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July 22 2012

Angharad Rees obituary

Actor best known for her role as Demelza in the 1970s hit BBC TV drama Poldark

The actor Angharad Rees, who has died of pancreatic cancer aged 63, soared to fame in Poldark (1975-77), the BBC's dramatisation of Winston Graham's novels set in 18th-century Cornwall. Rees played the fiery servant Demelza, whose beautiful smile, wide-open eyes, flowing red locks and headstrong nature won over the brooding hero.

Robin Ellis starred as Ross Poldark, the British army officer returning home from the American war of independence to find his father dead, the family estate run down and their tin mines about to be sold. He seeks to reignite the flames with his fiancee, the aristocratic Elizabeth (Jill Townsend), but discovers she is set to marry his cousin. Poldark finds a soulmate in the miner's daughter Demelza after stopping a stallholder at Redruth fair from thrashing her for stealing. He offers her a job as his kitchen maid, and later marries her.

The costume drama, which ran for two series and attracted up to 15 million viewers in Britain and many more around the world, was particularly popular with women, who swooned over Ellis and admired the feistiness of Rees's character. The wild Cornish locations were also impressive at a time when the majority of costume dramas were almost entirely studio-bound.

Rees was born in London, the daughter of a distinguished Welsh psychiatrist, Linford Rees, and his wife, Catherine. When Angharad was a baby, her parents moved the family back to their homeland, to live in Cardiff.

In the mid-1960s she gained experience as an assistant stage manager and actor at the West Cliff theatre, in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex. She made her screen debut in 1968, as the parlourmaid in a BBC television adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman, and had one-off parts in TV dramas and comedies including The Avengers (1968) and Doctor in the House (1969).

Rees played Jack the Ripper's murderous daughter in the Hammer horror film Hands of the Ripper (1971) and appeared as Gossamer Beynon, alongside Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O'Toole, in Under Milk Wood (1972). Although she had few further film parts, Rees seemed ever-present on television throughout the 1970s. Some of her best roles included Sarah Churchill, the daughter of the wartime prime minister Winston Churchill (played by Burton) in The Gathering Storm (1974), and Celia in a 1978 production of As You Like It, opposite Helen Mirren. She also guest-starred in The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show (1977), an accolade in itself.

As Lady Evelyn Herbert, she teamed up with Ellis again in the television film The Curse of King Tut's Tomb (1980). Later, she starred as the remarried former wife of Paul Nicholas's vet in the sitcom Close to Home (1989-90) and joined the second series of Trainer (1992) as Caroline Farrell, coping with her drinking and gambling husband Freddie (Jeremy Sinden).

She appeared in the West End in It's a Two Feet Six Inches Above the Ground World (Wyndham's theatre, 1970) and The Millionairess (Theatre Royal, Haymarket, 1978-79). In 1973, she married the actor Christopher Cazenove, with whom she had two sons. The couple divorced in 1994. Their eldest child, Linford, died in a car accident in 1999.

Rees subsequently gave up acting in order to concentrate on developing her own jewellery design business, including a shop in Knightsbridge. She described this new career as therapeutic, and some of her creations were featured in the film Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007).

Rees had a relationship with the actor Alan Bates, who had suffered the loss of his own son years earlier. However, she turned down his proposals of marriage and the couple eventually parted in 2002. "We were very close, but it was difficult because I had not yet given way to my grief over the loss of my son," she said in an interview in 2007.

Continuing to support the arts, Rees was made an honorary fellow of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and was appointed CBE in 2004. The following year, she married David McAlpine. He survives her along with her younger son, Rhys.

• Angharad Mary Rees, actor and jewellery designer, born 16 July 1949; died 21 July 2012


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November 25 2011

Sir Thomas Picton? Let him hang

Calls to remove the cruel colonialist's portrait from a Welsh court are wrong – it's a window on a past we need to see, not hide

Sir Thomas Picton's portrait hangs in a court room in Wales, sword in hand, as if menacing defendants or reminding them how lucky they are to live in times when the law is less savage than in his day. He was portrayed by Martin Archer Shee in red coat at a bloody battle. Behind him swirl smoke and soldiers. Picton was a British general in the Napoleonic wars and he died of a gunshot wound to the head in 1815 at the battle of Waterloo.

