The King's Speech: chatting with Colin Firth

Norbert Lieckfeldt | 01.10.2010

The King's Speech deals with King George VI and his efforts to control his stammer, with the help of his speech therapist Lionel Logue. BSA Chief Executive Norbert Lieckfeldt spoke with Colin Firth who plays the King.

NL: I have seen the movie and I have been deeply moved by the authenticity of the stammering experience. These silent blocks - they were me. I came away feeling incredibly tense and worn out by a kind of sympathetic 'phantom stammering', going through every block that was on screen. How did you manage to get this so right?

CF: I've been asked this several times. It is terribly important to me that if you're addressing the real issue like this, I feel I owe it to myself and to anybody who struggles with it to be as authentic as much as I can. It's amazing, if you go into an issue like this, just how many people will tell you I have it, had it, my brother does, my cousin, my...

NL: The numbers are about 750,000 in the UK. The thing is it's unheard, unseen. If you meet me in the street you wouldn't know. Normally if I talk to you, you wouldn't know that I stammer. But the hangovers I have are: eye contact, I'll look away when I talk to you, because if I look at you there's an urgency; I will use the telephone rarely, even though I'm fluent on the phone. The ingrained patterns of behaviour are totally there. That's the stammering mindset.

CF: It's a very odd thing - perhaps you can help me out here because I still don't know what it is. As you probably know David Seidler our screen writer has a stammer. You don't hear it much any more, but if he talks about it you'll hear it come back. And the odd thing is that if I talk about it, I find myself getting blocked and hesitant.

NL: I think there's a normal non-fluency which is the hesitation thing and there's dysfluency which is 'not normal'. It goes in fashions. Before psychoanalysis they would think there's something mechanical wrong, and you'd have operations on your tongue, and they'd cut it. But in the King's time it was all Freudian, so it must be the parents' fault. Nowadays with the brain scanning, we know when a 3 or 4 year old starts to stammer something happens in brain. So, if I talk to you fluently now, my brain activation patterns may be like that of any other fluent speaker. But if I start to stammer, suddenly the other half of the brain becomes much more active, so we know there's an underlying physical cause. It is an underlying neurological reason that makes the speaking process instable. And that balance can be disturbed really easily.

CF: And does this in any way contribute to ways of overcoming it?

NL: At the moment there's nothing you can do on the basis of these findings, but you can say to people you don't stammer because you're anxious or neurotic. It's not something where you can simply 'pull yourself together'.

CF: Do you feel then that Logue's attempt to pyschoanalyse by stealth, if you like, was on the wrong track?

NL: No, because that's what helped me. Because the underlying assumption - something he did not know - is that stammering is a given. If you're an adult that's what you have. But you can deal with the emotions that make the speaking process less stable..

CF: So you're less in a state of terror, when you go into these silences...

NL: That's what's so amazing about the film, that you can see the King coming to an arrangement with his stammering, and it becomes easier. If you're really stressed about it, your brain can't cope with that added load so you switch into stammering mode. If you are more relaxed about it you have more of a buffer, more reserves...

CF: [...].to do that

I'm very well aware that not many films have addressed this issue - except to make a mockery of it or to use it for comedy.

NL: Absolutely. That's just the right message for us.

CF: I'm very relieved, because people keep asking me what I think the Royal Family are going to think about this film. Of course anyone with living relatives, I'm sensitive to that. And I'm also sensitive about what Logue's family think about it as well. They were there last night [at the UK premiere], his grandchilden. They had little points of correction for us - artistic licence, that's alright.

But my main concern really has been - if I'm concerned with what anybody 'out there' is thinking - is I'm very well aware that not many films have addressed this issue - except to make a mockery of it or to use it for comedy.

NL: A pastiche

CF: Absolutely. And there are so many things that are forbidden to pastiche in the world of people's struggles or disabilities, and this one seems to be legitimate somehow.

NL: It still is, and we are fighting against that. It is a serious issue, a disability. People are more likely to get depressed, people getting bullied, all sorts of things.

CF: I've never been able to find it funny, and that's not because I'm so earnest and virtuous about it. It's the third time I've played someone with a stammer, and you do experience something when you play it. You really do, some part of you goes there. I like to try to play what the character's doing which is to try not to, and it's the sheer physical effort really struck me. It had an effect on my body, this film particularly - headaches. I am doing a double journey, I have to learn to stammer and then I have to play someone trying desperately not to.

NL: Which is the same thing that people who stammer experience every day.

