnt a great deal over this fortnight. The world of wood is much more comprehensible than it was. I want to try to apprentice myself making things now I’ve apprenticed breaking them. Maybe I should start by putting new doors in to my flat…

At the same time I’m glad to stop for a while and focus on gentler pursuits like putting actors into roles and helping find drivers and PA’s and so forth. The next few weeks will be a good opportunity to get work for people I know are reliable. I’m helping a group of people I love make a large scale thing. You’ll likely hear a lot more over the next few weeks, but once again NDA. I seem to be signing them left right and centre these days.

I treated today as my second day of weekend – (Monday is the actor’s day off after all.) The diary is empty of timebound obligations now for a few days, so I can focus on my freelance stuff and do some writing. I’ll be making a lot of phone calls tomorrow and making things happen for myself and other people. I’ll need to make sure I move my body a little bit. All this carpentry has helped the weird left shoulder thing be less forward, but something is still going on there, I still feel it twitching, I still can’t sleep on my right without the weight of it causing me discomfort. God knows what I did. I suspect I’ll never know now. But at least it’s just an annoyance rather than a huge pain now…

 

Boozy pub quiz

Home after a very boozy pub quiz and not feeling particularly competent at writing. I found out I’m not working on the get-out tomorrow in time to raise a fair few more glasses than I would normally raise on a Sunday and tomorrow can be a lovely carefree day of not taking up mouldy floors and not taking down mouldy ceilings.

But now I find myself having to write 500 words. Hmmm

I stayed up late because Kitcat was home after I got back and we ended up talking about tarot and next thing I knew I was doing a drunk reading for her. I think it’s given me a headache. It was that or the booze. It’s 1.40am. Damn. I haven’t been able to justify being an idiot for ages. It was past time, I guess.

Scene and Heard pub quiz. A very lovely charity and a good way of bringing kind people in the industry together. We made a good show of the pub quiz but we didn’t win anything. I was on a team with an old friend and an ex of many years past. It was good to remember how we can be friends. She has two kids now. Two. And she literally hasn’t changed one iota. I sat opposite her and felt simultaneously young and old. I wish we’d won the quiz, as we did so on an early date at The Dover Castle. Lots of lovely people at the table though and if only I hadn’t decided that getting blotto was the answer I might have had some better conversations than I did. Still. Apparently my tarot reading at home was helpful.. Small victories.

I’ll head onto site tomorrow and get back my wrecking bar and hammer and my impact drivers. I am very much more acquainted with my tools now, and will inevitably put them to good use again in the near future.

But now it’s bed. Bed bed bed oh bed. There’s a spot of casting to be done but I had the next two days marked out for work so it’s a shift to find I’ve got them to myself. If I don’t get to sleep soon though I’ll waste half of tomorrow, but maybe a lie in would be a good thing…

Kitcat keeps trying to talk to me through the door. She’s asking about her tarot reading because she’s sending a breakdown of it to her dad, who loves tarot. I literally haven’t the energy to explain how the deck I used is a heavily customised deck created by Alice Instone, and virtually every card of hers was one of the artist’s inventions and not included in the traditional tarot. If I’m reading drunk and tired it’s the only deck I know well enough that I can see it through the fug.

I still find it emotionally tugging to hang out with my ex. She’s still extraordinary.

I think it might have had something to do with why I had a spot too much to drink. Ah well… Night night.

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Week END

And that’s the week.

Today I’ve been taking up floors and dropping ceilings. The building that I walked into to see the Wolf show a few weeks ago looks almost like an empty brick warehouse once more. There’s much left to do in the mushroom basement, but above ground level we are looking shipshape now.

Thinking about it, the build quality was very high for the show, despite the threaded screws and the enthusiastic glue.

They couldn’t drill into the walls, so most of the rooms were free-standing timber frames decked with ply and occasionally anchored in either the floor or the ceiling. Once we had a handle on them, we could laser on the anchor points and then bring the whole wall down to deconstruct, frequently exposing a blacked out window behind it which we could use for light and ventilation. Yes they would have felt fragile, but given the constraints there was no other option.

Outside of the basement and the endless stairs it’s not a bad place to work. There aren’t many of us on an average day, and I’ve been paired with Tristan so frequently it’s just the two of us for hours on end communicating by grunt and working through long repetitive physical tasks. Yesterday we were joined by Jo though, and today by Mitch.

Yesterday was tiles. Between three of us we must have prised up a couple of thousand individual bile green vinyl tiles, all the while cursing the name of whoever thought that was a good way of dressing a temporary space. Today was more varied but just as mundane.

We are spent. We were laughing about our lack of strength in the morning. In situations where we normally would’ve been able to rely on a combination of hand and core strength to pull up bits of hard-glued lino we were pitiful. Useless. Children.

