It is possible – likely, even – that British subjects know enough of the back story about the life of George VI to fill in what “The King’s Speech” might not convey. But the movie, I believe, assumes the average viewer (the vast majority of whom were born long after this man lived and died) knows more than ought to be assumed.
International audiences are likely to be even more clueless about King George VI. Knowing little about this King myself, despite having been a 20th Century History major, I came away from the movie with the impression he was a decent man, thrown somewhat reluctantly into the spotlight, who worked diligently to overcome a speaking problem so he could with less embarrassment conduct his official duties. What I did not know, until I followed up and read the excellent and highly recommended biography, “A Spirit Undaunted” by Robert Rhodes James, was that the man went on to distinguish himself as an inspired, inspirational and even eloquent leader. A not-insignificant number of Britons today consider King George VI the empire’s greatest king in 250 years.
1. A Plain Brown Wrapper
To whatever degree the superb film, its cast and crew might be honored – and many critics ranked it an Academy Award contender in numerous categories – singular recognition must be given to Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush for providing the impetus that brought it to the silver screen.
“It’s a special project,” Mr. Rush said, with a mixture of humility and gravitas, in accepting congratulations at an after-party for a Nov. 5 premier of the film at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
He said he had come across the material in January 2008 when an acquaintance shipped a copy of it – in the form of an as-yet unproduced play – to him in the regular mail. “It came in the proverbial plain brown wrapper.”
The story recounted the true-life struggles of England’s King George VI, who ruled 1937-1952, to overcome his fears of public speaking, with the help of an Australian-born speech therapist, Lionel Logue. “I didn’t see it so much as a play,” Mr. Rush said, “I immediately saw it as a movie.”
2. Parallel Universes
Mr. Rush had received the story through friends at Wild Thyme, a London-based stage production company; they had started work on its adaptation as a play. But Mr. Rush, a native of Australia, passed it on to contacts at See Saw Films, headquartered in Sydney and London, with the comment that the script would make a terrific movie; and, he further suggested, Tom Hooper (director of the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning TV miniseries “John Adams“) would be an ideal director.
About this time, Mr. Hooper said his mother somehow intercepted a copy of the script. “She read it, and said, ‘I’ve just found your next movie,’” he recalled. “My own mother! She’s never seen a play in her life!”
Mr. Hooper added, “The only reason I came across the material is because I’m half Australian and half English. I understood the extra layers that element brought to the story.”
3. Now It Can Be Told
King George VI, says writer David Seidler, was his hero and his inspiration as a child. Why? Because each suffered from stammering. Mr. Seidler said he used to listen to the king’s radio addresses during World War and found them “reassuring”. “If the King of England could cope with a stammer so could I,” was Mr. Seidler’s reasoning.
When Mr. Seidler began researching the story behind King George VI and his fight to conquer speech difficulties, he found out about Logue.
One of Logue’s sons had his diaries; but to use the sensitive material found in them, the son said permission had to come from the Royal Family.
“The Queen Mum, to our surprise and delight, gave her permission, but said, ‘Just not in my lifetime; these memories of my dear husband are still too fresh and painful,’” Mr. Hooper said. “David agreed, but he had no idea she would live to be 186!” (She actually “only” lived to 101; passing away in 2002.)
Mr. Seidler, perhaps best known previously for his writing credit on “Tucker: The Man and His Dream“, kept his word.
4. A Hiccup
The wait, from the time the Queen Mum gave her permission to the time she died, proved too long for Lionel Logue’s son; he had died too. It took Mr. Seidler quite some time to track down Logue’s priceless diaries; they were found with a son of the son who had died.
Research resumed, was completed, and in 2005, the script began to take shape.
But Mr. Seidler admits he borrowed heavily on the best work of others. (See explanation below; it’s the best kind of borrowing.)
5. Uncredited Writers
“Some of the best lines in the movie,” Mr. Hooper readily acknowledges, “were written not by David, but by Lionel and the King himself.” Their impromptu exchanges, just as lively, salty, uncomfortable and witty as depicted in the movie, were meticulously recorded in Logue’s diaries.
6. The “A” Plot
“This is a story of consequence,” said Colin Firth, who portrays the king, “albeit a story on the wings of history. It was a story that was very much secondary to the ‘A’ plot.”
The “A” plot was the drama unfolding around England’s dying King George V, and his eldest son and heir, David – who would become King Edward VIII upon the father’s death. The mercurial David had an Achilles heel; he preferred the charms of unavailable women. The woman who became his downfall was a controversial American socialite, Wallis Simpson, who was, inconveniently, married to her second husband at the time she started to consort with England’s next king.
