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Mary Kenny: Conquering fear is vocal point of 'King's Speech'


Colin Firth in a scene from 'The King's Speech', in which he plays King George VI

Colin Firth in a scene from 'The King's Speech', in which he plays King George VI

Colin Firth in a scene from 'The King's Speech', in which he plays King George VI

Whether you are fascinated by the British monarchy, whether you dislike the whole farrago of "the royals", or whether you are mightily indifferent to the entire institution, there is one point in its favour that must be conceded: the film about King George VI and his dreadful stammer is working wonders for anyone with a speech defect.

'The King's Speech' -- starring the gorgeous Colin Firth and the forceful Geoffrey Rush -- is expected to sweep the boards at all forthcoming movie awards, including, and unexpectedly, the Oscars. It's been a surprise hit in America, where initially it was regarded as "touching on the most conservative chords of period drama", as 'The New Yorker' critic put it.

But it has also touched a chord, resonating with a wider constituency of those who have ever suffered from a stammer, a stutter, or even a lisp: or indeed, who have ever felt frozen with fright about the prospect of giving a public talk.

'The King's Speech' might even have been subtitled "Stammerers of the world unite!" because of its ability to make the audience identify with anyone with the affliction of a speech defect. In consequence, a variety of individuals with a stammer or a stutter, from the Sinologist expert Jonathan Mirsky to 'Irish Times' columnist Fintan O'Toole, have come out of the closet about their struggles with their own speech impediments.

So it's a film about compassion, and about overcoming a personal handicap. No wonder it has proved so popular. Obviously, it is also about royalty, as, historically, it has to be. And about a royal house at a dramatic moment in its history -- when Edward VIII abdicated, in 1936, to marry his twice-divorced paramour Wallis Simpson.

His shy, stammering brother Bertie (father of the present Queen Elizabeth) had then to succeed to the throne. Bertie's speech impediment was appalling until he was helped by the unorthodox Australian voice coach Lionel Logue.

At one point, Logue was something of a celebrity in Ireland. When Bertie, as George VI, died in 1952, 'The Irish Press', the de Valera newspaper, focused particularly on Logue's contribution to the late King's improved fluency in public speaking.

Logue was an Irish-Australian, and his uncle was Archbishop Logue of Dublin, who had been a towering figure in Ireland in the early years of the 20th century (he died in 1924).

Eamon de Valera's republican newspaper also gave George VI a warm sequence of obituary notices and accorded him the full 16 days of mourning in the 1952 newspaper reports. As usual with de Valera's cast of mind, there was a complex mixture of a political agenda and human sympathy behind this elaborate tribute: Dev did not approve of the way in which the previous Fine Gael/Clann na Poblachta government had broken with the Commonwealth in 1948, much to the distress of the king, and Dev wanted to show his opposition to the opposition.

Dev always maintained that he would have kept the Commonwealth link as a bridge-building exercise with Northern Ireland (he was also aware that making a final break with the Commonwealth had upset many southern Irish Protestants). But Dev had also had cordial relations with George VI: both of them had been supporters of Neville Chamberlain rather than Churchill.

Bertie, as King George, was also good friends with the Irish High Commissioner John Dulanty, possibly the most skillful diplomat who has ever served this country. Before his coronation in 1937, Bertie confided many of his personal fears to Mr Dulanty, explaining what an ordeal it was for him -- he couldn't even have a quiet fag between the gaps in the four-and-a-half-hour ceremony! (John Dulanty had also endeared himself to Bertie by being on good terms with Queen Mary, the king's kleptomaniac mother; he plied her with information and gossip about the world of antiques, which obsessed her).

The movie itself is not historically accurate in every detail, and it is particularly hostile to Edward VIII, who may have been a weak character but was widely adored as Prince of Wales.

But of course the elder brother did tease Bertie about his stammer, and that is the point of the movie. It's a story about a stammerer having to speak upon a world stage, and as such, it has done something positively heroic for anyone with any speech disability.

Irish Independent