I’ve just seen The Kings Speech, the second movie after The Queen interfering with my simple desire to loath the Windsors. I’ve never met any of the Royal Family but as an institution they embody everything that makes my Irish blood boil. They carry the baggage of immense history and are the symbol of British power and imperialism. The 19th century Pax Britannica that cemented British power was a fabrication brutally enforced across the world in Victoria’s name. The monarch’s picture on the currency reinforced the symbolism behind the success of British commerce. (picture of Lionel Logue in 1930: Wikipedia)
Britain declined after Victoria’s death though its delusions of grandeur were more difficult to shake off. The laws of the land ensure Victoria's descendants have exclusive access to the throne and through it the power of the Anglican Church. They provide pomp and circumstance to a wider international power in a way the royal houses of Netherlands, Belgium and Scandinavia do not (only the Rainiers in Monaco come close) and they remain an important projection of British soft power. Though crippled by inbreeding, they have successfully outsourced glamour to the likes of Diana Spencer and Kate Middleton. The elaborate fairytale production of “Will and Kate” is designed to reinvent the British royal brand for the 21st century with the help of a compliant media.
Comfortable with my curmudgeonly view of Will’s grandmother Elizabeth II as a hand-shaking cipher for the throne who has seemingly lived for centuries, I did not have high hopes for Stephen Frears’ film The Queen which came out a few years ago. But I came away with an admiration as Helen Mirren transformed the queen into a competent and complex human. Watching it, John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance kicked in and I had much better understanding of the issues Elizabeth Windsor faced after the death of Diana.
The Veil is best exemplified by the metaphor “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”. But sooner or later you put your own shoes on. Frears’s film was ultimately not about the Queen or Diana but about the monarchy and its ambiguous position at the heart of Government. What power Elizabeth wielded was fleeting and a result of compromises and invented traditions which left the royals hidebound. The commoner Tony Blair knew quicker than they did the impact of not having the flag at half mast when Di died. He grasped, as they didn't the media's position on Diana, no matter how hypocritical. The media were mourning “the people’s princess” they never admitted they helped kill in the streets of Paris.
No matter how appalled they were by this, the royals could not complain. They want publicity just as much as they want privacy. Balmoral Castle where the family saw out Diana’s death features also in Tom Hooper’s The Kings Speech. The current Queen’s father George VI (Colin), then Prince Albert but known to the family as Bertie turns up to Balmoral for a party given by his brother, the new monarch Edward VIII known to the family as David (Guy Pearce). The party is a clash of cultures represented by the kilt-wearing traditionalist Bertie and the party boy David who was scandalising the court with his twice-divorced girlfriend Wallis Simpson (Eve Best).
In those days, the media ignored the peccadilloes of the Royals’ personal life. David and Bertie didn’t have to deal with paparazzi with long lenses and phone hacking techniques but they did have to deal with the technology that was changing the relationship of the rulers to the ruled. Before radio, the Royals were seen but not heard. But that was changing quickly. The first US radio station was set up in 1920 and the BBC started two years later. In 1932 Bertie’s father, George V (Michael Gambon) used the BBC to reluctantly give the first Royal Christmas Message.
Like his son Bertie, George V had an elder brother who was expected to become king. But when Prince Albert died of the flu in 1892, George was suddenly second in line after his father Edward VII. George could see something similar happening to his sons and his advice to Bertie was to master radio, because communication was the key to retaining “the firm’s” power. The problem was, as George well knew, Bertie had a serious stammer. This rendered him completely unable to project the firm's power through the airwaves. His stuttering 1925 British Empire Exhibition speech was an embarrassment for the speaker and listener alike.
His father was an intimidating presence, but Bertie did have one big supporter in his wife Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (Helena Bonham Carter). Elizabeth, the Queen Mother who died aged 101 in 2002, was a practical and intelligent woman who married into the firm with great reluctance in 1923 and who most unlike the current wedding, saw the newly created BBC kep away from her wedding. Elizabeth loved her husband but saw a succession of doctors fail to find a cure for Bertie's problem.
In desparation she sought out the unconventional Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a speech pathologist from Adelaide. Logue’s Irish roots and Australian lack of respect for traditions would help him deal with the prince on an equal footing, to the point where he was the only person outside the family to call him Bertie. As much psychologist as therapist, Logue delved deep into Bertie’s childhood psychoses to diagnose the archetypes that were causing his stammer: the cruel nanny, the missing mother, the harsh father and the taunting brother. Though not a doctor, Logue diagnosed poor co-ordination between the larynx and thoracic diaphragm and prescribed vocal exercises lasting an hour daily. The exercises gave Bertie the confidence to avoid tension-inducing muscle spasms that caused the stammer.
Logue more or less solved the public speaking problem by 1927, well before the time the film would suggest. Nevertheless he was retained throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The death of George V and subsequent abdication crisis of Edward VIII in 1936 brought Bertie to the throne as George VI. Logue helped him rehearse his acceptance speech and was also instrumental in the monarch’s triumphal speech on the declaration of war in 1939 and his even more influential Christmas Message that year. George mastered the communication and became an effective figurehead of an embattled community that needed real morale-boosting against the threat of Hitler.
The film gets its point over with some brilliantly cinematic tricks and the interaction between Rush, Firth and Bonham Carter is compelling. Once again I was forced to care about the king’s speech because Bertie was a living breathing person with lots of human faults. Yet I don’t think either of these films are turning me into an Australian monarchist. I was happy to take out Australian citizenship in 1994 after Keating removed the oath of allegiance to the crown. The idea the British queen or king should be head of the Australian state is an embarrassing anomaly.
Leaving Australia out of it, the royals biggest problem is to make themselves relevant outside of the redtop circus they have made a Faustian pact with. William Windsor’s great-grandfather was able to overcome this – and his own personal demons – by being the personification of leadership to a large imagined community in the time of great crisis. What, other than the supposedly mad one Charles, are the royals doing to contribute to solving today's crises?