However you wish to measure it, The King’s Speech is undoubtedly one of the most successful independent British films ever made. Fascinated by 20th century history, I had been looking forward to this film since last October, but didn’t imagine it achieving much wider appeal. However, some see such popularity as problematic given the artistic licence given to the events portrayed.
This period of history appears to be enjoying a renaissance in both film and on television. The BBC’s revival of Upstairs, Downstairs, a popular drama that first aired in the 1970s returned at Christmas, with this latest series also set during the events of the addiction crisis. Indeed, many of those mentioned in this film were seen dining at 165 Eaton Place.
As if to highlight this overlap, the first scene of the King’s Speech depicts a BBC Radio Announcer carefully readying himself prior to introducing the closing ceremony of the Empire Exhibition in 1925. This announcer was Adrian Scarborough, who also played Mr. Pritchard in Upstairs, Downstairs.
The closing speech is given by Prince Albert, Duke of York, second son of George V but affectionately known within the Royal Family as Bertie (and played by Colin Firth). Unable to get his words out, when he does, his stutters are amplified around the newly built Empire Stadium, the crowd visibly unsettled, the speaker awkward and embarrassed.
The Prince tries several unsuccessful treatments to cure his impediment until his wife, the Duchess of York (Helena Bonham Carter) persuades him to see Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an unconventional Australian speech therapist. Logue discovers the psychological roots behind Bertie’s stammer, and with the aid of breathing techniques, tongue twisters and much swearing, helps him overcome his handicap.
Firth’s portrayal of Bertie is sublime. His stammer feels genuine and lacking in any obvious method, instead drawing you into the emotions that result having such difficulty speaking. Whilst visibly distressing, and with a story set against the run up to war, there remained plenty of moments for comedy. In fact, much of the film depicts an underlying lightheartedness, especially in the exchanges between Bertie’s family and with Logue.
Helena Bonham Carter’s performance as Bertie’s wife Elizabeth is also worthy of mention, perhaps more so given she plays someone for which the audience has greater familiarity with her later role as the Queen Mother. Guy Pearce plays David (Prince of Wales and briefly Edward VII) the villain of the story, transitioning easily from respected older brother, to irresponsible playboy and sinister tease.
The myth of Churchill
The performance that stands out the most though is that of Churchill. Played by Timothy Spall, his character chews up the scenery which only serves to highlight the historical inaccuracies this presents.
It’s often said that Hollywood has little regard for respecting the details of history (U571 and Braveheart immediately come to mind), but it would seem British filmmakers are just as guilty. In his article, Churchill Didn’t Say That, Christopher Hitchens attempts to debunk the myth of Churchill:
Churchill had helped build a lobby, with strong grassroots support, against Neville Chamberlain’s collusion with European fascism. The group had the resonant name of Arms and the Covenant. Yet, as the abdication crisis deepened in 1936, Churchill diverted himself from this essential work — to the horror of his colleagues — in order to involve himself in keeping a pro-Nazi playboy on the throne.
In another analysis of the plot, Alex von Tunzelmann notes that Churchill even helped rewrite the abdication speech. Whilst David allegedly wanted to open with: “I now wish to tell you how I was jockeyed off the throne” it was Churchill who suggested he use the more dignified “At long last I am able to say a few words of my own”.
Whilst I was exploring the BBC’s wonderful archive on the abdication crisis, I found a 1993 Radio 4 documentary in which Philip Ziegler posits an alternative history. He suggests that had David not abdicated, an interim government lead by Lloyd George would count Churchill as its most prominent member.
However, the inaccuracies aren’t limited to the Churchill. Hitchen’s reminds us of George VI’s clear support for Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement with Nazi Germany:
Chamberlain was then paraded on the palace balcony, saluted by royalty in front of cheering crowds. Thus the Munich sell-out had received the royal assent before the prime minister was obliged to go to parliament and justify what he had done.
Hitchens thusly agrees with Tory historian Andrew Roberts and fellow scholar John Grigg that King George VI had “committed the most unconstitutional act by a British Sovereign in the present century”.
Yet in the LA Times, David Freeman argues that:
Churchill’s support of Edward VIII owed more to his near-medieval reverence for the monarchy than it did to the individual occupying the throne. In supporting the appeasement policies of Chamberlain, George VI acted in harmony with the overwhelming majority of the British population across the political spectrum… George VI was also at one with most Britons in remaining skeptical about Churchill as prime minister until the great man had proved himself.
A further rebuttal comes from SC Johnson in his letter to the Guardian:
As Mr Hitchens points out in the article, it is not as if a king can campaign against his own government. If George VI was wrong to mistrust Churchill, how much more wrong would he have been to criticise a popular and powerful prime minister at his peak?
So whilst the Royal Family supported the policy of appeasement, there remains a debate as to the reasons for doing so. These themes are more readily explored in Stephen Poliakoff’s film Glorious ’39, were support for appeasement amongst the upper classes takes a more sinister turn. I’d recommend this film for anyone eager to learn more about this dark period in British history.
It’s also been questioned whether George VI’s speech was actually cured at all. The family of BBC engineer David Martin say he was asked to edit the King’s wartime speeches, to take out the stammer and make his speeches more fluent.
The role of film
Whenever such a film finds popularity there are always those ready to debate whether historical accuracy should take precedence over entertainment value. That I watched the film without spotting any glaring errors in the storyline suggests the portrayal already aligns with our common understanding of these events.
Should the film have given a detailed yet undramatic history lesson, or entertained us enough to promote an interested in the story? The later can only be achieved by providing a compelling enough story, one that can attract audiences and begin a dialogue. Given my renewed interest in the topic, alongside the reassessments and debates in the press, it would appear the film achieved all it needed to.
I can only hope that Phyllida Lloyd’s upcoming biopic of Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady, will attract similar critical retrospection and debate.