Now the Daily Mail reports that a lawyer who is sick of the sight of Picton wants his portrait to be removed from Carmarthen crown court. It's not that solicitor Kate Williams has anything against Regency-style grand portraiture. No, she objects to Picton's role as governor of Trinidad, where he was accused of brutality in his administration of the colony and its slave-based economy. Even by the standards of the time, Picton's behaviour shocked: he was recalled to England in 1806 to stand trial for ordering the illegal torture of a slave. So Picton was no saint. But, as the local museum argues, his portrait is a historical document from an age with different values. It has hung a long time in the court and to remove it would be to erase a bit of history.

The dispute illuminates the primitive nature of our attitude to portraiture. Deep in our heritage lies the notion that a portrait is a monument to a hero or a worthy ancestor. To portray is to honour. This is why Britain has a National Portrait Gallery, which is essentially a gallery of British heroes.

Among the world's oldest portraits are ancient Roman busts of venerable senators. They are honorific and so is Picton's portrait. By our standards, Roman senators who helped to rule a slave empire are scarcely role models. Nor is Picton. But the demand to remove his portrait is wrong.

Whatever our instincts to see a portrait as a tribute to a great person, the reality is that portraiture is a window on the past, warts and all. Villains also deserve their place in the gallery, or in this case, their long day in court. If you applied this censorious logic, you would also have to purge museums of every Gainsborough painting that can be connected with slave-owners.

The British empire is a past we need to see, not hide. Stashing Picton's portrait out of sight would not change his crimes or his achievements – it would only deny us an opportunity to debate them. But we should be grateful to this Carmarthen courthouse campaign. It has pushed a little-known painting and its story to wider attention – and dragged a startling character into the light.


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July 08 2011

Complete Welsh collection goes on display in National Museum of Art

Ten-year project opens with masters on show and special exhibition including work by Freud, Hockney and Whiteread

Familiar favourites by Renoir, Cézanne and Monet are there, but also freshly minted pieces such a jagged stone circle created by Richard Long that two weeks ago was nothing more than a pile of rejected hunks of slate in a north Wales quarry.

All are being brought together at the National Museum of Art, which opens on Saturday at the National Museum Cardiff.

For the first time the full range of Wales's art collection, from Tudor portraits to esoteric pieces of contemporary art, can be seen under one roof.

The 10-year project, costing £6.5m, has involved the refurbishment of old galleries and the creation of six new spaces. Pieces that have long languished in storerooms have been hauled out and paintings and sculptures that were jammed together have been given more room.

Temporary exhibitions are planned for the new contemporary galleries, the West Wing. The opening show, called I Cannot Escape This Place, features work by Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, David Hockney and Rachel Whiteread along with emerging artists such as Manon Awst and Benjamin Walther, who split their time between north Wales and Berlin.

David Anderson, the museum's director general, believes the opening is an important moment for Welsh art and culture. "The country's collection of works by Welsh artists and international names is outstanding and it now has the home it deserves," he said. "The National Museum of Art is a new landmark institution for the whole of Wales and is one of the largest art venues outside London."

The gallery has more than its fair share of works from the early 20th century, thanks to the eye of Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, sisters who used a family fortune made in the coalmines of south Wales to collect art. There are eight Monets, some Cézannes and a Van Gogh, Rain – Auvers, painted days before his death.

Mike Tooby, the museum's director of learning, programmes and presentations, said one visitor asked in amazement: "Do we really have real Monets in Cardiff or are they copies?"

"I had to convince him they were real," said Tooby. "People need to be reminded that they don't have to go a long way away for great experiences. They are right here."

The museum's collection of paintings by Pembrokeshire artists Augustus and Gwen John is displayed in a section called Art After Cézanne.

