Spoken Like a True Gentleman

Films like The King’s Speech can help to remedy the failure of our schools to teach history

Peter Whittle

While I was talking about history with my young niece and a couple of her friends (all of them educated at local comprehensives), it emerged that one of them thought that Henry VIII was the father of Queen Victoria. I am neither kidding nor exaggerating for effect. You’d think that even on a superficial level, on the basis of a cursory look at images of both, this guy might have been able to tell that styles of dress (let alone painting) couldn’t possibly go through such revolutionary changes within the space of a generation. But no: history, chronology, events — these were a generalised blur to him. The past isn’t just another country for such young people; it’s a forbidden planet. 

Not that these young people aren’t interested. Far from it — it’s the schools that have let them down. In fact, the downgrading of history teaching has happily not been matched by a lessening in the public appetite for popular history. So thank goodness for movies and TV for meeting this demand and in the process keeping the flame alive. Certainly, as a child, my own budding interest in the subject was helped along by watching Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth I and counting off The Six Wives of Henry VIII on the BBC.  The importance of using history as a basis for entertainment in this way, even if it occasionally embellished upon for dramatic effect, should not be underestimated. 

The latest piece of British history to get the big-screen treatment is The King’s Speech, a sympathetic account of the attempts by George VI (Bertie to his family and friends) to conquer his acute stammer, and in particular the singular relationship which grew up between him and his unorthodox Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue. This is certainly not one of the more swashbuckling chapters in our island story — it barely counts as a footnote — so it is testament to the skill of the writer David Seidler and the director Tom Hooper that the end result is so absorbing, and that we find ourselves taking it as seriously as we do. 

Not that the film is without humour. The whole thing has a jaunty air, a slight wry smile throughout, which nevertheless manages not to mock the characters it portrays. Much has been made in the media of the scenes where George, played by Colin Firth, is encouraged by Logue (Geoffrey Rush) to use four-letter words to unlock his verbal inhibitions. I imagine his daughter, whom we see here as a child, would not be amused by this, but really it is innocent enough. In any case, the real fun is to be had in spotting the various personalities of the era and seeing how well they have been matched up to the better-known names at British Establishment Central Casting. 

Chief among these is Helena Bonham Carter as Bertie’s wife Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother). Playful yet determined and utterly steely, her portrayal has the air of complete truthfulness about it. As George V, Michael Gambon is more benevolent than was probably the case, and Claire Bloom’s screen presence is simply too soft and warm to breathe sufficient ice into the character of Queen Mary. But Anthony Andrews makes a fabulous Baldwin, and on the basis of his performance here, I see a long line of Churchill projects in the offing for Timothy Spall.

But it is Firth’s film, and he is on screen for virtually all of it. Physically more imposing than the real king, he nevertheless conveys brilliantly the brittleness and petulance that gave rise to the monarch’s famous bouts of temper. He begins as not especially sympathetic, but by the time he makes his first wartime speech we have come to know him so well we are willing him on. There are wonderful touches: mindful of the King’s shyness and nerves before this important speech, Logue ensures that the lofty state room at the palace from which the broadcast is to be made is reduced, by the use of dark curtains and soundproof padding, to the size of a cozy booth. 

Just as The Queen was the best bit of PR the present monarch could have hoped for in recent years, so this film will do more to enhance George VI’s already solid historical standing than any number of biographies. It will also be yet another nail in the coffin of what remains of Edward VIII’s reputation. This has just been shredded in the superb TV adaptation of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, which portrayed the Windsors as a stupid, ghastly and pinched couple. In The King’s Speech, Edward is played by Guy Pearce as vain, vacuous and trivial. To think, for decades Edward and Wallis were up there with Anthony and Cleopatra and Burton and Taylor as one of the great romantic couples, wronged by history. The film confirms what many always thought: what a near-miss that was. 

Finally, a brief word about a very worthwhile documentary feature that might already have gone from cinema screens but which should be available on DVD. Enemies of the People is an exploration of the killing-fields of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. It centres on the decade-long attempt by the journalist Thet Sambath to track down and confront those responsible for the mass murder under Pol Pot, from his right-hand man down to the local peasants simply carrying out orders. The matter-of-factness of the executioners, willing or otherwise, whom he interviews is chilling. The murderousness of communist dictatorships continues to be shamefully neglected by filmmakers, documentary or otherwise, so this is unusual and not to be missed. 

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