The story of King George VI's famous speech is retold again

by David Hill / 27 November, 2018
Famous stammer: Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech. Photo/Alamy

Famous stammer: Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech. Photo/Alamy

RelatedArticlesModule - King's War book

If you thought you'd heard the story of George VI and his Australian speech therapist, think again, and again.

It’s probably the most famous screen stammer: His Majesty Colin Firth in The King’s Speech. If you don’t know the rich-boy-makes-good story of George VI fighting his affliction with the aid of Aussie speech therapist Lionel Logue, then you really should patent the rock you’ve been hiding under as a fallout shelter.

Now, Logue’s grandson, Mark, and UK journalist Peter Conradi take king and counsellor through the years from Dunkirk to D-Day and victory in this surprisingly effective memoir stuffed with letters, diaries and scrapbooks.

Surprisingly? You could wonder what there is left to say about that monarch, that conflict, that relationship. You could also wonder if their prodigiously successful first memoir, The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy, had publishers urging, “This means war! Please?”

Some passages of this book do read like a who’s who, blended with a potted history of World War II, though it does a good job with the war’s effects on individual lives: Londoners carried newspapers to be visible in the blackout; Lionel Logue’s son shot rabbits in Epping Forest for food.

Speak easy: Lionel Logue. Photo/Alamy

Speak easy: Lionel Logue. Photo/Alamy

It’s also good with the lives of its two protagonists. It begins with an ending: George VI dying the day after a shooting trip where “he bagged nine hares”. Then to his funeral, with every participant and uniform and prop, including the coffin, “which lay within a circle of candlelight set like a jewel against the blackness enveloping the hall”. The book ends with Logue’s death, 14 months later.

The “candlelight” is atypical. Most of the writing won’t inflame the senses: “We have been able to enrich our narrative with the reminiscences of some of those whose lives were touched by …” Buckingham blandness predominates.

When the war began, prince and commoner had already been working together for 13 years (the initial appointment cost HRH about $500 in 2018 values). Logue remained on call, helping with the royal Christmas message and the exhausting VE Day address, receiving handwritten messages of thanks. George was never “cured”, but the improvement was remarkable. His surgeon was hugely impressed by the flexibility of the royal larynx.

In his spare time, the bellicose therapist (“the universal desire is to kill the Austrian house painter”) carried out Home Guard duties, based at the Dulwich & Sydenham Golf Club. I mean, how could Hitler have won the war? He was commendably discreet, professional and clearly fond of his patient. A letter “found years later in a New Zealand bookshop” pierces with its directness: “My beloved king killed himself by working too hard.”

It manoeuvres through the mazes of court and cabinet. It evokes the grind as well as the drama. It’s understandably affectionate and commendably balanced.

And, there’s going to be a third instalment, with the public invited to submit material. The King’s Contributors, perhaps?

THE KING’S WAR, by Peter Conradi and Mark Logue (Quercus, $34.99)

This article was first published in the November 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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