The King’s Speech, Movie in Cinemas in the UK and USA, January 2011Posted on 9 January 2011
On 6th February 1952, King George VI died in his sleep, aged 56. His daughter Elizabeth flew back to the UK from Kenya to become Queen Elizabeth II. Though I was a child at the time, I remember dreaming one night that my Dad and I went to the palace to help the king. Surely that means that he was a good man, perhaps even a noble man. Someone to be respected, not because of his office but because of who he really was.
George VI, sovereign of the British Empire, had never wanted such an august position. In fact he detested the idea of becoming king, as this wonderful movie makes abundantly clear. He was a shy man, son of a cold mother and strict father, and brother to a weak man with a nasty streak, who abdicated the role of king in less than a year. The first name of George VI was Albert and his family called him Bertie. His brother — known as David — wanted to marry the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson, who would have made a most unsuitable queen, but more to the point, David himself would have made an unsuitable king, beholden as he was to Hitler. This was 1936, when the old sovereign George V died and his eldest son David took the throne as Edward VIII. It’s doubtful that any future monarch will ever be named Edward, after this poor man’s failure to live up to his role. Instead his brother had to take over in December 1936, and in a little over three years later, in May 1940, Churchill took over the post of prime minister.
Events beyond 1939 are not part of this movie. It leads up to the king’s speech at the outbreak of war on 3rd September 1939. This live radio broadcast was a serious problem for a man with an appalling stutter who was uncomfortable with grand occasions. His first great public speech to the British Empire Exhibition in 1925 had been a sore trial for both himself and his listeners. After it was over his wife finally went off the beaten track to find an unusual speech therapist who might actually be able to help him. This may not sound like the stuff of a great movie, but somehow it manages to create a sense of tension and fear while fully eliciting our sympathies. The speech therapist, Lionel Logue had offices in Harley Street, and though he was not a real doctor he was no fraud. He lacked paper qualifications but had experience, and according to this story more than a nodding acquaintance with psychiatry. In any case he gave the king the wherewithal to speak to his subjects, and the king in turn gave him the title of Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, conferring a well-deserved legitimacy on this unusual man, who became and remained a lifelong friend.
The rest as they say is history. The king’s daughter has been queen for nearly sixty years, and her diamond jubilee beckons in 2012. His brother passed into obscurity, and eventually death in 1972. No coins of this unworthy monarch were circulated in Britain. Those of 1936 all showed the head of George V, and those of 1937 showed George VI. Patterns for Edward VIII coins in Britain were made but not issued, though postage stamps bearing his image appeared in 1936.
This remarkable film directed by Tom Hooper brings an almost forgotten past to life. Its success must surely owe something to the fact that so many of us find aspects of our own pasts painful to overcome. Any left-handed person who has been forced to write with their right hand will surely feel great sympathy with the king who suffered a similar fate. His role was brilliantly played by Colin Firth, and Lionel Logue was superbly portrayed by Geoffrey Rush. Helena Bonham Carter was wonderfully sympathetic as the king’s wife Elizabeth, later to become the Queen Mother from 1952 until her death fifty years later, and Derek Jacobi was eminently dislikeable as the fastidiously correct Archbishop of Canterbury. The whole cast was superb, and the script by David Seidler was grippingly restrained. For those who want more, a book published in 2010 by Peter Conradi and Mark Logue (grandson to Lionel) gives the story up until the death of the king, and the death of Logue a year later, shortly before the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953.
But this movie focuses on one thing and in doing so, and doing it so well, carries us on a wave of vitally important history, seen from the inside. Watching it was a truly moving experience.