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The King’s Speech

By now most will have heard of The King’s Speech, the critically acclaimed film that tells the story of The Duke of York (later King George VI)’s struggle to overcome his stammer. Although Bertie, as he was known to his family, had previously tried a number of treatment options, it is Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue’s unorthodox combination of breathing exercises, tongue twisters, and talk therapy that finally proves effective. When the King dies, older brother David ascends the throne as King Edward VIII, but his infatuation with Wallis Simpson, a twice divorced American woman, threatens to bring down the government. With World War II just around the corner and Bertie first in the line of succession, Bertie’s ability to speak is more important than ever.

The King’s Speech was one of my favourite films of 2010 and I left the theatre wanting to know what had really happened. My research began with a copy of Mark Logue and Peter Conradi’s book The King’s Speech: How one man saved the British Monarchy. Based on the diaries kept by Lionel Logue, and on his correspondence with George VI, the book was written after filming began, meaning it isn’t the source material behind the Academy Award winning film. While the movie dramatizes George VI’s struggle, the book was written by Mark Logue, Lionel’s grandson, to “tell the story of my grandfather’s life from his childhood in Adelaide, South Australia, in the 1880s right the way through to his death”.

Conradi and Logue’s book is a great source and complements the movie nicely, but the critical and popular success of the film has ensured that it receives more press than most period dramas and, as a result, that there is more written about its historical accuracy.

In order to examine them all, it is prudent to divide criticisms into two categories; the accuracy of the central relationship between Logue and Bertie depicted in their treatment sessions, and the historical events that serve as the background for their relationship, including the abdication and the rise of Hitler.

Most articles criticize The King’s Speech for its treatment of relevant events but pay little attention to the central relationship of Bertie and Lionel. The main change here is a tightening of chronology. The film begins their sessions in 1934, but Bertie actually began visiting Logue in 1926. By the early thirties his speech had improved so dramatically that he rarely visited Logue’s Harley Street premises, but when the abdication crisis resulted in his ascension to the throne, George VI again turned to Logue for help.

Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) and Bertie (Colin Firth) have a session.

Logue’s diaries did not record his sessions with the King, but scriptwriter David Seidler drew from his own experiences as a stutterer to decide on both the treatments Bertie would have tried, and on the methods Logue used with his patients. Seidler’s theories were confirmed when he learned that his uncle was a former patient of Logue’s and that the talk therapy depicted in the film was one of the methods the speech therapist had used.

Although it makes for a humourous scene in the film, Lionel’s wife Myrtle did, in fact, know about her husband’s most famous patient. She was even “presented” at court to Bertie’s parents in a show of gratitude for Lionel’s work and wrote an article for an Australian newspaper about the experience!

Another humourous moment is more accurate. At the film’s climax Bertie broadcasts a speech immediately after Britain’s Declaration of War against Germany but Lionel remarks that he made one mistake. While the exchange that follows did take place, it actually occurred after another speech given by the King in December 1944 to mark the disbanding of the Home Guard. The only mistake was a stumble over the ‘w’ in weapons.

“Afterwards Logue shook hands with the King and, after congratulating him, asked why that particular letter had proved such a problem.
‘I did it on purpose,’ the King replied with a grin.
‘On purpose?’ asked Logue, incredulous.
‘Yes. If I don’t make a mistake people might not know it was me.’” (p 200 *)

While the timeline has been compressed and the lack of formality in Bertie and Lionel’s friendship is likely exaggerated, they did remain friends until the end of their lives and the film is essentially accurate in this portrayal. However, press have focused on the historical events that provide the background for the film, and here The King’s Speech takes more liberties.

Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) supports her husband.

The biggest change is that Winston Churchill actually supported Edward VIII (later given the title the Duke of Windsor) during the abdication crisis. This was more dangerous than the film makes out because Bertie’s brother was not just spoiled and naive; he was also suspected of being a Nazi sympathiser. Even after his abdication and forced exile the British Government thought that the Duke of Windsor’s willingness to enter an alliance posed a threat and he was sent to govern the Bahamas. In his draft of a telegram informing the Prime Ministers of the Dominions that the Duke had been appointed Governor of the Bahamas, Churchill wrote “The activities of the Duke of Windsor on the Continent in recent months have been causing His Majesty and myself grave uneasiness, as his inclinations are well-known to be pro-Nazi and he may become a centre of intrigue.” The sentence was omitted from the final version.

As shown in The King’s Speech, Edward VIII’s father even doubted his eldest son’s ability to rule. Before his death, George V, said about his younger son Bertie and granddaughter Elizabeth, “I pray to God that my eldest son [Edward] will never marry and have children, and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne”. He also made a prediction about Edward, confiding to Prime Minister Baldwin that “After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself in 12 months.”

Churchill’s support of Edward VIII during the abdication crisis meant that George VI was, in turn, not a great supporter of Churchill. The Royal Family were in favour of a policy of appeasement, and after Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement he was invited to appear on the Palace balcony with George VI and his wife in a show of support. This endorsement of foreign policy by the Royal Family has been called “the most unconstitutional act by a British sovereign in the present century” by historian John Grigg.

Although the film undoubtedly takes liberties with historical facts, It remains a moving film with wonderful dialogue, a great cast, and a musical score that should be celebrated. It is important to acknowledge, discuss, and understand the inaccuracies present in The King’s Speech, but these deviations from historical fact don’t take away from the central story of Logue and George VI’s friendship and the King’s success in overcoming his crippling stammer.

Verdict: Its Oscar success was well-deserved. This is a film that everyone should see and the book is a wonderful complement for those interested in learning more.

The King’s Speech is released on DVD & Blu-Ray today.

