History lesson: Colin Firth as George VI in "The King's Speech"
While I was talking about history with my young niece and a couple of her friends (all of them educated at local comprehensives), it emerged that one of them thought that Henry VIII was the father of Queen Victoria. I am neither kidding nor exaggerating for effect. You'd think that even on a superficial level, on the basis of a cursory look at images of both, this guy might have been able to tell that styles of dress (let alone painting) couldn't possibly go through such revolutionary changes within the space of a generation. But no: history, chronology, events — these were a generalised blur to him. The past isn't just another country for such young people; it's a forbidden planet.
Not that these young people aren't interested. Far from it — it's the schools that have let them down. In fact, the downgrading of history teaching has happily not been matched by a lessening in the public appetite for popular history. So thank goodness for movies and TV for meeting this demand and in the process keeping the flame alive. Certainly, as a child, my own budding interest in the subject was helped along by watching Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth I and counting off The Six Wives of Henry VIII on the BBC. The importance of using history as a basis for entertainment in this way, even if it occasionally embellished upon for dramatic effect, should not be underestimated.
The latest piece of British history to get the big-screen treatment is The King's Speech, a sympathetic account of the attempts by George VI (Bertie to his family and friends) to conquer his acute stammer, and in particular the singular relationship which grew up between him and his unorthodox Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue. This is certainly not one of the more swashbuckling chapters in our island story — it barely counts as a footnote — so it is testament to the skill of the writer David Seidler and the director Tom Hooper that the end result is so absorbing, and that we find ourselves taking it as seriously as we do.
Not that the film is without humour. The whole thing has a jaunty air, a slight wry smile throughout, which nevertheless manages not to mock the characters it portrays. Much has been made in the media of the scenes where George, played by Colin Firth, is encouraged by Logue (Geoffrey Rush) to use four-letter words to unlock his verbal inhibitions. I imagine his daughter, whom we see here as a child, would not be amused by this, but really it is innocent enough. In any case, the real fun is to be had in spotting the various personalities of the era and seeing how well they have been matched up to the better-known names at British Establishment Central Casting.