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The King's voice

Allan Tyrer, Neil Swain | 01.06.2011

Neil Swain was the voice coach who helped Colin Firth portray George VI's stammer in The King's Speech. He spoke to Allan Tyrer about working on the film.

Colin Firth as George VI in The King's SpeechAT: First, congratulations on the film. It was great to see stammering so well portrayed in a film.

NS: I'm very pleased to hear that you felt it was and I'm sure Colin would be as well. It was something very important to him that he did absolutely do justice to that side of George's character.

AT: Perhaps you could tell us first what the role of a voice coach is generally. You were the voice coach for the film as a whole weren't you, rather than just for Colin?

NS: That's true. Normally when I work in film I'm referred to as a dialect coach which means most of my work concerns accent. Or sometimes I'm called a dialogue coach - which means the same thing nowadays. The term dialogue coach came from when films progressed from silent movies into talkies. Dialogue coaches were originally the people employed with the silent film actors who suddenly had to speak dialogue.

Basically the job is to work with the actors in rehearsals and during the filming and also post-production (though I didn't do a great deal of post-production in this film) on anything that impinges on their character's voice.

For my job on The King's Speech I think it was right to be called the 'voice coach' rather than 'dialect coach' because it was so much more than just dealing with the period accents of time, which of course was one of my jobs on the film. But there was also working with Colin on the stammering, and there was the fact that the idea of voice, of finding your voice, of fluency, was such a central part of the film. Yes, I certainly did work as a 'voice coach' there.

AT: How did you get involved with The King's Speech?

NS: I became involved first of all through Helena Bonham Carter. She and I have worked to together on a number of projects in the past. Over the years I've often read scripts for her and given my opinion, when she wants another view on them. She had been sent this script and said "It's to play the Queen Mother" - and then she added very quickly "The Queen Mother when she was young". She said she loved the script but she didn't know whether she could do it in terms of scheduling - she was doing Harry Potter at the same time. I thought the script was great, and for me as someone who works with the human voice I found it very moving. I said "I think it's wonderful, I think you should do it." I went to meet Tom Hooper, the director, and in the end he asked me to do the film which was great.

I thought the script was great, and for me as someone who works with the human voice I found it very moving.

Coaching on the stammer

AT: Was this the first time you'd coached on stammering? How did you go about preparing for it?

NS: It was the first time actually. I should say first of all I'm not a speech and language therapist, but I trained as a voice teacher and did the voice course at the Central School of Speech and Drama. We had a certain amount of speech and language pathology as part of that course and I was always fascinated with it. My nephew developed a stammer when he was about five so I became quite interested in reading round the subject then, because I obviously wanted to be able, if I could, to point him in the right direction and talk to his parents. Also I have a great friend who was a speech and language therapist and has worked a lot with people who stammer in the past. So I'd always been interested in stammering. But yes it's the first time I'd ever had to work with an actor who has to play a person who stammers.

I did quite a lot of research and actually the British Stammering Association was very helpful. I contacted BSA and bought some publications from it, and did a lot of reading. Also my speech and language therapist friend, Annie Morrison, was a great help.

And Colin and I sat down and watched and listened to George VI on some of that wonderful archive footage we have of him. A lot of that is after his work with Logue, but there are a few early film clips where his stammer is extremely pronounced. So we sat down and started to not just think about how that generated itself physiologically but also to listen to the sounds and see what he did. There was a lot of blinking that went on with the stammer, and we tried to identify what were the sounds he had particular difficulty with. We also talked a lot about his upbringing and how that, we thought, would have been a large contributory factor to the stammer. In addition Colin had done a lot of research and had played characters who stammer. We pooled our resources and really went on a journey - and in the end came up with what you see on screen.

AT: How did you work with Colin on the stammer?

