Thursday 20 July 2017

Last night’s TV: The Kid's Speech

Sally Newall reviews The Kid's Speech (BBC One), a moving documentary about the work of The Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children in London.

William and his parents Paul and Ann Earthy
William and his parents Paul and Ann Earthy

The King’s Speech may have swept the board at this year’s Oscars, but the film did more than catapult its star Colin Firth onto Hollywood’s Most Wanted list: it helped to raise awareness of the struggle that stammerers face to overcome the condition.

While viewers of the Oscar-laden film were left to imagine George VI's younger years with the impediment, The Kid's Speech, a moving BBC One documentary, comprehensively addressed the impact of a stammer in childhood.



It documented the work of the Michael Palin Centre For Stammering Children in London. We were spared the former Python in his enthusiastic tourist guise; we learnt simply that his father had suffered from stammering and this had inspired Palin to help other families. This was all about the children's efforts to show that, like Firth's King George in the famous passage from the film, they "have a voice".



The documentary followed three children and their families on an intensive two-week course at the centre. Ten-year-old dinosaur-loving Reggie whose stammer meant he had withdrawn from his five brothers and sisters; William, 11, a talented footballer who viewed his speech problems as a sign of failure; and 14-year-old Bethan, for whom adolescence with a severe stammer was proving a lonely experience.



Despite the predictable title, the film distanced itself from the big-screen effort that perpetuated the idea that a stammer is down to nurture – in George VI's case, his domineering father George V. “It’s the brain function, it’s not about the styles of parenting,” said the speech and language therapist from the centre, with the tone of someone who has had the same dinner party conversation too many times.



This film was as much about parents as about the children. When the mothers and fathers were asked to mimic their own child’s stammer, the alarming accuracy of the impressions hammered home just how keenly they felt their kids' daily struggle. In the 21st century clinic, the methods we saw used were not as flamboyant as those employed by Lionel Logue. There was no singing or swearing in the pursuit of fluency. There was just a lot of painstaking practice.



The two weeks culminated with the children giving a speech to the room in front of their peers, parents, Palin and Ed Balls, once a stammerer himself, who we learnt still cannot start a sentence with an "H". Jacket off and politics aside, the Shadow Chancellor proved an unlikely calming presence for the parents worrying about their child's future career prospects.



Of course there was no Hollywood ending. No triumphant fluent speech. But there was progress – from Reggie on a birthday tour of the Natural History Museum proudly exchanging knowledge with the paleontologist, to William declaring that his stammer would not upset him anymore. Unlike Firth’s George VI, by the end of this uplifting film – which was unfairly consigned to the 10.35pm graveyard slot – the children still had a long way to go. But at least we knew they had the best possible start. Or, as Reggie put it. “Things are easier, because I’m better at talking.”



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