The film The King’s Speech, which is due to appear in the UK in January, tells the story of George VI’s struggle to overcome his stammer.
The film The King’s Speech, which is due to appear in the UK in January, tells the story of George VI’s struggle to overcome his stammer. The speech therapist who cured the King was an Australian called Lionel Logue, and Mark Logue is his grandson. This book grew out of the researches that he began when the film-makers approached him for information.
Lionel Logue was an amateur actor and elocution teacher who made a career teaching Australians how to speak correctly, back in the long vanished days when they were ashamed of their lazy diction and half-open mouths. After the first world war, Logue successfully treated returning soldiers who had been gassed and left unable to speak. This was the beginning of modern speech therapy. Logue had no medical training and little money, but he took a huge risk and moved to London, where he rented a consulting room in Harley Street. Two years later, in 1926, he was approached to treat the speech impediment of the 30-year old Bertie, Duke of York, later George VI (Colin Firth in the film).
The Duke had stammered atrociously since the age of eight. It was a handicap which effectively disqualified him from public life. He was unable to say the word ‘king’ — a serious problem for someone in his position (and no doubt a perfect hook for the film). The stammering went back to the Duke’s repressive childhood. A left-hander forced to write right-handed, he was abused by his nanny, terrorised by his father (George V), and outshone by his glamorous older brother (Edward VIII). At naval college, where he was bullied, he came 68th out of 68. He was invalided out of the navy during the first world war on account of a stomach ulcer, so he saw no real action. When he married Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, aka Helena Bonham Carter, he was a psychological wreck. She rescued him, but even the indomitable Elizabeth was unable to stop him stuttering.
When Lionel Logue agreed to treat the Duke, he insisted that, contrary to protocol, the royal patient must come to his consulting room. This was a shrewd move, as it meant that they met on equal terms. To the Duke’s relief, Logue told him that the causes of the stammer were physical, not mental. He suffered from faulty breathing, and Logue assured him that it could be cured. The Duke, who was a conscientious fellow, worked doggedly at the incredibly tedious speech exercises which Logue gave him, and learned to explore the lower reaches of his diaphragm. Six months later, when he set out on a make-or-break tour of Australia — his first really big royal engagement — he triumphed over the dreaded stutter. He even managed to pronounce the word ‘king’. He had no more need of Logue.
Flash forward to the Abdication Crisis of 1936. The reluctant, stage-shy Duke is forced to fill the throne left vacant when his self-indulgent brother Edward VIII bunks off with Wallis Simpson. Enemies started a whispering campaign that George VI was a half-wit who could barely speak. This made the prospect of the Coronation doubly terrifying. Once more Logue was summoned. Thanks to him, the King mastered his fears and sailed through the service in the Abbey. The even more frightening ordeal of a live radio broadcast to the nation went smoothly. But the King was so nervous about his Christmas broadcast, which lasted precisely 3 minutes, 20 seconds, that Logue was sent for. Logue was by the King’s side at every broadcast he made until 1944.
Lionel Logue was a natural psychotherapist. His trick was to convince the King that his speech impediment was due to physical issues such as breathing, when in fact the causes were psychological. By making the stammer seem easy to address, Logue overcame the King’s distressing lack of confidence. Lionel Logue emerges from the book as an old softie who sometimes seems rather fawning. In the film he is portrayed as an undeferential colonial, while Colin Firth plays a warm and glamorous George VI. Mark Logue’s book no doubt tells the true story, but if it’s a compelling drama you’re after, my advice is: wait for the film.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 11, 2010Tags: Book reviews, Film, George VI, History, Non-fiction, Stammer