We had to resort to tools and cunning, cutting the floor into strips along the adhesive underlay and then using body weight and the remains of our tattered grip to tear it up. My fingertips are gouged and wrenched and bloodied as I work in fingerless gloves. The padding on the gloves has done a lot of work, but there are still tiny blisters.

So I’m home, alone, listening to Beethoven and decompressing and I’m glad of it – an honest fortnight’s work. I have a feeling I’ll be in next week for a few days, back in mushroom land for the last push. I’ll need to gear up to that, as they’ve left the worst till last. That basement is a disintegrating, humid, pox-ridden hellhole. Even the mice don’t go there.

I’m definitely getting fitter. I’ll need to keep this up, as even my shoulder is easing with the constant movement, strain and hard use followed by self care, good food and relatively early bed. I’ve rarely had to take painkillers this week for it. Time is playing its part, but I think it’s a lesson that I need to carry. Accidental exercise in the course of my work might not be adequate anymore. I need to make sure I’m fit enough to sustain another four decades in theatre. I know a fair few actors still bounding around near eighty. Let’s aim for that…

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Brexit Day

As we walked off site tonight we noticed that the open plan office opposite our building had a huge union flag pinned to an internal wall upside down – (by mistake?)

All the staff normally have to work arranged in the windows, with the young attractive ones evidently placed in the most prominent desks by the slugs in the boardroom. This evening they were all standing facing one way, flag to the left. It looked like a miniature rally.

Today we leave the EU. Many people are celebrating. Many people are sad. I still don’t know what it means, frankly. All I have to judge it by is media sources – (which are, by their very nature partisan) – and personal pieces like this which are likely even less reliable and likely to be influenced by the mind of the writer no matter how hard they try to appear neutral.

The group in the office, with the big flag to their left – they had everybody standing to attention, hand on heart. It looked like pledging allegiance. We are closing the doors out and in. We don’t know how this will pan out yet, of course. But the voice says it’ll be good for us. Taking back control.

The ascendant voice at the moment is full of fear though. Hatred of the “other” unveiled and free “at last”. No longer can the “woke” people stop me from saying that I FUCKING HATE CAULIFLOWER AND I ALWAYS HAVE. Simmering, burning, ongoing, long-harboured actual hate of something almost arbitrarily chosen – borne of fear.

I see it in this city much more than at any time in my lifetime since the eighties where it was rife and all the rich boys at my prep school – only a few years after Boris left – tried to tell me that my good mate Navin’s sister Artie, who I rather fancied aged 10, smelt of poo. I didn’t understand it then. I don’t understand it now.

Fear. That’s the catalyst. And notice how we are immediately being encouraged to fear China now we have “beaten” the “enemy” EU. It’s in keeping with US policy – the Americans are our best shot at allies now that we’re local pariahs. It’s trad in the US to fear Jina. I’m not worried about Jina. I’m worried about fear. I fear fear.

I’ve hated it for so long, fear. I try to be fearless if I can. I manage it in my work and my movement.

I have areas of fear in my life, unaddressed, and they are my trigger areas. If you try to persuade me to go on a date I’ll bite your face off. Because I’m terrified of opening my heart again. Perhaps because I’m terrified of certainty, I’m not sure. But at least I’m aware of it and trying to look at it, slowly.

I think it’s a crisis of faith that we have in this country – and the western world.

We are more secular now than we have ever been, as a nation. A lot of my intelligent left brain friends are very proud to be rational atheists. I keep trying to tell them that’s ignorant and dogmatic.

We have evolved as a species to have irrational beliefs. If we don’t put our faith in Baal or Jahweh or The Flying Spaghetti Monster or Mohammed or Buddha, we still need somewhere to put it, so we put it into Katie Hopkins or Barrack Obama or Jordan Peterson or Richard Dawkins or Tommy Robinson. Or the EU, or Brexit. None of us are fully informed. Not even Tusk or Johnson or Trump. Nobody can predict the future. We can only look at the here and now. Experts will try to project. But it’s baseless, and the most trusted voice is usually the loudest.

I honestly miss religion in society. We wouldn’t be in this mess if all the fearful people could be told that they just have to chant more or not miss morning prayer or say hail Marys or burn more heretics or go to synagogue or pray at bedtime.

But no. Instead more and more people are being told to hate more, and they’re lapping it up.

Today, small offices standing hand on heart by the flag. Tomorrow the guillotine. Oh no, that’s French. The gas chamber. Ach no, German. The blood angel! Ayy no it’s Norse. Oh but hang on, we who make ourselves “English” – we ARE French. And before that we are German. And Norse… Fuck.

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