George VI’s last appearance; and The King’s Speech

I had planned to publish this post today anyway, after watching the film two weeks ago, but Thursday’s news makes it all the more appropriate. I’m not especially a royalist – I decided not to renew my British passport in 2017 – but there are some parts of the story that fascinate me on a human level. For instance, let me take you to the other end of the late Queen’s reign: here is the determinedly upbeat newsreel reporting the departure of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip for Kenya on 31 January 1952, the start of a world tour that was intended to last for months.

This was the last public appearance of King George VI. He looks, frankly, in awful shape. He had turned 56 the previous month, and lost a lung earlier in the previous year. There is dark apprehension on his face throughout the entire three minutes of the newsreel, culminating in his bleak gaze at the plane taking his daughter away from him at the end. His death less than a week later may have come as a shock to the wider world, but watching the film, and knowing what we do now, it’s difficult to avoid the impression that he himself was aware at some level that he would never see Elizabeth again.

My project of watching the Oscar-winning films in sequence takes us from the historical closure of George VI’s reign to the fictional treatment of its beginning, The King’s Speech won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2010 and three others, Best Director (Tom Hooper), Best Actor (Colin Firth) and Best Original Screenplay (David Seidler), tying with Inception for four statuettes on the night. There were nine other films in contention for Best Picture; I have seen Hugo finalists Inception and Toy Story 3, but none of the others, which were 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Fighter, The Kids Are All Right, The Social Network, True Grit, and Winter’s Bone. In fact, apart from the Hugo finalists, I don’t think I have seen any other films made in 2010.

IMDB users rank it 8th on one system but only 41st on the other. I must say that I love it, and, to cut to the chase, I am putting it right at the top of my personal ranking of Oscar winners, in third place, after The Sound of Music and Casablanca, but before An American in Paris. I like it much more than Inception, or any of the year’s other Hugo finalists.

There are several actors returning from previous Oscar winners. Colin Firth, the King here, was Kirstin Scott Thomas’s husband Geoffrey Clifton in The English Patient.

The other male lead, Geoffrey Rush, playing Lionel Logue here, was Philip Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love.

Guy Pearce is George VI’s brother Edward VIII here, and last year was Thompson, they guy who gets blown up at the start of The Hurt Locker.

The royal parents, George V and Queen Mary, both appeared in Doctor Who episodes that same year, 2010. Claire Bloom played the mysterious character in The End of Time, David Tennant’s swan song shown on Christmas Day 2009 and New Year’s Day 2010, who is identified by Russell T. Davies as the Doctor’s mother.

Michael Gambon, George V here, played the bad guy in Matt Smith’s first Christmas special, A Christmas Carol, shown at the end of 2010. He was also doing a lot of Dumbledoring around this time.

The only actor here to have managed both Doctor Who and another Oscar-winning film is Derek Jacobi, here Archbishop Lang, previously Senator Gracchus in Gladiator, and Professor Yana and briefly the Master in Doctor Who.

There’s a few more Doctor Who crossovers (Andrew Havill, David Bamber, Patrick Ryecart, possibly others) but let’s move on.

The film is about the relationship between Bertie, Duke of York, who had a difficult speech impediment, and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, an unqualified Australian. Bertie unexpectedly becomes King George VI when his brother abdicates after their father’s death, and overcomes his stammer to unite Britain and the Empire in the face of Nazi Germany and the Second World War. It is loosely (see below) based on historical events, with the flow of history interrupted by the channels of artistic licence.

I love most of this film, but I don’t love Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill. In real life Churchill was not prime minister until after the film ends and was out of government for most of the period it covers; there is no way that he would have been at most of the events and conversations he is depicted as having here. Yeah, yeah, I know, you can’t make a movie about the (origins of the) Second World War without somewhat over-Churchilling it. But I felt that this went a bit far. On top of that, Spall’s depiction is pretty much caricature, compared even to Ian McNiece in that year’s Doctor Who, let alone John Lithgow more recently in The Crown.

My historian’s soul twitches at other truncations of history. Most obviously, the film starts in 1925 and ends in 1939, yet the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret do not age, and in general you feel that it is set over a period of weeks and months rather than years. As I discovered from reading the book, the relationship between the Duke/King and Logue was much smoother going in real life, with most of the tension between them invented for the screen. Of course, the makers of fictional drama do need to insert drama somewhere.

And Myrtle Logue knew about it all along, which means the single best and funniest scene of the film, when she comes home early to find the queen of England in her living room, is completely fictional. In reality the Logues started to attend palace events from 1928; by the time this scene is set, in 1937, she would have known the new queen for almost a decade.

Logue did attend and assist King George VI for his radio broadcasts during the war, so the climactic final speech at the start of the war on 3 September 1939, accompanied by the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, with Logue conducting his articulation, is a bit closer to history. In fact the Director-General of the BBC was there too – those were the days when a DG knew how to fix a mike – but the music probably was not.