The King’s Speech: How one man saved the British Monarchy by Conradi and Logue is available now.

* Peter Conradi and Mark Logue. The King’s Speech. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2010.



Filed under British History, Movies

Amazing Grace

This is my first review for the 2010 Period Drama Challenge hosted by Lights, Camera…History!

Set in the Georgian era, Amazing Grace tells the story of William Wilberforce (played by Ioan Gruffudd), a Member of Parliament who became a leader in the movement for abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain. Although discouraged by his latest defeat and physical ailment, Wilberforce is persuaded to tell the story of his anti-slavery campaign to the interested young Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai). The film then flashes back fifteen years to the beginning of Wilberforce’s political career.

Initially unable to decide between doing “God’s work” or the work of a political activist, he is encouraged by his old Preacher John Newton (Albert Finney), a former slave ship captain who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”, and by his friend William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch), who at 24 became the youngest Prime Minister of England, that he can do both. Fellow abolitionists Thomas Clarkson, Olaudah Equiano, and Pitt’s political rival Charles James Fox (Michael Gambon assist him in this long quest, but they have powerful opposition that includes the Duke of Clarence and Banastre Tarleton.

Wilberforce seeks John Newton's advice.

Watching Amazing Grace for the first time I actually rolled my eyes at the opening scene. In it Wilberforce, although clearly unwell, stops his carriage and trudges through the mud to tell a driver beating his horse that if he leaves it alone it may recover. This is the audience’s first glimpse of Wilberforce and defending an animal seemed like such a cliche way to introduce him as the hero of the piece. Much to my surprise, this scene did actually occur! William Wilberforce was not only a noted lover of animals but a founding member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (today the RSPCA).

Obviously my opinion of the movie improved as it went on and Amazing Grace has become one of my favourite films. Although it’s a minor detail, as an admirer of William Pitt the Younger I both noticed and was impressed by the fact that Pitt almost always has a glass in hand. After an attack of gout at fourteen, a doctor advised the future Prime Minister that a bottle of port a day was the cure. He continued to drink excessively throughout his life and Henry Addington (Prime Minister between 1801 and 1804) commented that “Mr. Pitt liked a glass of port very well, and a bottle better”.

Wilberforce and Pitt discuss politics.

An important turning point in the film occurs when Pitt throws a dinner party designed to encourage his friend to take on the abolition of the slave trade. Although a dinner did occur, it was organized not by Pitt but by Thomas Clarkson, who Wilberforce had already met. When asked to introduce the issue in Parliament, Wilberforce replied that he “had no objection to bring forward the measure in Parliament when he was better prepared for it, and provided no person more proper could be found”. Two months later he made his final decision to present a Bill and Pitt urged him on.

Amazing Grace includes Wilberforce’s illness, which is usually thought to have been colitis. Although he was dependent on opium all his life, Wilberforce claimed that it never effected his mind and his dosage did not increase over time. Despite the opium, his illness was a constant worry and the film depicts an argument between Wilberforce and Pitt when the former’s illness prevents him from presenting his Bill to Parliament. As Prime Minister, Pitt could not openly be seen to oppose the King and refuses to present the Bill in his friend’s place. In actuality, Wilberforce’s illness didn’t cause a rift but may have brought them closer together. Although Pitt carefully avoided giving his own opinion, he did argue in Parliament that the slave trade should be discussed. Wilberforce wrote,

“Pitt, with a warmth and of principle and friendship that have made me love him better than I ever did before has taken on himself the management of the business, and promises to do all for me if I desire it, that, if I were an efficient man, it would be proper for me to do myself.”

One of the more interesting aspects of the film is Barbara Spooner, who is presented as a passionate intellectual equal. Unfortunately Spooner, while physically attractive, was actually timid and made a poor hostess. The whirlwind courtship, however, is true. Despite an eighteen year age difference, Wilberforce fell deeply in love with Barbara on sight. Just eight days after they first met he proposed. The wedding occurred six weeks later.

Wilberforce tells his story to Barbara Spooner.

Amazing Grace also casts Home Secretary Henry Dundas as something of a villain for his betrayal of Pitt and Wilberforce by inserting the word “gradual” into the motion for abolition. Yet Dundas was one of Pitt’s best friends and allies. Pitt biographer William Hague even suggests that “gradual abolition” was certainly discussed between Pitt and Dundas and may even have been Pitt’s fallback plan after outright abolition was defeated in the House.

Amazing Grace is largely accurate, and those things it does change are lesser details, but I do have to wonder about the continued references to “Lord Charles Fox”. Fox always served in the House of Commons and never held the title ‘Lord’. Conversely, the Duke of Clarence (the future William IV), depicted in the House, was a son of the King and would have been a member of the House of Lords. Tarleton and Dundas are also given the title ‘Lord’ incorrectly. Other minor inaccuracies are the presence of Wilberforce at Pitt’s deathbed (unfortunately Wilberforce did not make it in time) and the last speech of the film, delivered in the House of Commons by Charles James Fox. Although it’s a lovely moment, Fox died only months after Pitt and was not alive in 1807 to give a speech praising Wilberforce.

Amazing Grace isn’t the world’s best film but it remains one of my all-time favourites. The cast is great, including legends like Michael Gambon and Albert Finney along side the queen of period dramas Romola Garai, and I continue to find it very touching. It could easily be just a religious film but by downplaying some of Wilberforce’s evangelism it is spiritual without being preachy. Although it plays with dates and details, Amazing Grace doesn’t omit or change anything that significantly alters the story and is largely an accurate tale of the political battle for the abolition of the slave trade. It is a film initially about youth, and then about perseverance and I highly recommend it.


Filed under British History, Period Drama Challenge