'King's Speech' Provides Historical Perspective

Thursday, 20 Jan 2011 09:59 AM

By James Humes

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"The King’s Speech" is the film of the year. It will win Oscars for Best Movie and Best Script. Colin Firth in his finest film performance will surely be selected as Best Actor for his portrayal of King George VI’s agonies in trying to overcome his stammer. (Geoffrey Rush, his Australian tutor, delivers an Oscar-deserving performance, but he can’t prevail against Firth in the title role.)

As supporting actress, Helena Bonham–Carter, who plays the wife of George, faces no such problem. She gives steel to the woman who in later years was the fluffy adorable Queen Mother with the big hats.

The film will make history because it is based on the historically factual account of the emotionally-wracked royal now thrust into a public role as monarch when his brother abdicates.

The year 1936 was witness to the most severe constitutional crisis in English history. Not since 1066 had three monarchs reigned in one year (Edward the Confessor, Harold and William the Conqueror).

Now, 870 years later, it was the death of George V in January which meant that his wayward heir, David, who was consorting with a married American woman, would become Edward VIII. When mounting pressure forced Edward to abdicate, his younger brother, Bertie, was made King George VI.

The king, as head of the Church of England, could not constitutionally be allowed to have as his Queen a divorced woman. It was not the fact that Wallis Simpson was American that alarmed the throne counselors, but that she was divorced (even twice divorced). That was a constitutional no-no. No king had ever taken a divorced woman as his queen.

The constitutional crisis also had severe political repercussions far beyond its own English shores. At a time when Adolph Hitler was threatening to conquer all Europe, the pro-German Edward VIII, who had once delivered a Nazi salute in Germany when he was Prince of Wales, could be a monarchial tool for the fuhrer’s nefarious manipulations.

The movie reaches its climax in 1939 when, after the Nazi invasion of Poland, Britain declared war against Germany. A speech to unite Britain in the emerging crisis by its king was paramount and obligatory. Prime Minister Chamberlain and others at Buckingham Palace afterwards congratulated the king.

Most noteworthy in the group of well-wishers was Winston Churchill, the newly appointed first lord of the admiralty who tells the king, “I couldn’t have done it better. You know, Your Majesty, I too had difficulties overcoming a stammer.” In an otherwise magnificent cast that included Guy Pearce as Edward, Michael Gambon as his father, George V, and Clare Bloom as his mother, Queen Mary, Timothy Small, as Churchill, is a cigar-smoking caricature.

In 1980 I had written a Pulitzer-nominated and award-winning biography, “Churchill: Speaker of the Century” on how Churchill made the mastery of speech as his staircase to power.

In it, I discussed how young Churchill had consulted Sir Felix Semon, the speech specialist, and developed his own techniques as well for overcoming both a stutter and a lisp.

Some think that a “Readers’ Digest” article that once described people’s three greatest fears: delivering a speech to an audience, cancer and death, in that order, as a bit exaggerated. But it wasn’t in the king’s or Churchill’s case.

Churchill, in fact, once collapsed in the House of Commons while delivering a speech early in his career. For Churchill, overcoming his speech disabilities was vital if he were to pursue a career in politics.

Some of the techniques that Churchill applied were those used by the Australian speech therapist for the king. Some others were Churchill’s own peculiar inventions. One was to begin by a hummed voice murmur that would slide into words. Another was deliberate stutter to emphasize a key word.

The voluntary stammer helped hide the involuntary stammer as well as reduce the apprehension of stuttering.

The movie does not mention that Churchill had been earlier susceptible to the charm of the personable prince of Wales. Churchill would even write the key lines of the king’s abdication speech: “burdens without the support of the woman I love.” The prince was a popular Royal, like Princess Di. Not only the public, but even figures close to the royal family like Mountbatten were swept up by his glittering glamour. But Edward’s character never lived up to the charisma.

King George V had his own emotional baggage. He says in the movie, “I was scared to death of my father and my children will be scared of me.”
“The King’s Speech” is principally the dramatic story of how one man surmounted a disabling handicap to lead his country at the most critical time in his country’s history.

In the 1930s, when Americans feasted on titillating news about the infatuation of the prince of Wales with the American divorcee, the British public had little knowledge.

British press carefully edited the news of the doings of the prince of Wales, even more so when he became King. Henry Luce’s Time magazine and Life were notable for their coverage. One Life photo showed Mrs. Simpson in a bathing suit at a boating party with the King.

But more important for film watchers, the British had no idea of the ordeal the new King George VI was suffering to prepare himself for his public role as King in this difficult time as war was imminent.

James Humes, former White House speechwriter, is visiting historian at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. In 1994 he received an OBE from Queen Elizabeth for his works on Churchill and Shakespeare and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

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