And that takes me to two of the things I particularly love about the film, the music and the cast. I am easily pleased by respectful and appropriate use of some of my favourite classical pieces; Beethoven’s Seventh has been mentioned, also his Emperor Concerto, Mozart’s Overture for the Marriage of Figaro and his Clarinet Concerto (though cutting off just before you get to the clarinet). Purists may sneer that these are just exactly the classical pieces that you would put into a film to easily please the crowds, but I am not ashamed of being pleased.

I’ve identified most of the key cast above, Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and so on, and they are all brilliant (with one exception, which has been noted). But the one I haven’t mentioned so far is Helena Bonham-Carter, whose great-grandfather was the prime minister who appointed Winston Churchill to his first cabinet job. She’s one of my favourite actresses anyway (not quite at the level of Juliette Binoche, but who could be?) and I think this is one of her absolute top performances, as the Duchess of York / Queen Elizabeth. Helena Bonham-Carter is less than a year older than me, so must remember the real Queen Mother well – she lived to 2002 – and has done a fantastic job of catching her mannerisms and investing them with more depth and character, if I dare say it, that the original may have had. (Freya Wilson as the young Princess Elizabeth is delightful too.)

Incidentally, Helena Bonham-Carter and Juliette Binoche appear never to have acted in the same film. Spooky or what?

I’ve saved the thing I like most about the film until last, because it’s much more personal to me. There is a big gulf between the disabilities in my own immediate family and the speech impediment suffered by George VI. But I have become acquainted with speech therapists, and I love the fact that the film makers didn’t tell a story about a man being “cured”; they told the story of him learning to live with disability, and getting on with his life, and coping with it as an extra burden when circumstances called on him to do extraordinary things. Sure, he was immensely privileged, but the film makes it very clear that that is not sufficient. Yes, I’m sometimes a sucker for sentimentality.

I read the book on which the film was loosely based less than ten years ago, so I’m not going to reread it this time. Its title is The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy, which ever-so-slightly overpromises. The second paragraph of its third chapter is:

It was only by chance — and another of the spontaneous decisions that shaped his life — that Logue, by then employed as an instructor in elocution at the Perth Technical School, had found himself aboard the Hobsons Bay. He and a doctor friend had planned to take their families away for a holiday together. The Logue family’s bags were packed and their car ready to go when the telephone rang: it was the doctor.

In 2015, I wrote:

A nice little book to go with the film, though this is not a novelisation but a biography of Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue by his grandson (who never knew him) and a Sunday Times journalist. It’s a fascinating and intricate story of reverse migration – at a time when Australia was still absorbing newcomers from Britain, Logue and his family went in the opposite driection, to try and carve out a career in a new field for which he had no professional qualifications; and he succeeded, and what’s more, he made a lot of people’s lives better, one of whom unexpectedly became King of England.

The film, of course, telescoped the time line and injected dramatic elements to the story where they were needed. One of the most cheering things to find out was that Logue and the Duke of York were friends pretty much from the start; the plotline of the duke needing to be convinced that Logue’s therapy was worth trying was more or less invented for dramatic licence. It is, however, true that Logue was in attendance for the new king’s first radio speeches from Sandringham. It was also rather heartwarming to read their continued warm correspondence even after the king no longer needed Logue’s professional services.

I thought I spotted a Northern Ireland link, but it turned out to be bogus: in the mid-1920s the comptroller of the Duke of York’s household was one Captain Basil Brooke. Was this, I wondered, the future Prime Minister of Northern Ireland? Wikipedia seemed to indicate a gap in his political career in the mid-1920s which was just the right fit; also his highest military rank, achieved in 1920, was Captain. However, further digging revealed that the comptroller was a navy man (and in fairness an exalted naval captain is a more likely candidate for uch a post than a humble army captain), who was Rear Admiral Sir Basil Brooke by 1928. Wikipedia lists two Royal Navy officers of that name and roughly the right age, one born in 1882 and one born in 1895, but neither of them seemed quite right – certainly neither was a Rear Admiral in 1928. It turns out that the royal official was yet another naval Basil Brooke, the first cousin once removed of the future Northern Ireland Prime Minister, born in 1876 and living until 1945. His wife Olave is the subject of a painting by Australian artist George W. Lambert, The Red Shawl.

Next up in this sequence is the Oscar-winning film The Artist; the Hugo and Bradbury awards both went to 2011 TV shows rather than films (Game of Thrones and The Doctor’s Wife) so I’ll be skipping them.

Winners of the Oscar for Best Picture

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014) | Spotlight (2015) | Moonlight (2016) | The Shape of Water (2017) | Green Book (2018) | Parasite (2019)
2020s: Nomadland (2020) | CODA (2021) | Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)