Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Behind "The King's Speech"

Albert Frederick Arthur George, King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions and the last Emperor of India, woke suddenly. It was just after 3 am. His bedroom in Buckingham Palace was normally a haven of piece and quiet, but this morning his slumbers had been interrupted by the crackle of loudspeakers being tested on Constitution Hill. “It was so loud one of them might have been in our room,” he wrote in his diary. And then, just when he was finally dropping back off to sleep, the marching bands started.
It was May 12, 1937, and the 41-year-old King George VI, father of the present Queen, was preparing for one of the most nerve-racking days of his life. He had acceded to the throne five months earlier after his elder brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American, plunging the monarchy into one of the worst crises in its history. Today, the reluctant monarch was to be crowned in Westminster Abbey.
The coronation, a piece of national pageantry unmatched anywhere in the world, would have been daunting enough for anyone, but King George – known to the royal family as Bertie – had good reason to be anxious: he suffered from a chronic stammer that turned the simplest of conversations into a challenge and a public speech into a terrifying ordeal. Words beginning with the letter 'k' – as in king – proved a particular problem: confronted with one, he would struggle to make any sound at all, leaving an awkward silence.
Despite the King’s misgivings, the coronation, followed by a live radio broadcast that evening heard by tens of millions of people across the Empire, proved a resounding success. He barely stumbled over his words. "The King's voice last night was strong and deep, resembling to a startling degree the voice of his father," reported The Star. "His words came through firmly, clearly – and without hesitation."
This success was due largely to one man: a self-taught Australian speech therapist 15 years the King’s senior, named Lionel Logue. Dismissed by the British medical establishment as a quack, Logue helped his royal patient conquer his speech impediment, turning him into a great monarch who, with his wife, Elizabeth alongside him, would become a rallying point for the people of Britain, and of the Empire, during the darkest days of the Second World War.

Above is an excerpt from the book The King's Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy, by Logue's grandson Mark Logue and British journalist Peter Conradi, which fills in much fascinating detail to the story dramatized in the popular film with Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush.
Before the King spoke to the Empire on the evening of September 3, 1939, the day Britain declared war on Germany, Lionel Logue rehearsed the speech with him carefully, striking out problematic words from the text, and was beside him in the room at Buckingham Palace from which he broadcast. "In this grave hour," the speech began, "perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself."
Lionel Logue in his study; the portrait on his desk is of his wife, Myrtle. He recorded his assessment of his patient as follows: “Mental: Quite Normal, has an acute nervous tension which has been brought on by the defect. Physical: well built, with good shoulders but waist line very flabby.” He prescribed for the future King a mixture of breathing exercises and tongue twisters, combined with talking therapy.
"Bertie" had began to stammer at the age of eight, and the affliction worsened after he was created Duke of York in 1920 and had to appear at official events. A disastrous speech before thousands at the 1925 British Empire exhibition in Wembley was broadcast around the world. Before him loomed a major six-month tour of Australia and New Zealand.  The Duke had seen many experts, to no avail. He was persuaded to have one last try by his wife, Elizabeth, played in the film by Helena Bonham Carter (below, with Rush and Firth).
When the King died, Logue wrote to Elizabeth, now Queen Mother. She replied, “I know perhaps better than anyone just how much you helped the King, not only with his speech, but through that his whole life & outlook on life. I shall always be deeply grateful to you for all you did for him."
Despite her gratitude, Elizabeth was disinclined to discuss the issue of the King's speech problems publicly. "A speech impediment was seen as a weakness; it would have been inappropriate to point it out — it would have been a slight on the dignity of a sovereign," co-author Conradi told USA Today. "There's a clear parallel to FDR: Everyone knew he was in a wheelchair, but they didn't feel a need to talk about it." When screenwriter David Seidler, a former stutterer, sought help from the Queen Mother in telling this story in the 1980s, she refused. It was only when Logue's grandson discovered a cache of papers that the complete tale could come to light.
Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) listens with Princess Margaret and Princess Elizabeth while the King makes his first wartime broadcast. "The one thing a king has to do is be a symbol," Peter Conradi told USA Today, "and he had the misfortune to come (to the throne) in the radio age, which further focused attention on his disability."
~Above, the Duchess of York meets the prospective speech therapist. (I don't have a "hubby", we don't "pop" and nor do we ever talk about our private lives!)~
Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother; King George VI; Princess Margaret. by Dorothy Wilding, 1951. National Portrait Gallery. "He had an incredible sense of duty toward his people," Lionel's grandson Mark Logue told USA Today.
And what of the Duke of Windsor, the short-reigned King Edward VIII whose abdication thrust his younger brother onto the world stage? He and his American divorcee wife Wallis lived a life of privileged vagabonds. He was beloved by his nieces Elizabeth and Margaret, but spurned by the Queen Mother. You can see a dramatization of the love affair that cost him his crown in the film Wallis and Edward.

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