How the King found his voice The historian Andrew Roberts examines whether the new film The King's Speech paints an accurate picture of the turbulent events surrounding George VI's accession. Colin Firth as Bertie (King George VI) in The King's Speech Photo: Film StillsBy Andrew Roberts
The King’s Speech, the new film starring Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter, tells the story of the Duke of York, later King George VI, from 1925 until the outbreak of war in 1939, largely through the prism of the Duke’s struggles against the stutter from which he had suffered since the age of eight. These were difficult and dangerous years for the House of Windsor, comprising as they did the death of King George V and accession of King Edward VIII, the Abdication Crisis later that year, and the rise of fascism, culminating in Britain’s declaration of war against Germany.
“George VI’s reign will go down in history,” wrote a characteristically waspish Evelyn Waugh, “as the most disastrous my country has known since Matilda and Stephen”. As it spanned the German annexation of Austria, the Munich crisis, the Dunkirk evacuation and fall of Singapore, the emergence of Soviet Communism in Eastern Europe, the Age of Austerity and the loss of India, Waugh might have had a point, but as this movie makes clear, the King himself, and his beloved wife Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, led blameless and even heroic lives as they saw their people through these disasters.
George VI exhibited many of the qualities of his father George V, and indeed his father’s reign served as the template. Both were ex-naval second sons not expected to accede to the throne, both took Britain through devastating world wars soon after their accessions and, fortified by strong-willed wives and profound Christian faith, they both won the admiration and even love of the British people. Even their handwriting was alike. Yet where George V had presided over the first modern shock to the British Empire, his son had to face the start of its unwinding, while still fervently believing in its capacity to do good.
Born on the Sandringham estate on December 14, 1895 – the anniversary of the death of the Prince Consort – the second son of the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George V and Queen Mary) was unsurprisingly christened Prince Albert. A shy, weak and somewhat lachrymose child, the young Prince endured considerable ill-health, contracting gastritis as a result of his nurse’s negligence and walking with his legs in splints to overcome incipient knock-knees. He also grew up in the shadow of his elder brother, the future King Edward VIII, who seemed to have all the attributes in terms of charm, looks, confidence and sporting ability that “Bertie”, as the family called him, seemed to lack. It was hardly surprising that, aged eight, he developed a stammer, although it was not so chronic an affliction as this movie depicts.
Colin Firth accurately depicts the Prince’s bravery in the face of his afflictions. ''Bertie’’ suffered gastritis and seasickness as a midshipman in the Royal Navy, but raised himself from his sickbed to fight in the battle of Jutland as a sub-lieutenant in 1916. The following year, he had to undergo an operation on a duodenal ulcer. Later in life his entire left lung had to be removed, which presaged his tragically early death at 56.