The King’s Speech is the first film to portray my speech defect realistically, says the Man Booker-nominated novelist David Mitchellby David Mitchell / February 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Being the owner of a speech defect, I watch the portrayal of stammerers in the arts with a hypercritical eye. No film (to my knowledge) comes close to the intelligence with which the award-winning The King’s Speech handles the subject of stammering. Scriptwriter David Seidler and actor Colin Firth’s portrait of George VI’s struggles is perceptive, unsentimental and refreshingly accurate.
The future monarch’s speech is dogged by a phonetic band of main offenders—hard Cs and Ks, Gs and Qu-words—plus a narrower group of sporadic “guest” troublemakers: Fs, Phs, and Ws. Bang on. Many fictional stammerers stumble over random letters—a dead giveaway of an under-informed author. Accurate, also, are the observations that you don’t stammer when singing, talking to yourself or swearing, and speech therapist Lionel Logue’s conclusion that the problem is not mechanical—as scientific fashion claimed in the 1930s—but neurological, as scans now prove.
But The King’s Speech’s most singular merit is that stammering is not merely a character handle or a plot device implant, but the film’s star subject. As far as I know, this is a first. The two best-known screen stammerers in British culture to date are Ronnie Barker’s grocer Arkwright in the 1970s and 1980s sitcom, Open All Hours— my, how we laughed—and Michael Palin’s character Ken in the hit 1988 comedy, A Fish Called Wanda. Both exploit the dramatic colour of stammering, but neither offer an ounce of understanding about the phenomenon. Why is this particular dysfunction, lived with by approximately 750,000 people in Britain, represented so dismally and so sparsely in contemporary culture?
I detect a taboo. All disabilities are disabling, but the degree of discomfort they inflict upon the non-disabled varies, depending in no small part on the condition’s “assistability.” Helping a blind person navigate King’s Cross gives the decent-minded Samaritan a certain glow, and inviting a special needs classmate to our child’s birthday party makes us feel civilised. But watching a stammerer suffer a mauling? That’s agony. What can you do, apart from inwardly (or outwardly) wince, and thank God you don’t suffer that mortification every time you’re called upon to read in class, answer the phone or buy a ticket?