Old and new sit alongside each other. Unlliw, an installation created by Carwyn Evans out of 6,500 cardboard bird boxes in response to plans to build 6,500 homes in west Wales, partly obscures an early 19th-century landscape depicting Caernarfon Castle in north Wales. An oil painting by Lionel Walden of a night train getting up steam at a Cardiff steelworks is hung beside a 2003 abstract photograph by Paul Seawright showing the glow of streetlights in south Wales.

The gallery is the latest in a series to open in regional centres. Turner Contemporary in Margate and the Hepworth in Wakefield opened this year and Firstsite is due to open in Colchester in September.


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June 07 2011

Venice Biennale: the political power of curating by country

The juxtaposition of the Iraq and Wales pavilions adds to the impact of their statements about war; and Zimbabwe's first exhibition puts politicians in the dock instead of artists

Despite the years of planning that went into both the Iraq and Wales pavilions for the 54th Venice Biennale, it was chance rather than design that placed these two off-site exhibitions facing each other across a narrow canal at the end of the Rio Garibaldi. It's an accident of geography that adds a disturbing resonance to both exhibitions, and an example of how the Biennale's curating by nation often invests the work of individual artists with unintended layers of interpretation and symbolism.

Although the Iraq exhibition Acqua Ferita/ Wounded Water is shaped by the theme of water, the recent invasion and conflict in the country bleeds into each of the six artists' work. Crossing the bridge over the Rio di Sant'Anna to the Wales Pavilion, a visitor is met by three video pieces by Tim Davies titled Cadet. A military parade passes a war memorial in Cardiff; the same memorial is deconstructed by a camera speeding wildly around it, the sound of the artist's breath oppressive and panicked in the microphone. In the final piece a young cadet stands with their head bowed, swaying slightly in a strong wind, as a remembrance service is conducted at a war memorial in Aberystwyth.

Watching these pieces with the images of the Iraqi work fresh in my mind, and knowing they were housed literally across the water, created an uncomfortable juxtaposition. Each exhibition inhabited its own narrative, but viewed in succession that narrative both broadened and sharpened. Here were two sides of a conflict, two exhibitions dealing with aftermath, memory and consequence, two vastly different cultures at great geographical distance brought into close proximity by the tragedy and absurdity of war.

Crossing the bridge to view the Iraqi work again, the experience provoked a series of simple thoughts, made suddenly fresh. Boys I had gone to school with in Wales had killed Iraqis. Other boys from my area had been wounded or killed there. The Welsh Assembly government had voted against the war, and yet had been powerless to stop Welsh boys fighting in it. I'd had these thoughts before, but the years had dulled them. Now, crossing a bridge in Venice, the positioning of these two national pavilions had done what the best art should; make me see and think again by forming resonant visual connections that couldn't be ignored.

Turning up the volume on the political symbolism of artworks turned out to be a consistent experience at my first biennale. By choosing to curate by nation, nearly every show is leant a geo-political shadow. Later that day I watched as Ed Vaizey, minister for culture, chose not to accept an offer to cross the bridge and view the work in the Iraq Pavilion.

At the opening of the China Pavilion audience members held up bags written with the slogan Free Ai Weiwei; at the USA Pavilion an athlete in Olympic kit ran on a treadmill atop an upturned American tank; the lettering of the Serbia Pavilion ran in bold type over the fainter letters of Yugoslavia beneath.

But for me, the strongest and most obvious political resonances were felt in the Zimbabwe Pavilion. This is the first time Zimbabwe has exhibited at the Biennale. The show, titled Seeing Ourselves, has been funded by the British Council, the Prince of Monaco and the Zimbabwean government. In 2010 an artist friend of mine in Bulawayo, Owen Maseko, was arrested and imprisoned, along with the director of the National Gallery, Voti Thebe, for putting on a solo show about Gukurahundi, the massacres perpetrated by the Zimbabwean government in Matabeleland in the 1980s. Owen's case is about to go to the supreme court in Zimbabwe. If convicted he could face 20 years in prison.

