Britain declined after Victoria’s death though its delusions of grandeur were more difficult to shake off. The laws of its land still ensure her descendants still have exclusive access to the throne and through it the Anglican Church. The Royals provide pomp and circumstance and remain an important projection of British soft power. Though crippled by inbreeding, they outsource glamour to commoners such as Diana Spencer and Kate Middleton. The elaborate fairytale production of “Will and Kate” is designed to reinvent the British brand for the 21st century.
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. But I came away with an admiration for her as Helen Mirren transformed the queen into a competent and complex human. Watching it, John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance kicked in despite myself 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. I knew Frears’s film was ultimately not about the Queen or Diana but about the institution of the monarchy and its ambiguous position at the heart of Government. What power Elizabeth wielded was mostly a result of invented traditions which jar with much of modern life. The commoner Tony Blair knew quicker than they did the impact of not having the flag at half mast. The media mourned “the people’s princess” they helped kill in the streets of Paris.
The Royals want publicity just as much as they want privacy. Balmoral Castle, the Scottish seat of the crown is where the family saw out Diana’s death and also features in Tom Hooper’s The Kings Speech, about the Queen’s father George VI (Colin Firth). George (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 (Guy Pearce). The party is a clash of cultures represented by the kilt-wearing traditionalist Albert and the party boy Edward who was scandalising the court with his twice-divorced girlfriend Wallis Simpson (Eve Best).
The media in those days ignored the peccadilloes of the Royals’ personal life. Edward 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: radio. Before radio, the Royals were seen but not heard. 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 Bertie, his father had an elder brother who was expected to become king. George V was promoted when Prince Albert died of the flu in 1892. He 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 that Bertie had a serious stammer rendering him completely unable to project this power through the airwaves. His stuttering 1925 British Empire Exhibition speech was an embarrassment for the speaker and listener alike.
Bertie did have one big supporter, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). Elizabeth was a practical and intelligent woman who married into the firm with reluctance in 1923 (unlike the current wedding, the newly created BBC was not invited to Bertie and Elizabeth’s affair). Elizabeth saw a succession of doctors fail to find a cure for Bertie’s problem.
She sought out Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) a speech pathologist from Adelaide. Logue’s Irish roots and colonial 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 the Duke the confidence to avoid tension-inducing muscle spasms that caused the stammer.
Logue more or less solved the Duke’s 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 as Hitler came threatening.
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. The idea the British queen or king should be head of the Australian state is an embarrassing anomaly of an earlier age. I was happy to take out Australian citizenship in 1994 after Keating removed the oath of allegiance to the crown.
Leaving Australia out of it, the Royals biggest problem today is to make themselves relevant outside of the redtop circus they have made a Faustian pact with. Will’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?