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The Stammer of History: George VI and The King’s Speech

The Stammer of History: George VI and The King’s Speech

by Binoy Kampmark

The speech is a vital part of the modern ruler’s job description. With the radio and the onset of wireless, the English Royal family found itself having to front up to a public face on a scale never before seen. Too bad, then, for the nervous, the bumbling and the stammering members of the House of Windsor.

Such a situation was something George VI found himself in 1936 when his brother Edward VIII abdicated the throne to marry the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson. While many Britons felt that America had pinched their monarch, the Duke of York (Prince Albert or ‘Bertie’) found himself in the role of a royal broom, cleaning up a scandal and readying the country for war. His speech problems were renown – a difficulty with pronouncing the letter ‘r’; the presence of a lisp, and overall paralyzing nervousness. Edward VIII found himself in so such difficulty, even if he disliked speaking at public engagements.

Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech is a stylish cinematic case study of this battle of speeches. George V (Michael Gambon) was considered an accomplished public speaker, a voice rich and warming; Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) less so but still controlled and George VI awkward and burdened. Europe itself was both enchanted and appalled by the rhetorical power of the German Chancellor Adolf Hitler while Britain had its own monumental figure of the spoken word, Winston Churchill. The public speech was seemingly here to stay, necessitating much work on the part of the Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).

Colin Firth can only get better. Each role is drawn out with a forensic eye. The intense detail is supplemented by measure and balance. The film’s screen writer, David Seidler, provided Firth a model to work off having himself had the experience of a stutter while growing up. Firth receives superb support from Rush, who introduces a deeply personal and unorthodox regime of training to the royal person, and Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the monarch’s persistent wife, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.

The relationship between Logue and the royal is problematic, a battle of wills. Both personalities have their demons to put to bed, with George VI’s glacial stiffness hard to penetrate (by his own admission, he has few friends), and Logue’s own failings as an actor on the London circuit evident. Their intimate association also infuriates the royal establishment, and efforts are made to discredit Logue’s medical credentials, obtained as they were from the university of life and hard knocks. But even without ‘letters’ after his name, the plucky ‘colonial’ is still retained.

Firth’s depiction of George VI has the mint of an academy award over it. Even if the talk about an Oscar turns out to be mere babble and Hollywood’s annual bit of fluff, this performance will no doubt rank as one of his best.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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