A stammerer's appreciation of The King's Speech
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In praise of the one film that has ever taken any trouble to address an ironically silent minority...
Noting Shadowlocked writer Graham Taylor's indictment of The King's Speech as a prototypically cynical Oscar-fishing expedition, I could only concur. The one thing standing in the way of my total approbation of the article was the fact that I hadn't actually seen the film. Having rectified that minor oversight of research, I am surprised to find myself very much on the other side of the fence to Graham. Unlike him, however, I can't argue for any kind of majority view, but only that 1% of the population who share the immense social obstacle that King George VI (Colin Firth) had to contend with as a new and terrible global war demanded an erudite and inspiring leader.
A stammerer in the schoolyard is a bully's dream, as well as an ill-omen for normal or romantic networking in the future. Sharp consonants bestrew one's path like boulders the size of the one at the start of Raiders Of The Lost Ark; even the people who don't make fun of you finish your sentences for you - and it's actually more painful when they guess right than wrong, because it ejects you from a conversation that it was bloody hard to get into in the first place.
As a child, I was unfortunate enough to have as my speech therapist a mesmerising and charming young woman under whose professionalism and good-natured ministrations I was utterly unable to once reproduce my persistent and socially-crippling speech defect, even in an entire summer of therapy. As any sufferer knows, it's a 'contextual' disability that can neither by encouraged nor easily impeded.
The 'PC' culture would have a brief flourish in the 1980s, but really it was still decades away, and every speech-deficient role model that turned up in movies or (more usually) on TV was a mixed blessing, since their worth as an esteem-booster for the stammerer was counterbalanced by the inevitability of being associated with them in endless playground mimickry.
For a long time, all I had was the 'proto-geek', the socially dysfunctional 'Brains' from Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds, sending the square-jawed heroes skyward from his lab on Tracey Island. It wasn't until the BBC began broadcasting arguably their finest ever historical drama, I Claudius, in 1976, that I found the speech-deficient icon who would give me any encouragement to believe that content might be more enduring than presentation in this life. Derek Jacobi's career-defining turn as the reluctant 'fool' emperor - who in reality was fooled by no-one in his bizarre political career except a scheming woman (and hey, that could happen to any emperor) - this was history. Claudius had existed; and if I was to later find that his life had other aspects less admirable, even then I could write them off as a corollary of the era and its mores.
In later years, no, I wasn't offended or embarrassed by Eric Idle's stammering jailkeep in Monty Python's Life Of Brian, or Michael Palin's ineffectual and speech-impeded terrorist in A Fish Called Wanda. I loved the Pythons, and comedy is excused everything and anything if it's genuinely funny.
At a marginalised 1% of the population, sufferers from stammering (or stuttering, as it was more often called in the 1970s) can never really hope to find their own plight dramatised in anything more than a 'movie of the week', and frankly the condition is - rightly - way back in the queue behind genuinely life-threatening ailments, so even that's a lot to ask.
Thus it was that I was surprised to find quite how much of Oscar contender The King's Speech is really devoted to the titular ailment of the reluctant monarch King George VI - and with the episodic and difficult nature of his therapy with unorthodox speech-specialist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). This film represents the first time I can ever recall seeing the process of speech therapy portrayed on screen, except in instances related to strokes and other more life-threatening illnesses that are inevitably likelier fodder for 'disease pictures'.
Is The King's Speech worth an Oscar because it is meaningful to me and that fraction of the population who are emotionally invested in its subject matter? Probably not. And I can well understand the diffidence with which a non-sufferer may view the plight of the central character as yet another Oscar-leaning attempt to play to the viewing public's spirit of charity.
That fund is never more exploited than in this period of the year. There is a certain 'worthiness' abroad in Hollywood between late November and early March, a kind of extended, faux 'Christmas spirit' wherein it abandons its favourite mainstays ('tits', 'explosions' and 'tits' - I know I said it twice, but Hollywood really likes tits) for the more cerebral and psycho-emotional aspects of life. And, most especially, of history.
So it was with a certain resignation that I set to try and appreciate The King's Speech in spite of all the boxes that it so enthusiastically ticks in the service of Academy Award recognition: historical drama dealing with pretty much the last period in history when British life was of any international interest (with the possible exception of a few years in the 1960s) - check; sober judgement and remembrance of WWII - check; Helena Bonham Carter in period costume (and I thought she had got past all this British Imperial output in the wake of Fight Club) - check.
Minority appeal: check. Except that this time, just for once, I was the minority in question. So in the end, I can't argue with Graham's position that The King's Speech seems a rather 'pat' project purposely designed for Oscar-time. But in a climate where so many films are aimed at the alienation and social obstacles that teenagers feel so keenly, I wonder how many of them, like me, were kept away from this film because of what it looked like, when it actually offers a wider insight into the pain of being accepted in social life that transcends the condition of its central character.
We who approach the spoken word with caution will probably have to make do with The King's Speech as our inspirational movie for a very long time, since I can't immediately think of any other set of circumstances in history where the conquest of this affliction had such national - even global - importance. Therefore I'm glad that there is considerable humour and charm in the one film that has brought the attention of the public to the difficulty of sufferers with sympathy and insight.
I never felt any particular urge to discuss my history of stammering in an article until now; after nearly thirty years, it rarely comes back to haunt me, except on the most exhausting or nerve-racking of occasions. But I do remember back when I needed a hero and had to settle for the mixed blessing of Clau-Clau-Claudius. It would have been very encouraging, as a child, to know exactly what the King himself had, once upon a time, had to go through in order to do what he needed to do.
If The King's Speech sweeps the Oscars, it may be well-deserved, or a customary late-winter travesty. But it's the only bloody film I've ever seen that gave any catharsis to a condition which made my life difficult for decades. So, worthless as such an uncounted and biased vote surely is, The King's Speech has mine.
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