In the light of Owen's situation, walking around the Zimbabwe show was a strangely double-layered experience. As someone who has written about and visited Zimbabwe many times, I felt real pride for the country's artists who have, at last, been given a world stage for their work. But a pavilion at Venice is also a point of pride for the Zimbabwe government, and as such the hypocrisy was almost stifling. This hypocrisy was further highlighted when, for a few hours at the opening of the show, all these elements were in the same room at once. Because of this, I was able to ask the Rev Damasane from the ministry of education, sport, arts and culture directly about how Zimbabwe could use its visual artists as a showcase for the country abroad, while still persecuting artists at home.

Standing in that gallery space, surrounded by the work of Zimbabwean artists, in the midst of a massive city-wide festival of art, it seemed the Rev Damasane couldn't ignore the fragility of his arguments in defence of Owen's charges. "Look, you are right," he eventually admitted with a smile. "Creativity should never be taken to court."

Like my thoughts crossing the bridge between the Wales and Iraq pavilions, the Rev Damasane's statement was a true and a simple one. But in the context of Zimbabwe and Owen's case it was all the more powerful for the simplicity of that truth, made fresh again within the eccentric curation of the Biennale. Between the giant yachts, the money and the parties, the true success of the Biennale – and a reason why Zimbabwe should have a pavilion there – is this: while creativity is far from taken to court in Venice, the act of curating by country means that the work of individual artists can, at times, put politicians in the dock instead.


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May 05 2010

Election 2010: Conservatives – not just for England | Martin Kettle

The overnight: David Cameron's visits to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales aim to portray the Tories as a truly national UK-wide party

It is tempting, and the BBC this evening fell for the temptation, to see David Cameron's visit to Northern Ireland yesterday – almost certainly the first election campaigning trip of its kind by a major UK party leader in modern times – in the frame of a possible hung parliament. Looked at this way it can be made to appear like a last minute attempt by the Conservative leader to shore up potential support for a possible minority Tory government if Cameron falls just short of an overall majority to 6 May. Those 18 Northern Ireland seats (effectively only 13 if permanent abstainers Sinn Féin hold on to all their 2005 seats this week) could count for a lot if the Westminster arithmetic gets tight when the votes are counted. Seen this way, Cameron flew to Belfast in a last ditch effort to take his party over the finishing line in a tight race by appealing to Ulster voters as potential allies

Actually, it's something completely different. There's nothing much that Cameron can do to affect the essentially pre-ordained and pretty traditional outcome in Northern Ireland. When the votes are counted, the 10 current unionist seats (or whatever particular stripe) will all be potential Tory supporting MPs in the new parliament while the nationalist MPs from the SDLP have already said they will be supporting Labour while Sinn Féin stay at home while pocketing their Westminster expenses. Even if one or two seats change hands in Northern Ireland this week, which seems likely, the essentials of the outcome there are pretty much set in stone by community division. A quick swing through Belfast by Cameron is not going to change that equation significantly (though it might just help Reg Empey win a seat for the UUP and thus perhaps fulfil Cameron's pledge that Ulster MPs may serve as ministers in a Conservative government).

More realistically, Cameron's trip to Belfast is purely symbolic but in a larger Union frame. His last 48 hour itinerary is taking him from Northern Ireland to Scotland (yesterday evening) and on to Wales today before he ends up in England – and ultimately in his comfortable south midlands Witney constituency. It's designed, in other words, to show the Conservatives as a truly national UK-wide party – not just the English party – on the eve of the party's possible return to government. Last time, in 2005, the Tories took a total of 198 seats, of which a massive 194 were from England, leaving just three in Wales along with the solitary single Scottish Tory MP David Mundell. The polls in Scotland don't currently show much likelihood of any improvement this time. Wales could be another matter altogether, with anything up to 10 Tory gains if things go really well (that's probably optimistic if the Lib Dem campaign surge holds up). Even if Cameron's Ulster Unionist allies pick up a seat or even two, the reality is that any Conservative government this time next week will be overwhelmingly an English based government once more.

