I once worked in an office near a benign but rather simple soul who was also an ardent royalist. On the wall above her desk was a photograph of the Queen Mother with her husband King George VI.
The Queen Mother was a national institution, just like fish and chips. Even republicans had to grudgingly concede a certain respect for this robust matriarch who undertook a hectic schedule well into her 90s. It just wasn't cricket to say anything else. So the woman in question, along with many others, worshipped the Queen Mum.
The same employee, however, had little good to say about King George. When someone passed her desk and commented on the photo, she'd say "She's a marvellous lady, ain't' she? Shame about 'im, though (King George), he was a weak man, you know, he had the most dreadful stu'er". She said this repeatedly, I mean several times a week.
The casual equation of stammering with weakness was/is a common perception. Or people thought that if you stammered you either weren't very bright or you were simply nervous.
Life was also much tougher for stammerers 20 to 30 years ago, pre-internet, pre-mobile and pre-email. In those days if you stammered badly you often felt utterly alone. Communication advances mean that those with speech problems now feel more connected. But even in the 1990s I remember feeling frustrated at the ignorance of the general public and employers towards the affliction.
Organisations like the British Stammering Association, whose interview with Colin Firth
we reproduce with their kind permission, faced an uphill battle to get funding and attention when set against more visible disabilities and illnesses. And that's in no way to diminish the sterling efforts of its current Chief Executive, Norbert Lieckfieldt or his equally gifted predecessor Peter Cartwright.
The King's Speech could be a defining moment for people who stammer. Films have depicted stammerers before – most notably One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (a fine portrayal by Brad Dourif) but too often stammerers were comic figures. Ronnie Barker was a stupendously gifted comic actor but – to be honest – his portrayal of Arkwright in Open All Hours was not his finest hour. He acted as if the character he portrayed was merely stumbling over his speech, as if stammering was just a kind of bumbling dysfluency. Those people familiar with stammering will tell you that it's a condition characterised by struggle and, sometimes, by avoidance.
In 1988 A Fish Called Wanda hit the cinemas. This divided the stammering community. Some found it deeply offensive because the Michael Palin character was a figure of fun. Others thought that stammerers' very sensitivity about their problem was a vicious circle and that any publicity was essentially good publicity. I was in the latter camp; in fact, it became one of my favourite films. Still, what was needed was a serious depiction of stammering in a film.
Now The King's Speech has appeared. The Oscar buzz is turning into a roar and, although I never count chickens, it's gathering momentum. I haven't seen the film but I trust the opinion of the current Chief Executive of the British Stammering Association, Norbert Lieckfieldt, when he says that Colin Firth has done an excellent job in depicting the silent, strangulated blocks that characterised King George's stammer.
So, dear former colleague (NOT) I refuse to believe that King George was a weak man just because he stammered, just as I disregard Hitler's recorded description of King George as "a simpleton". King George confonted his fears head on and succeeded in inspiring the nation during the darkest days of World War 2.
I'm not saying that all stammerers are clever, neither am I saying that there aren't any stammerers who are nervous – although often it's a case of what came first – the nervousness (about speaking) or the stammer. But we should resist assumptions about people until we get to know them.
Congratulations again to everyone involved in making The King's Speech, particularly Colin Firth, director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler.