Britain declined after Victoria’s death though delusions of grandeur were more difficult to shake off. Her descendants still have exclusive access to the throne and lead the Anglican Church. The Royals’ pomp and circumstance remains an important projection of British soft power. Crippled by inbreeding, they outsourced glamour to commoners 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 empire 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 better understanding of the issues Elizabeth Windsor faced after the death of Diana.
Frears’s film was not about the Queen or Diana but about the 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 modern life.
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 “Bertie” to the family) 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 party boy Edward scandalising the court with his twice-divorced girlfriend Wallis Simpson (Eve Best).
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 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 “the firm’s” power. But Bertie had a serious stammer rendering him to tackle the airwaves. His stuttering 1925 British Empire Exhibition speech was an embarrassment for the speaker and listener alike.
Bertie had one big supporter, wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). Elizabeth was a practical and intelligent woman who married into the firm reluctantly in 1923 (unlike the current wedding, the BBC was not invited to Bertie and Elizabeth’s affair). Elizabeth saw a succession of doctors who failed 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, and 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 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 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 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 morale-boosting as Hitler came threatening.
The film gets its point over with some brilliant 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 human faults. Neither film is 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.
The Royals biggest problem today is to make themselves relevant outside of their Faustian pact with the redtops. 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 abtime of great crisis. What, other than the supposedly mad Charles, are the royals doing to contribute to solving today’s crises?