This presents a problem for Cameron and an opportunity for his rivals, especially (as Alex Salmond has never tried to conceal) the Scottish Nationalists. Salmond is gagging for the chance to revive the SNP's momentum – which may slow on Thursday – by running as the anti-London, anti-England, anti-Tory, anti-Cameron party in next year's Scottish parliament elections. Cameron is not likely to go out of his way to oblige – he's not so stupid. But the sheer weight of English seats in any Tory majority would be one of the large givens of the new parliament. Cameron loses no opportunity to proclaim himself a traditional unionist Tory – and it is exactly what he is. His problem, though, is that his English party is far less unionist than it once was, and in some respects is teetering on the edge of an explicitly anti-unionist English nationalism.

Yes it's embarrassing for the Conservatives that they are making such modest progress outside England. But look at the other trends. Northern Ireland is not going to lurch into separatism any time soon. Wales is electorally much more like England than Scotland. And in Scotland the chances are that a period of Tory rule may actually help Labour in Scotland rather than the SNP. Cameron would be able to live with all that. The end of the union could be farther off than nationalists north and south of the Tweed would wish.

• More election comment from Cif at the polls


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March 09 2010

Artes Mundi goes on show in Wales

Eight artists shortlisted for UK's richest visual arts prize

The work of eight artists competing for the UK's richest visual arts prize went on display in Wales today– and none could be accused of triviality.

There was no sight of a light being turned off and on at the preview opening of the fourth Artes Mundi prize exhibition in Cardiff. This was big subject art tackling subjects from post-communist social order to consumerism and globalisation.

The prize of £40,000 is one of the most lucrative in the world and the biggest in the UK. It is presented every two years and, while it may have a lower profile than the Turner, for example, its status and importance in the world of contemporary art seems to grow each time.

Importantly, the prize provides a platform for international artists yet to make a big name for themselves in the UK. This year, nearly 500 were nominated from 80 countries.

Tessa Jackson, founding artistic director of Artes Mundi, said one aim had been to increase "the level and scope" of contemporary art on display in Wales, and one direct result has been the decision to create a dedicated space for it in the national museum from next year.

"There has been an enormous thirst for what we do and it has been one of the national museum's most popular exhibitions," said Jackson. "Beyond Doctor Who and dinosaurs even."

It will be an impressively well-versed visitor who knows the names or work of any of the shortlisted artists. Jackson said: "It has been a very conscious decision to bring together artists who aren't necessarily part of the London or commercial scene. We want a different range of players. People don't necessarily know the names of the artists, but they get very engaged with the work and the content of it and what it's about."

Jackson agreed that all of the artists tackled serious subjects, but said the show was not po-faced. "There is amazing humour in some of the work," she said. "I don't fish, but there's a bit of tickling going on here."

All of the artists this year were shortlisted for their skill in reflecting the politics that surround them, and there was a strong showing by artists from formerly communist countries, including the Albanian Adrian Paci; the Bulgarian Ergin Çavusoglu; the Russian Olga Chernysheva; and Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev, from Kyrgyzstan.

The latter pair, who explore ordinary life on the new Silk Road, were not at the prize preview after they were denied visas. The other artists are the Peruvian Fernando Bryce, who has lived in Europe for almost 20 years; Chen Chieh-yen, from Taiwan; and Yael Bartana, from Israel.

Many of the exhibits show the continuing strength of film and video art. Bartana, for example, has on display her most recent work, a film called Wall and Tower, in which she imagines the return of the 3 million Jews who lived in Poland before the Nazi occupation.

We are the "same but changed" says the orator as Bartana re-enacts the building of a wall and tower in the heart of Warsaw. This new Jewish settlement quickly has barbed wire round it and although it has a welcome sign, it is anything but.

Bartana has called herself an amateur anthropologist and examines tricky subjects. "I've been exploring anti-semitism, the Jewish and Polish relationship, the economy of responsibility and guilt," she said.

So far, Bartana said she had managed to avoid hostility to her work. "The Polish project is more complicated and touching on some deep wounds. I'm expecting some more difficulties than before, maybe."

