I saw an early UK screening of The King’s Speech on Sunday morning and it was a memorable occasion – not least because I had a ten-mile round walking trip to see it through knee high snow during Oxfordshire’s worst wintry storms for thirty years. There’s nothing like helping to push abandoned cars out of the middle of roads to focus the mind on what one wants – and that was to be ensconsed in a warm (it wasn’t very warm) cinema with mulled wine (it was twenty minutes behind schedule) in front of Colin Firth and a surprising number of well-loved and familiar faces.
I may be more resilient than most to dramas about the British Royal Family, or any royal family for that matter, because I spent a childhood reciting the dates and relationships of dynasties of kings and queens and an adulthood watching every royal drama going, Shakespearean or BBC, on the stage, on TV and on film. Not because I’m a royalist (as I’m not) but because I savour classic drama and fine acting. Basically, anything with Derek Jacobi in it.
I was in luck – Derek Jacobi turned out to be in The King’s Speech too, as a rather unsavoury and pompous Archbishop of Canterbury. There were some other unexpected delights as well. After a couple of hours of trying to place him, the credits pointed out that Stanley Baldwin was indeed Anthony Andrews (or Sebastian Flyte or Ivanhoe, as I remember him). His Brideshead mother also made an appearance, Claire Bloom (Lady Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited) was a strictly corseted Queen Mary.
The King’s Speech has been out in the US for longer than I know (even longer possibly than 127 Hours). The UK has to wait for January for a film with its own actors and its own history. It makes one feel frustrated. But also the delay makes one wonder if it’s because the studio might feel that audiences may be more receptive outside this sceptred isle.
I must admit that at the beginning of The King’s Speech, I may have thought if I’d walked in to a 1970s’ BBC or ITV production, such as Edward the King (Timothy West – how can one forget Felicity Kendall as Princess Victoria?) or Edward and Mrs Simpson. Here was another production in which I searched in vain for Edward or James Fox. I was reminded of Bertie and Elizabeth starring James Wilby and Juliet Aubrey, which also featured Lionel Logue, the voice therapist, the subject of The King’s Speech.
So, having accepted that I’ve seen more royal dramas than many, and with an entire wardrobe of Upstairs Downstairs and Duchess of Duke Street videos to boot, I tried to watch The King’s Speech with an objective and tolerant eye. This involved acclimatising myself to Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter. Fortunately, I soon realised that Helena Bonham Carter can remember what it means to be a very good actress, as opposed to playing something freakish and terrifying, and Colin Firth can play a middle class suppressed Englishman (actually, I knew that one before).
I was won over to The King’s Speech in the end largely because of the quality of the dialogue (thanks to Iain Canning), Geoffrey Rush (as Lionel Logue) and the utter humanity of a king who is also a man, Bertie (Colin Firth). My father grew up with a profound stammer and I have inherited little bits of it. One of the many characteristics about my father that has profoundly influenced and impressed me throughout my life is his courage and fortitude in confronting his stammer, to the extent that he has taken training in making after dinner speeches. And he has won the respect of everyone there for the effort and for the success. And so, when I see Bertie working his voice through Lionel I am reminded of the bravery of men like my father and I know it’s no mean feat.
Anyone who’s been bullied for a stammer or for being a little bit different can understand what Bertie is going through. And that’s quite an achievement for a film about a king.
The King’s Speech looks fine and it sounds good. Helena Bonham Carter’s Elizabeth tallies with my preconceptions. Once the film gets going and you get on to what matters – when Bertie is to be king and he has to make speeches that make your feet and fingers curl and your eyes clench – you feel consumed by Bertie’s frustration and need to speak. His right to speak. Something we all take for granted.
I have a veritable library of sublime British dramas and, without doubt, this will join it. I’m delighted by the reception of foreign audiences to this film but it does make me want to say that there is a great work of British drama like this, made over the last thirty years (not so many now), and it is no less good than this.