Words fit for a king

By Peter Conradi

The Queen Mother didn't want the story told. But the little-known tale of an Australian 'quack' who helped save the British throne from embarrassment is soon to be released as an Oscar-tipped film. Peter Conradi, co-author of the book on which the film is based, explains how one man rescued the monarchy.

Helena Bonham Carter and Colin Firth play the royal couple to Geoffrey Rush's (left) Lionel Logue in The King's Speech. Photo / Supplied
Helena Bonham Carter and Colin Firth play the royal couple to Geoffrey Rush's (left) Lionel Logue in The King's Speech. Photo / Supplied

Albert Frederick Arthur George, King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions and the last Emperor of India, woke up suddenly. It was just after 3am. His bedroom in Buckingham Palace was normally a haven of peace and quiet in the heart of London, but on this particular morning his slumbers had been rudely interrupted by the crackle of loudspeakers being tested outside on Constitution Hill.

"It was so loud one of them might have been in our room," he wrote in his diary. Then, just when he was finally dropping back off to sleep, the marching bands started.

It was May 12, 1937, and the 41-year-old King George VI, father of the present Queen, was about to face one of the most nerve-racking days of his life. He had acceded to the throne five months earlier, after his rakish elder brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American, plunging the monarchy into one of the worst crises in its history. That day, the reluctant monarch was to be crowned in Westminster Abbey.

The coronation, a piece of national pageantry unmatched anywhere in the world, would have been daunting enough for anyone, but King George - known to the royal family as Bertie - had good reason to be anxious. Sickly since childhood, he suffered from a chronic stammer that turned the simplest of conversations into a challenge and a public speech into a terrifying ordeal. Words beginning with the letter "K" - as in king - presented a particular problem. Confronted with one, he would struggle to make any sound at all, leaving an awkward silence.

Despite the King's misgivings, the coronation, followed by a live radio broadcast that evening heard by tens of millions of people across the Empire, proved a resounding success. "The King's voice last night was strong and deep, resembling to a startling degree the voice of his father," reported The Star. "His words came through firmly, clearly - and without hesitation."

This success was due largely to one man - a self-taught Australian speech therapist 15 years the King's senior, named Lionel Logue. Dismissed by the British medical establishment as a quack, Logue helped his royal patient conquer his speech impediment, turning him into a great monarch who, with his wife Elizabeth alongside him, would become a rallying point for the people of Britain - and the Empire - during the darkest days of World War II.

This extraordinary partnership is at the heart of the film The King's Speech, starring Colin Firth as Bertie and Geoffrey Rush as Logue, which opens on January 20 and is being widely tipped for Oscar success - and also of a new book, The King's Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy, which tells the story behind the movie.

The tale has gained poignancy following the announcement of the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Although emerging apparently untouched from his own, even more troubled childhood, William may draw valuable lessons from his great-grandfather's experience - while the part played by the Queen Mother may prove inspiration to the future Princess Kate.

Bertie first consulted Logue in 1926 in the dingy set of rooms at the cheap end of Harley St that he had rented after arriving, virtually penniless, with his wife and three sons on the boat from Australia two years earlier. It is not clear how he happened upon such an unlikely therapist, but the most likely explanation is that it was on the recommendation of a royal equerry who knew one of the Australian's patients.

Bertie was certainly badly in need of help. He had begun to stammer at the age of 8, and it worsened after he was created Duke of York in 1920 and had to take on official engagements. A major speech in front of thousands of people at the British Empire exhibition in Wembley in May 1925, broadcast around the world, ended in humiliation. And he now faced the gruelling prospect of a major six-month tour of New Zealand and Australia.

The Duke had already seen his fill of "experts", but no one had been able to cure him. He was persuaded to have one last try by his glamorous young wife, Elizabeth, the future Queen Mother.

Since their marriage in 1923 her husband's speaking problems had weighed heavily on her. When he rose to respond to a toast, she would grip the edge of the table until her knuckles were white, out of fear he would get stuck halfway through. Sometimes, if she could sense him struggling for words, she would squeeze his fingers to encourage him.

The Duke's first session appears to have given him hope, where all other experts before had failed. "I can cure you," Logue declared after they had spent an hour and a half together. "But it will need a tremendous effort by you. Without that effort, it can't be done."

Logue prescribed for the future King a mixture of breathing exercises - which his beloved wife always made sure he carried out - and some fiendish tongue-twisters. He combined this with a form of Freudian talking therapy.

The Duke and Duchess set off from Portsmouth aboard the battle cruiser, Renown, on January 6, 1927. The King and Queen had seen them off at Victoria Station. There was a particular sadness about their departure - they had to leave behind Princess Elizabeth - the present Queen - born the previous April. Bertie was also weighed down by the seriousness of the formal responsibilities of this, his first major foreign trip. Determined to give the best performance possible, he dutifully practised his tongue-twisters as they went.

They sailed westwards, stopping at Las Palmas, Jamaica and Panama, then on towards New Zealand. At dawn on February 22, under pouring rain, they arrived in Auckland. The dreaded speeches began immediately in earnest: on the first morning alone, Bertie had three to make.

