Film & TVEmail This Article Print This Article

The King’s Stammer

Paul Sweeten

The King's SpeechTom Hooper
The King’s Speech
See-Saw Films, 2010
118 minutes

Winston Churchill, John Updike, Philip Larkin, and Marilyn Monroe all stammered, but with the exception of Larkin, who spoke in recordings with slight hesitations, it is impossible to detect that these people ever suffered with their speech. They simply outgrew or otherwise learned to negotiate their impediments by adulthood, as did Rowan Atkinson, Jonathan Miller, Bruce Willis, and James Earl Jones. One public figure who did not, however, was the reluctant King George VI, whose Empire Exhibition speech at Wembley Stadium in 1925 was by all accounts torturous for all concerned. The occasion is depicted in the opening scenes of Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, a moving portrayal of the monarch’s friendship with Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue. Already tipped for Oscar nominations, its power derives from the restrictive and oppressive nature of stammers.

There is something of the school playground here. Like braces or freckles, a stammer is something one ought to outgrow. A source of moderate embarrassment of the very worst kind, for one is always suffering but never a victim, they are also a practical hindrance, one that lies dormant inside the sufferer until he is obliged to speak. Alcohol aggravates them, stress makes them worse. What makes stammers chronic, it seems, is hearing them begin from one’s own mouth. But perhaps the cruellest fate of the stutterer is that he is denied some of the simplest pleasures of self-expression.

From reading to his children to public speaking to the very basics of polite conversation (if only “please” didn’t begin with a plosive!), our protagonist George VI (known throughout as Bertie) is left feeling not only that he is a bad articulator, but that the roots of his articulations—his thoughts, hopes, and fears—are somehow deficient if they cannot be well-expressed. Told only to “spit it out” by his father, Bertie fumbles his feelings as much as his words.

The music of Bertie’s stammer—when and to what extent he struggles—acts as a Geiger counter to his emotional state in any given scene. Relatively comfortable with his family at first, he is later dumbstruck following the death of his father and the subsequent behaviour of his brother, who assumes the throne amidst controversy surrounding his engagement to a twice-divorced American socialite.

The stammer eventually becomes a tormenter which threatens to overrule Bertie at his nation’s hour of need. The looming ordeal of a required wartime radio address—a nine minute broadcast—creates a discomforting suspense that one struggles to imagine could be drawn from the simple act of reading aloud. But stutterers will know that reading aloud would have been to Bertie what revenge was to Hamlet: it is the thing he must do, wants to do, but the very thing against which his whole heart is guarded.

What we ask of Bertie is not that he galvanise a crowd or electrify the airwaves with an address worthy of Henry V, but that he simply speak. To do so uninhibited is an exercise rarely indulged by even the most eloquent among us, for while we all fret over the weight of our opinions and guard against the vulnerability of confiding in others, Bertie finds these insecurities buried beneath his anxiety of speech itself. Hooper’s film offers the view that stammering is not born of hesitation, and while it may be worsened by nerves, it is itself not the product of a nervous disposition. In a demonstration of the peculiar miracle of speech, its final scenes remind us that our contentment is so often reflected in the ability to articulate, both to ourselves and to others, what it is we want to say.

Paul Sweeten graduated in 2010 with an MSt in Creative Writing from Kellogg College, Oxford. Paul is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.