The ensuing scandal would bring down David (Edward VIII); he abdicated as king, less than a year after assuming the throne. While the world’s attention was focused upon the titillating details about with whom the gregarious Mrs. Simpson might or might not be dallying – in addition to the outgoing Edward VIII – the future King George VI was agonizing in the wings. This was the man who thought he would never be king, Bertie (his nickname), struggled to figure out how he could possibly rule an empire, if he couldn’t control his own tongue.
“His only job was to speak,” Mr. Hooper noted of the King’s largely titular role, “and he couldn’t.”
7. Come Forth, Mr. Firth
Oscar nominee (for “A Single Man“) Colin Firth was the last piece of “The King’s Speech” puzzle. He was cast in the starring role at the 11th hour – and some minutes – into the process.
“They came to me and said, ‘We’ve run out of ideas’ for who should play the lead,” he recalled during an interview prior to the Hollywood premiere. “Can you help us?”
Mr. Firth, of course, merely picked the movie up and carried it on his shoulders. It’s an acting achievement that transcends the difficulty of mastering the material. He also had to master it quickly. “We only had three weeks of rehearsal prior to the start of filming,” Mr. Hooper said. Actual filming was spread out over seven weeks, from mid-November 2009 to mid-January 2010.
Then ensued a mad dash to complete editing of the final cut; this was accomplished a mere five days before it was shown for the first time, Sept. 4 at the Telluride Film Festival. It was subsequently shown also at the Toronto Film Festival, where it won the People’s Choice Award.
8. Heavy Lies the Crown
“There’s an added sense of responsibility when playing someone who lived, or has living relatives, especially someone as well known – and beloved – as was this king,” Mr. Firth said. “You are limited in how much you can improvise; how much you can go off on your own.”
It was a heavy responsibility, he said.
“I knew that if I had blown it,” he noted, “I would have really heard it from my countrymen.”
9. Questions of Chronology
As the movie accurately depicts, Logue was sought out in 1926 to work with the future king’s speech, after a disastrous botching of an address at the closing ceremonies of the 1925 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley.
But the movie seems to suggest that in 1939 – some 13 years later – the king could still barely make it through a pivotal (to the movie’s plot) radio address.
Actually, Logue had remarkable success within the first year of working with his patient. In 1927, the prince traveled to Canberra and addressed the Australian Parliament “resonantly and without stuttering”, according to his biographer; after that, the prince was able to speak publicly with only slight hesitations.
But perhaps that quick resolution would not have made as good a movie. Of course, Logue did, in fact, continue to work with and help to improve the speaking of his famous patient for more than 20 years.
“The king actually became quite beloved by his subjects for his speeches and his radio broadcasts,” said Mr. Hooper, “because they knew how difficult public speaking had been for him, and his very voice spoke of that humility and that struggle.
If you are interested in hearing the actual broadcast upon which “The King’s Speech” hinges, listen to King George VI himself in this recording of the original 1939 BBC program:
10. Smoke Screen
The movie is full of nuances that the viewer dare not ignore: Notice how Queen Mary can’t embrace her children; how David can taunt Bertie into stuttering; how Wallis can emasculate David (who likes it). The movie also makes several references to the king’s habit of smoking cigarettes. Smoking, he says at one point, was suggested to him by earlier, discredited advisers because it “relaxes the muscles in your throat”.
Logue campaigns to get the king to stop smoking. It becomes a bit of a running gag.
But the filmmakers were trying in a low-key way to touch upon a serious and sensitive topic: Smoking was ultimately what killed the king.
Some might quibble with that assessment; coronary thrombosis was listed as his actual cause of death. But the king, who became a very heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer and had his tumorous left lung removed in surgery in September 1951. He died less than six months later, a mere 56 years old. (His dethroned brother David outlived him by another 20 years.)
That is how his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, became queen at the tender age of 25.
What became of Lionel Logue?
(Check out a comprehensive biography “Lionel Logue, Pioneer Speech Therapist” here by Caroline Bowen)
Logue, who came from humble beginnings, was born in Adelaide, Australia in 1880. He studied elocution in public school, and worked for a time as a gold miner. He served during World War I, and began using his elocution techniques to help shell-shocked soldiers regain their speech. He espoused a combination of breathing techniques, exercise, humor, patience and what he called “superhuman sympathy.”
After diagnosing the prince with poor coordination between larnyx and lungs, he prescribed a regimen of exercise and practice that dramatically improved the prince’s condition.
Logue was rewarded by the king in 1937 with membership in the Royal Victorian Order, a form of knighthood. He was further elevated within that order to commander in 1944. His portrait hangs among the greats in Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.
He continued to work with speech therapy patients, both wealthy and poor, the rest of his life. After his wife died in 1945, Logue joined the Spiritualism movement, which attempted to contact dead spirits through seances and the like.
He died in 1953, about a year after the “greatest friend” of his life, the king.
November 7, 2010