"The last one in the Town Hall was quite a long one, and I can tell you that I was really pleased with the day I made it, as I had perfect confidence in myself and I did not hesitate at all," the Duke wrote back to his mother, Queen Mary. "Logue's teaching is still working well, but of course if I get tired it still worries me."

The ensuing weeks passed in a whirl of dinners, receptions, garden parties, balls and other official functions, during which he acquitted himself with distinction. The only potential setback occurred on March 12 when the Duchess was struck down with tonsillitis and, on the advice of her doctors, went back to Wellington to convalesce at Government House.

The Duke's first thought was to abandon the latter part of his tour of South Island and go back to Wellington with her. Innately shy by nature, he had come to depend heavily on his wife's support. Such was the enthusiasm with which the Duchess was greeted by the crowds - a foretaste of the welcome that Princess Diana was to receive more than a half-century later when she and Prince Charles toured New Zealand and Australia - that Bertie was convinced she was the one the crowds really wanted to see.

The Duke pressed on, however, and was pleasantly surprised by the warm reaction he received as he continued his tour alone.

"Things are going better and better," Patrick Hodgson, the Duke's private secretary, wrote to Logue on notepaper from the Dunedin Club on March 19. "Of course, he still hesitates a bit at times, but there are no longer the painful pauses we used to have. It is unlucky that the Duchess should have been laid low with tonsillitis, but it has put the Duke on his mettle, having to do everything alone, with the happiest result."

The Australian part of the trip, including the opening of the new Parliament building in Canberra in May 1927 - also proceeded without a hitch.

It was after Bertie became King - and even more so during the war - that Logue's relationship with him came into its own. When the King spoke to the Empire on the evening of September 3, 1939, the day Britain declared war on Germany - which forms the climax of the film - Logue rehearsed the speech with him carefully, striking out difficult words from the text, and was beside him in the room at Buckingham Palace from which he broadcast.

"In this grave hour," the King began, "perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself."

As the red light faded, Logue turned to him: "Congratulations on your first wartime speech," he said. The King, relieved his ordeal was over, said simply: "I expect I will have to do a lot more."

The King was proved right: over the six years that followed, Logue was often called to Buckingham Palace, Windsor or Sandringham to help him prepare. The Christmas Message, a tradition started by his father, was a particular challenge, especially since it was broadcast live. So close had Logue become to the King by then that he ate Christmas lunch with the Royal Family before the two men went off together into the study to confront the dreaded microphone.

In November 1940, after the King visited Coventry after the devastating German raid, he confided in Logue his desperation. "What could I say to these poor people who had lost everything, sometimes their families? Words were inadequate."

Amid the stress and misery there were some lighter moments, too. A few days later, when the King was rehearsing his speech for that year's State Opening of Parliament, he greeted Logue, grinning like a schoolboy. "Logue, I've got the jitters," he declared. "I woke up at one o'clock after dreaming I was in Parliament with my mouth wide open and couldn't say a word." Although both men laughed heartily, it brought home to Logue that even after all the years they had spent working together, the King's speech impediment still weighed heavily on him.

In December 1944, the King made a speech on the radio to mark the disbanding of the Home Guard. Created four years earlier to defend Britain against the Nazi invasion that had appeared imminent, the two million-strong force no longer seemed necessary now the war had turned decisively in favour of the Allies.

Logue worked with the King on the text and went to Windsor to hear him deliver it. He was impressed to note he made only one mistake: he stumbled over the "W" in weapons. Afterwards, Logue asked him why.

"I did it on purpose," Bertie replied with a grin.

"On purpose?" asked Logue, incredulous.

"Yes. If I don't make a mistake, people might not know it was me."

A few days later, the King told Logue that he now felt confident enough to deliver the Christmas Day messages without his teacher at his side. "You know, Ma'am, I feel like a father who is sending his boy to his first public school," Logue told the Queen as he left.

"I know just how you feel," she replied, patting his arm.

The broadcast went well. Logue, listening at home in Sydenham Hill, south-east London, with friends, rang the King immediately afterwards to congratulate him. "My job is over, sir," he declared. "Not at all," the King replied. "It is the preliminary work that counts, and that is where you are indispensable."

In fact, Logue did continue to help the King with his speeches and was present on VE day, when he addressed the crowd from the balcony of Buckingham Palace. The war had taken its toll on the King, however, and his health was fading. After a battle with cancer, he died peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of February 6, 1952, of coronary thrombosis. He was aged just 56.

Logue wrote to offer his condolences to the King's widow, who was now beginning what was to be half a century of life as the Queen Mother. She replied, full of praise for his achievements. "I know perhaps better than anyone just how much you helped the King, not only with his speech, but through his whole life and outlook on life," she told Logue. "I shall always be deeply grateful to you for all you did for him."

For Logue, who died the following year, there could have been no more fitting epitaph than that.

The King's Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy, by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi (Quercus $36.99). See also the-kings-speech.com

The King's Speech film out in cinemas next month.

Peter Conradi is a journalist with the Sunday Times.

- NZ Herald

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