NS: We sat down and talked about what happens physically in those moments. Again my colleague Annie was a great help - in fact she came in for an afternoon and spoke to us all about it. We talked about how the stammer manifests itself physically in the mouth, what happens to the jaw, to the tongue, what happens to the breathing, generally the different ways a stammer can manifest itself - repetitions, blocks prolongations. We talked relatively technically with Colin, and started to have a sense of how he would replicate that, how he would feel in his body when he got to a sound that he just couldn't say. And it was a great help to watch George physically, to see what happened in his body when he did get to one of his problem sounds. Of course it's a great thing for an actor to do, to be able to physically transform in that way. I think that's one of the things Colin did so wonderfully successfully, to find often the traumatic experience of trying to speak when you're a person who stammers. We took our time and did quite a lot of work on that, through watching and beginning to feel how it feels physically in the body and how that alters the speech patterns .

In a way I was also working with Colin on finding George's accent, the right accent for the period. But as I said to him, we can't really start that work until we began to understand more about George's speech patterns - the fact that he had a very weak 'r', the fact that the tongue was so tight inside the mouth, the fact that his jaw was so tight - all those things fed into his speech patterns when he was in moments of fluency as well.

AT: In the film Colin Firth seems to stammer with his shoulders and chest as well, they would also be moving. What body movements did you pick up from watching the videos of George?

NS: He often used to have moments where the chin and head would jerk forward during certain sounds, the eyes would blink quite a lot, the shoulders I think absolutely were part of it. George was interesting physically anyway. He was born slightly knock-kneed and they put his legs in braces which he had to wear all the time, even when asleep, and they were very painful. I think physically he was always quite slight anyway as a person, and there was that sense of the chest almost caving in, the shoulders. He also used to have a twitch with one of his hands. Those were the major recurring characteristics that we noticed with him.

Effects on more fluent speech

AT: You mentioned the stammer also affecting Colin Firth's portrayal of the King when he was more fluent. How did you work on that?

NS: It was interesting watching him and starting to think about the very specific nature of George's stammer. We also started to highlight that in his mouth generally there was a great deal of tension, which is hardly surprising. He was holding a great deal of jaw tension, his tongue was very very tense, so there wasn't a lot of movement. George also had the weak unmuscular 'r' sound that Colin got so well.

We started to realise that if the mouth is held in that setting, it's going to affect his overall speech. The tightness also affects the sounds, the movement, the agility of the tongue in terms of being able to make certain vowel sounds. So there was a tightness, a 'bite' to his speech, which also affects his fluent speech. I think the overall setting in his mouth obviously was affected the stammer, but I think also there was a great deal of psychological and emotional holding within the jaw, the tongue, and I think that all went together to affect his overall speech patterns.

AT: In 'the speech' at the end of the film, he has some difficulty initially but then he gradually finds his feet more. It came over as very 'true' to me, but it must be difficult to act, that progression from the struggle to speaking out more powerfully at the end of the speech.

NS: Yes, and one of things I find so admirable about Colin's performance is that even in that final scene where he does find so much more fluency as a result of the work that he'd been doing with Logue, there are still moments where you can see where he is coming up to a sound or word that he knows is a problem for him - and there are just moments in Colin's eyes where you can see the King thinking of the therapy, of the exercises he has done with Logue.

Because even when we were listening to George VI after the therapy, you could hear him just pausing before certain sounds or words. Throughout his life he had a problem with the word 'King'. Whenever you hear him mention that word, even towards the end of his life, there is always a slight pause, a slight hesitation - for him to think about support, about the breathing, about connecting breath to sound. So I think that's something Colin found, even in that final speech. Of course George was never 'cured', but he did find ways to manage the stammer.

There is always a slight pause, a slight hesitation - for him to think about support, about the breathing, about connecting breath to sound.

Fears of retaining stammer?

AT: Someone on the BSA Facebook page asked whether there were fears of Colin Firth retaining the stammer, and if so, what measures were in place to assist him regain normal speech? Colin did say in an interview with BSA that he found the stammer interfering with his normal speech to some extent outside of the film, and he found his left arm going to sleep.

