The King’s SpeechBMJ 2011; 342 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d456 (Published 21 January 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d456
- David Payne, editor, bmj.com
Tom Hooper’s film spans a 14 year battle in the life of the current Queen’s father to conquer a childhood stammer (triggered by a bullying nanny and ridicule from his father and siblings), with the help of Lionel Logue, an unorthodox Australian speech therapist.
Starring Colin Firth as Bertie (King George VI), it opens with his disastrously stilted speech, when Duke of York, to the 1925 Empire Exhibition at Wembley. The newly wed duke could reasonably look forward to a life of relative royal obscurity with his wife Elizabeth (played by Helena Bonham Carter). Bonham Carter bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Queen Mother and shows signs of the smiling steeliness that later led Hitler to describe her as “the most dangerous woman in Europe.”
This plan is shattered in 1936 when Bertie’s elder brother, David, abdicates after just 11 months as King Edward VIII to marry the US divorcée Wallis Simpson. The shy duke is forced on to the throne. Logue coaches the reluctant monarch through his 1937 coronation in Westminster Abbey and his first wartime radio broadcast to the empire two years later.
Bertie’s relationship with his therapist is pivotal to the film. It is entirely on Logue’s terms and devoid of the deference that the royal couple initially demanded. Sessions take place at Logue’s rundown Harley Street practice rather than in the discreet precincts of a royal palace.
The uptight duke is encouraged to sing rather than speak, to waltz round the room while reading aloud. Logue bans smoking and insists on calling his patient Bertie. The duke, horrified by his therapist’s familiarity, grudgingly agrees.
Logue is part speech therapist, part psychoanalyst, perhaps bringing Australian notions of mateship, with its qualities of equality, loyalty, and friendship, to the consulting room.
He certainly crosses a professional boundary, wheedling from the king an admission that he knows nothing about the lives of his subjects and that he is friendless. The king’s naivety assumes that any therapist asked to help the royal family is medically qualified. On the eve of his coronation he angrily confronts Logue in Westminster Abbey.
His aides had researched Logue’s background and discovered that Logue is not a doctor. Logue had never claimed to be one. An actor manqué, he had been asked to help shellshocked Australian soldiers overcome speech problems after their return home from the first world war. How different is the king—like the Australian soldiers, damaged by traumatic events and struggling to rediscover a voice?
One of the film’s most touching scenes is when Logue’s wife, Myrtle (played by Jennifer Ehle) returns home unexpectedly to find the king and queen in her house. She had no idea that her husband was helping the sovereign overcome a speech impediment. He had meticulously protected patient confidentiality.
The film is in some ways reminiscent of an earlier film about the mental health of another English king called George: Nicholas Hytner’s 1994 adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of King George, starring Nigel Hawthorne as King George III. Logue’s unorthodox approach is similar to that of the physician Francis Willis, who treats his royal patient as he would any other (in this case subjecting him to a regime of fresh air and physical labour, blistering of the skin, and restraint in a straitjacket).
Both Georges are portrayed as genial family men, and in real life both kings kept in touch with their former healers. In Hytner’s film, however, the “cured” George III, in one of his first public appearances since leaving Dr Willis’s care, memorably refuses to maintain eye contact with his doctor.
Unlike Hytner’s film The King’s Speech is not a film about medicine, but Bertie’s ultimate dependence on Logue is due in part to the fact that the medical profession, certainly in the view of Elizabeth, had failed him. She first approaches Logue after an early scene that depicts a doctor forcing marbles into Bertie’s mouth on the grounds that it worked for the Greek orator Demosthenes, who also had a speech impediment.
The interwar setting of the film predates Richard Doll’s 1950 BMJ paper that first identified smoking as an important cause of cancer and other diseases (BMJ 1950;ii:739, doi:10.1136/bmj.2.4682.739), and the royal doctor tells him that “smoking calms the nerves and gives you confidence.”
Bertie underwent a pneumonectomy after the discovery of a malignant tumour in his left lung in 1951. He died, aged 56, a year later.
The informal relationship between the two men serves a dramatic purpose. The film ends with Bertie’s successful first wartime radio broadcast. Logue, proud of his friend the king, addresses him for the first time as “your majesty,” providing confirmation that his mission is accomplished, that he has transformed a shy and stammering duke into a confident and inspiring regal orator.
Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d456
The King’s Speech
A film directed by Tom Hooper
On general release