CF: Well yes, and I thought, my God, to live in this, I can't imagine. But it put my left arm to sleep, it was very peculiar. I must have been tensing. Particularly if I had long speeches. I must have been locking something, pinching a nerve, because I couldn't use it properly. It was a semi-paralysis that would last for 3 or 4 days. And so I found myself in a physical battle.

And I was doing press at the time. I was promoting another film and travelling a lot. I didn't get those blocks, but it would certainly make me conscious of something strange and it would interfere with my fluency.

Derek Jacobi, who was famously one of the people who portrayed a stammer seriously did say to me you could find it affecting your speech patterns for some time afterwards. When the job's over, don't worry, it will go away.

As as side issue, Derek and I shared experiences of somebody we both knew who stammered who influenced how we did it. The one I knew was a brilliant set designer called Bruce McCabe who passed away 3 or 4 years ago. He had some very pronounced ...he made them sound like pauses, and you'd see the traces of a struggle [demonstrates the long pause] very unpleasant it was. And sometimes it would have the quality of wit about it, he'd bring some timing to it. Very, very bright man. And Derek said, yes, he knew a young assistant in the art department when he was doing I, Claudius who had that quality and he used to listen to him a lot, and it turned out it was the same guy!

You cannot possibly... If you're dipping into an experience and you're going to come out of it again - I just feel a real fear of being in any way bogus.

NL: No it definitely was not. I said to people afterwards I still get goosebumps, just thinking of the movie, because you hardly ever see it portrayed well. Very often it's Open All Hours stuff, or it's a dramatic device just to show that person is a bit crazy, like in Cracker, a psychopath. So you've never seen stammering portrayed just as 'that thing someone does'. And that's just it, it is a problem but it doesn't denote that he's funny, or that he is a bit mentally unstable

CF: There are not a lot of people in public life... I remember Patrick Campbell who was so loved and would appear as a raconteur and I think he must have helped in a way to be a model for people because he wasn't a pastiche was he?

NL: No, I think he was authentic.

CF: He was a wit, there wasn't this stigma that somehow it was a sign of... Because I think what Bertie experienced as a child was that it was somehow being connected with his slowness of learning, or the fluency problem was also a lack of wit. And he was anything but witless. I've read books on this man. One of the great challenges of playing anyone in the Royal Family, certainly that senior in the Royal Family, is you can't hang around with anybody of that profession.

NL: No, there are so few Emperors of India left!

CF: If I'm playing a doctor I might spend some time with a doctor going round the wards. But you can't hang around with the King, and the Queen is not going to give you a few days of her time. So you have to use secondary sources. And a lot of the biographers are rather enamoured of David (Edward VIII) as a character - it's easy to be enamoured with the charms, the romantic story there. And Bertie is often characterised as the shy, retiring, dull-witted brother. If you read anything he's written - a lot of what you saw in the film comes from his letters, the self-mockery, the wryness, the line where Logue says "You still stammered on the 'w'" and Bertie says "I had to throw in a few extra ones so they knew it was me", that came from the diary, that was a quote from those two men. I found that in Logue's diary. I was looking through it and I thought we've got to have that in the film.

That's a pithy thing to say. These judgments were made on him that were connected to a misunderstanding based on his...

NL: Stammering masks ability. It masks your capacity, intellect. It's a layer between you and the world which everything gets filtered through.

CF: I had vocal problems in my 20s. I had an injury on my vocal chord which had to be dealt with surgically. It wasn't a stammer but it meant I couldn't be heard properly. And I remember a voice therapist I was talking to said "don't underestimate how debilitating it is". People appreciate the problem of blindness and deafness and so on. Not being able to speak properly to people - in the way they expect - I think it's underestimated the psychological damage it does. I like to talk, and I had a voice that sitting here, like this, I could get away with it but if there were more than 3 people in the room or there was music playing I just couldn't be heard. I couldn't cut through the way I wanted to, I couldn't express myself, my identity was completely stifled. So in some ways there's an insight there I think.

NL: There's just been some research done in Australia where they worked with a stammering child in a pre-school setting. Every kid was given a rucksack. The stammering child had a microphone in there, and his interactions with other children in the break time were filmed. And the number of times the child got negative responses to communication - and it's often just a fraction of a second, a child turning away when the child stammers - or even the teacher turning away. And it's just the constant drip drip drip-feed of "You're a bad communicator", "You're a bad communicator", and that starts at that point. And it just builds up. And you could see how the King could become this figure rigid with terror....