NS: I wasn't too afraid of him remaining with a stammer. We did talk about it actually during rehearsals. Derek Jacobi who was also in the film said that after filming I Claudius it took him a while to regain the kind of fluency that he had before playing Claudius. And Colin said that when he went away while we were rehearsing The King's Speech (I think he had to go over to the States for an award ceremony and had to give a speech) he found it difficult because it was so much part of his muscle memory at that time. He did find it was still with him.

What I was more concerned about, because I find it can be very insidious, was the unmuscular, weak 'r' sound that Colin found so well. That's something that can stay with you for a while. I wasn't very concerned that Colin wouldn't be able to lose the stammer, but it was very interesting how ingrained it became in his muscle memory, so it did take him a while to shift.

It's interesting too that whilst we were working on the film, and even sometimes for me when I talk about the film, I feel that I'm not as fluent as I might be talking about another project. I know that might sound strange but I've noticed it. Just to deal with and think about the issues to do with fluency and lack of fluency, it does affect you. I think it affected all of us in some way working on the film.

"Even sometimes for me, when I talk about the film I feel that I'm not as fluent as I might be talking about another project"

A film about speech

AT: Does working on a stammer compare with anything else you've done as a voice coach?

NS: This was most definitely a unique experience for me. My main work, as a coach working in film particularly, is accent and dialect work. I'm so pleased I could be involved in this project. It was a fascinating experience for me, because I've worked for so long with the human voice. And it was interesting because where else do we get the chance to work on a film where really the central character is voice, speech? So for me it was a great pleasure and a great honour to work on the film.

I'm also obviously incredibly pleased that it has done as well as it has - not just because I hope that it's made us think about the whole issue of stammering in another way, which I think is a great thing - but also for me as an audience member going to watch movies it was so refreshing that it did so well because it says that we as a film-going public also still want to see films about things, issues, and real people, rather than countless movies about mythical, or supernatural figures, as enjoyable and entertaining as that can be. But while I was working on the film and I used to describe it to people, they would say "Right? Really? You're doing a film about that?" On paper it didn't sound like it would have captured the minds of people in the way that it did. I was on the train once sitting opposite four teenagers - two boys, two girls, probably about 15 or 16. They had obviously been to see the film and they were talking about all the issues in it. I just thought that was fantastic, that there seemed to be such a wide range of people in terms of age range and background that went to see it.

AT: Has being involved with the film changed your attitude to stammering or people who stammer?

NS: As I said I had a family member who developed a stammer, so I did become more interested in that whole area. And yes I would like to know more in a way. I was fascinated by the reading I did about it and I've got that wonderful anthology of poems from BSA called When the words won't come. In fact I gave it to Colin, he was incredibly moved by it.

Yes the film has made me think a lot more, and I hope I understand a little bit more about the variety, if nothing else, of how a stammer can manifest itself. And it's very interesting to me - though I shouldn't have been surprised by this - that people stammer in every language all over the world, and how many people in this country alone stammer. I thought that was fascinating, as well as learning about some of the therapy that goes on. It made me think a great deal more about it, and I hope the film has made other people think more about it as well.

Where else do we get the chance to work on a film where really the central character is voice, speech?

Keeping the stammer authentic

AT: Any final thoughts?

NS: I'm very pleased to hear you felt that Colin did justice to people who live with a stammer, because I know that was something that he was very very aware of, and felt a great responsibility for.

Also it was very interesting while we were working on the film just to think tonally how far we could go and should go with the strength of George's stammer. I think a less courageous director than Tom - and indeed a less courageous actor than Colin - might have felt the need to slightly sanitise the degree and authenticity of that stammer, and I'm really really pleased that neither of them did. I think that would have been a great injustice. So I think there's a lot to be said for Tom and Colin's integrity in that area. And also of course we had the wonderful David Seidler, our writer, who is a stammerer himself, it was very important to have his input.

The King's Speech is available on DVD and Blu-ray from 9th May 2011, courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

This is an extended version of the interview published in the Summer 2011 issue of Speaking Out, pages 6 and 7.