Monday morning, January 31, 2011
King George V abhorred the very thought of it. The inevitability of his son’s ascension to the throne gave him nightmares. His heir apparent. Succession written in stone. No options. When George died on January 20, 1936, that wayward son was recognized as monarch by a reluctant nation. King Edward VIII quickly fulfilled his father’s prophecies. But his Coronation was delayed. His reign lasted less than a year.
George V and Mary had two sons: Edward, a philanderer, and Albert, a stutterer. My recollection of this chapter in British history was hardly comprehensive; but I do remember the sentimental story of abdication. King Edward VIII voluntarily gave up his throne for the love of Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee, that same year. Since the King is head of the Church of England, such a marriage would trigger an intractable constitutional crisis. My shadowy memory of the 1936 affair seemed romantic if not noble – summed up in the quote heard round the world. Edward explained to an anxious nation, “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”
Ah – love trumps the throne. So very Shakespearian.
But if David Seidler’s screenplay is at all accurate, The King’s Speech paints a much different portrait of George V’s firstborn. Edward, the playboy, had no royal sense whatsoever. He was a daredevil, a womanizer, an inebriate, and a prodigal. King George feared his son would singlehandedly squander the royal estate and leave the kingdom in shambles. When George died, and the nation turned to Edward, the son balked. By romancing the flighty Ms. Simpson, he was not so much in pursuit of nobility – but rather – a way out.
The world faced a menace on both sides of the globe. Germany and Japan took advantage of their burgeoning economic prowess to expand their territory. Hitler emerged as a power player – willing to provoke the sensibilities of most every nation in Europe, goading the world towards armed conflict. Winston Churchill saw what most missed. Great Britain would soon be drawn into a terrible war. The nation needed a King. Edward ducked out the back door.
Next in line: Albert. The stammerer. Married to the lovely Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Albert had all the qualifications to succeed his brother save one: he could not speak without tripping over his words. The media now required royalty to be, as his father declared, an actor. Albert was crowned King George VI in May of 1937. The Prime Minister, the Archbishop, the courtly advisors all would do their best to cover up. But the people wanted to hear the voice of their new King just as they had his father – the articulate, forceful orator, King George V. During his reign, he comforted them with his dulcet baritone voice and clear diction over the wireless. Now it was George VI’s turn.
Albert, “Berttie” as he was known to his family, needed help. He tried every accepted methodology, suffering every indignity. The physicians and therapists attacked the speech impediment with a vengeance, to no avail. None could deal with perhaps the greatest contributor of all: the tyranny of British repression. That Anglo restraint. The stiff upper lip. The debilitating power of inner self-loathing. All embodied in his father’s brand of royal bravado.
It would take an unlettered Aussie with battlefield credentials to loosen up the King.
The King’s Speech is based on a true story. Lionel Logue, a real character (played by the incomparable Geoffrey Rush), was the Australian speech therapist who assisted King George VI throughout his life. The title, The King’s Speech, is a reference to an actual address made by George VI calling the nation to war against Germany on September 3, 1939 (Collin Firth reenacts the speech flawlessly and word perfect*). King George’s eldest daughter became HRH, Queen Elizabeth II.
I was moved and entertained. The film is deserving of all the accolades.
But most inspiring for me was the juxtaposition of the two brothers and their response to the high call of Royalty. The oldest avoided it with all his might. He found a convenient escape route. The other – reluctant, unsure, self-aware, flawed – let none of that keep him from stepping up. He worked hard. He took advice. He took his duty seriously.
When the country needed him, he was there. Ready.
And maybe that is the way it is with high call. If it doesn’t make us face our fears, if it doesn’t demand the best of us, if it doesn’t raise the bar, requiring us to overcome, well, maybe “the call” isn’t high enough.
Edward VIII was neither a noble nor a romantic (though apparently the marriage lasted). The playboy was a coward.
George VI? A King.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011