The exhibition at Cardiff's national museum, which opens to the public tomorrow, provides a snapshot of each artist, but they will be judged on their work over the last five to eight years. The winner will be announced on 19 May.


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December 21 2009

A nuclear waste

Trawsfynydd, Snowdonia's Basil Spence-designed energy plant, is a triumph of modernist architecture – we should be celebrating it, not bringing in the bulldozers

Drive along the A470 into the heart of Snowdonia National Park and an unexpected, magnificent sight greets you. Fronting a man-made lake in the foreground, in the shadow of the rugged Moelwyn Mountains, are two giant nuclear reactors.

Not just any nuclear reactors, though. This is the Trawsfynydd nuclear power station, designed by Sir Basil Spence, arguably Britain's most talented modernist architect. It's an uncompromising but dramatic example of postwar architecture. Get a good eyeful while you can: unless an 11th-hour bid to save Trawsfynydd is successful, the bulldozers will roll in next year to partially demolish it.

Most power stations are designed by engineer-architects, and aesthetics come far down the priority list – if at all. But Trawsfynydd is different. Opened in 1968, it was one of the first generations of nuclear stations, conceived in the decade of Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace programme. It is optimistic, triumphant and utterly original: its uncompromising concrete facade towers 55 metres high, with neat rows of windows set around rectangle slabs jutting out of the building. It's crowned with four turret-like sculptural features on the roof. This is a building that unashamedly ignores the human scale. It intimidates and overpowers, a building that wouldn't look out of place on the set of Terry Gilliam's epic 1985 film Brazil. Trawsfynydd takes its cue from the dramatic and foreboding Snowdonia scenery, the towering linear form of the reactors juxtaposing beautifully with the organic and grandiose scenery that surrounds it. Now decommissioned, it's a fitting monument to the pioneering men who split atoms for a new future.

Yet the local community has long harboured anger that Westminster imposed the station on them decades ago. Feelings run deep and when, a year after it was shut down, there was talk of the station reopening, 300 people took to the streets to protest. Because of the radioactivity, the reactors must remain in some form for at least another century. Snowdonia planners want to halve the height of the reactor buildings to "improve" the look of the area. You sense there's a subconscious reason, too – that society is wreaking revenge on Trawsfynydd for nuclear mistakes of the past.

But instead of bastardising Trawsfynydd, we should be celebrating its bold and pioneering design. It's only in recent years that Britain has come to admit – even, grudgingly, to admire – its modernist past. West London's Trellick Tower, designed by Hungarian Brutalist Ernö Goldfinger, has become a byword for what renovation can do, having been transformed from a dilapidated and despised housing estate into a desirable place to live that features in the colour supplements and design magazines. But this change of heart came too late for other modernist masterpieces, notably the Dunlop Semtex factory in Brynmawr, Wales. Completed in 1953, the building – made up of nine geometric domes covering the central production area – was the inspiration for the design of the Sydney Opera House and was praised by Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1991, protestors staged nightly vigils around the building in an attempt to save it from demolition. But it was bulldozed a few weeks later.

I began an online debate about Trawsfynydd a couple of months ago, which stirred up strong feelings and a lively discussion – far richer than some of the poorly-attended public meetings held about the future of the site. Some believe that Trawsfynydd is an eyesore and should be erased from the landscape, among them the Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd, who has said that any suggestion of the building being saved is "bonkers". Others have told me that Trawsfynydd has inspired them, including internationally-renowned abstract painter Sonja Benskin Mesher, who this month opened a solo exhibition of paintings of Trawsfynydd.

There is a chance that this masterpiece could be saved. The decision rests with Cadw, Wales's historic buildings authority which has been persuaded to consider listing Trawsfynydd; a site inspection will take place in the new year and a decision is expected in mid-February. When designing it, Spence knew the building would have a limited life as a nuclear power station. He therefore had the foresight to set himself a guiding question for the design, which was inspired by the great English neo-classical architect Sir John Soane: "Will it make a beautiful ruin?" Unless we act now, we'll never know.


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