CF: Well also, then you're beaten for your left hand as well. Which means there's another channel of possible communication that's being beaten out of you.

NL: It is. Research probably says though it's not a reason for stammering.

CF: I don't think it was so much a reason, I just think it was an added problem.

NL: Added strain to the brain

CF: .. and explained why he had such a violent temper, which he did.

I found it extraordinary. I was very aware of those silences which must have felt like an eternity, when you can't close them.

NL: They are. And it's like lightning in the brain, and afterwards you think why didn't I just stop. You can't. And that's what comes across so strongly in that film to me.

CF: Well that terror, as an actor I imagined myself into that and that was very real to me. I could understand that completely. Just this abyss of silence.

You could see the dismay, and then hoping it wasn't as bad, and then seeing it was. Then realising he just has to stop and close his eyes and collect himself. And you see another attempt which doesn't work. And that's when you see - it's eternal, it's eternal. 

And actually studying some footage that's what interested me. It wasn't so much what he did with his jaw - I can understand that you'd be struggling of course, and I think David Seidler said it was like being underwater sometimes, you'd be suffocating. But it was watching the narrative. There's one particular hellish pause which you can see during one of his speeches - and this is all post-therapy as well - where you can see him encounter it, and there's the dismay at the encounter. This is what I studied. It wasn't so much that I could imitate him but I could feel it, I watched it very very closely. You could see the dismay, and then hoping it wasn't as bad, and then seeing it was. Then realising he just has to stop and close his eyes and collect himself. And you see another attempt which doesn't work. And that's when you see - it's eternal, it's eternal. And then of course he does come out of it, as you always do eventually, and then, seeing something I just considered utterly heroic about the way he just went forward, that's when I just thought "hero", really "hero".

NL: I think that comes across in the movie very very strongly. Here's a task, and I may not be up to it, but I'm going to do it. Because it's my duty.

There's something terribly moving I think about a man who doesn't know how brave he is.

CF: There's something terribly moving I think about a man who doesn't know how brave he is. And I think when Logue says that: "Bertie, you've got such perseverance, you're the bravest man I know", I don't think it's ever occurred to Bertie that he's brave. All his experience is the fear, and I think to be told that every word you've spoken has been valiant...

NL: It's totally there, I think, in Churchill's farewell to the King, when he put on his wreath simply the words 'For valour'.

CF: Well I think that's very true and - I need to finish this thought (his aides had come in to end the interview) - I think what we don't get is a cure of course.

NL: That's really important to us

CF: Absolutely Tom Hooper (the director) was insistent about that. Otherwise it's a lie.

But what I think people heard when they gradually warmed to him and grew to love him, particularly in the wake of David who was Prince Charming, and you've got Churchill who's the great rhetorician, and you've got Hitler and Mussolini who are using the media, the radio, to hypnotise the masses. Here's a man who says I can't speak at all. I think when these people who are genuinely suffering, whether they are under the bombs, or in bunkers, or in hospital, or grieving, if there's someone whose job is simply to speak to them over the radio and he's sitting on velvet cushions surrounded by silver spoons, it's not going to mean anything to them. But if this man is facing his biggest demons, simply by speaking to them, it's an act I think of generosity and solidarity that they really heard.

NL: They did hear that. That comes across very strongly from people I've spoken to, saying "to us that was a big thing, to hear the King struggling in his speech".

CF: So he's with them in their struggles. I think it was a very important symbol. And also, nothing to do with the stammer really by itself, but the fact the man didn't want the job meant that he represented a very different value from Hitler who wanted the job so badly that he was prepared to commit mass murder for it.

I'm sorry we didn't actually go through the questions (prepared for the interview)..

NL: Well I think we covered a lot actually...

CF: Well it was very interesting for me because these get a bit of a rote after a while and this was not the usual interview, so I was pleased. And I can't tell you how relieved I am that it did resonate, because that's the job in hand here. And I'm so glad. As I said, the stammering when I've done performances before has never been out to do pastiche. And it's not really been about the issue. There was one play called Three days of rain, which sort of is about the issue. It's very interesting, it's in two halves, a play about three people talking about their parents, and in the play my character has a sister. We talk about our father as someone who never spoke, who was just a silent man. And then we go back 30 years and play our parents, and we realise that the father had a stammer and the kids didn't even know.

And then the other one was a First World War veteran - and you don't see him healed but you see him healed mentally to some extent.

But this is the first time I've really seen it where the debilitating elements of it are really addressed. So it's a great relief to me to know that...

NL: .. it's spot on.

October 2010