“Oh you can’t always get what you want/ No, you can’t always get what you want/ But if you try sometimes you just might find/ You get what you need.” So sang Sir Mick and his Perambulating Pebbles. I should’ve paid attention. Should’ve listened.
It’s fairly well known (publicists are relentless) that I had wanted to write something about King George VI ever since “Bertie” became my boyhood hero for handling his stammer a great deal better than I was handling mine.
“Listen to him,” my parents urged, as we crowded around our wood-cabinet vacuum-tube wartime radio, listening to his measured tones accompanied by a symphony of static.
“He was far worse than you,” the parental team assured me. “Listen to him now.” Translation: there’s still some hope for you, poor stammering blighter.
Years later I started doing some research and stumbled across the King’s speech specialist, Lionel Logue – an untrained, non-credentialed Australian wannabe actor with a Harley Street practice. Ah ha!
I made contact with one of his sons, Valentine, who offered to meet with me and show the notebooks his father kept while treating the King. There was one minor caveat: I had to get permission from the Queen Mother. She wrote, “Please, not during my lifetime, the memory of those events is still too painful.” I dutifully waited a quarter of a century until that wonderful lady had her last gin and tonic. Then I got to write the movie and the play. Got what I wanted. Easy peasy. Not quite.
I was two thirds into the screenplay when I had the distinct feeling that air was leaking from the tyres. I showed the pages to my then wife who, with great diplomacy, suggested that while of course it was utterly brilliant, it was just a tad… er… diffuse. She recommended – as an exercise – it might benefit by first being written as a play. The physical limitations of the stage would force me to concentrate on my key relationship. After all, The King’s Speech is basically two men in a room. If that tent-pole were firmly erected I could then hang everything from it like Christmas tree ornaments.
Trouble was, once written, I began to view it as far more than an exercise. I’d always wanted, above all things, to be a playwright. Being a born show-off is an unfortunate state for a boy who can’t speak publicly. However, if stammering meant I couldn’t say the lines, at least a playwright might create them. So I wrote leaden imitations of George Bernard Shaw, and the occasional earnest homage to Bertolt Brecht.
It will not come as a total shock to learn that this didn’t help me earn a living. Then, after decades of bill-paying years in the trenches of Madison Avenue, Fleet Street and Hollywood… Eureka! TKS had been born.
My offering made its way to the desk of a fledgling producer, who managed to arrange a reading at the Pleasance theatre in Islington. The director, Alan Cohen, had only a few hours to work with the cast and then… There I was listening to my play. People were laughing, crying, clapping. Good Lord.
Afterwards, a nice couple came over and asked if they could send the piece to their son. I had no idea who they were, or who their son was, but feeling benign, I said “Send to your heart’s content.” Later I learned that their son was the TV and film director Tom Hooper.
Tom didn’t read it. Not for months. I suppose directing 14 hours of the TV mini-series John Adams was time consuming. Meanwhile, attempts were being made to get the play produced. Some of the very best people in London said no. A rejection note I will always treasure came from a reader at the National Theatre who sniffed, “This is not yet a play, and if it were to become one it still wouldn’t be for us.” I’ve had it framed.
Other energies were afoot. Bedlam Productions and See-Saw Films teamed up and raised enough development money for me to transform my stage play back into a screenplay. That took about two weeks. Geoffrey Rush committed to play Logue. Momentum jumped in on the UK side, The Weinstein Company from the other side of the Atlantic.
After six months silence, Tom Hooper surfaced and asked if the rights were available. I said no, but the job of director was. Suddenly we were off to the races. Colin Firth came on as Bertie (did I get lucky!) and a truly Best of British cast was assembled.
When Tom first read my script, he declared it the best he’d ever been sent. I reminded him of that several dozen drafts later. In the process I learned, scene by scene, line by line, the difference between what works on the screen and on stage. I’m grateful for the lesson.
The film went on to win every gong in sight and make buckets and buckets of money for everyone except the author (bad contract!)
“No, you can’t always get what you waaaaaaant.” Which sounds like I’m being an ungrateful sod. But truly, I was thrilled with the film. Yet I desperately wanted to see it on stage.
Then, miraculously, it started to happen. The first requirement was a name director.
A friend was appearing in a production of The Madness of King George, directed by Adrian Noble. When I saw it, I knew he was a man who understood how to do a history play.
Timing, however, presented a problem. The film was almost too successful. Would people really want to see it again, albeit in a different form? Would there be any actors brave enough to test their mettle against the acclaimed work of Firth and Rush? It was decided that it would be very modest. A nice UK tour. That would suit me fine.
Rehearsals began. Immediately I realised that I was getting both what I wanted and needed. Within days, Charles Edwards as Bertie and Jonathan Hyde as Logue had made the roles their own, as did the rest of the wonderful cast. The film was quickly forgotten. Don’t get me wrong, Tom’s captaining of my ship was brilliant; he made some wonderful choices. For the film. But now I was able to go back to my original vision. More wicked humour. More of the behind-the-scenes politics that make this very personal story so fascinating. More domestic drama. More… immediacy. Because film and stage are so very different.
Not only is the writing itself different, so is the acting. A film performance is an edited assemblage of hundreds of little bits – short “takes”, or pieces of takes. That’s not in any way to denigrate a great film performance (I was privileged to get many in The King’s Speech). Film acting requires a prolonged overview that makes my mind boggle – keeping emotional track of scenes filmed out of sequence, often weeks or months apart.
The stage presents a different challenge. The actor must craft an entire performance in one take. Then do it eight times a week. From the moment the curtain goes up, it’s all one long “take”. One can feel the electricity.
As I watched the actors (Charles, Jonathan, Emma Fielding as Elizabeth, Ian McNeice as Churchill, Joss Ackland as George V, Charlotte Randle as Myrtle, Michael Feast as Archbishop Cosmo Lang, Dennis Killick as Stanley Baldwin, and Daniel Betts as Edward VIII) work their magic, I was humbled – and very grateful. This was my King’s Speech.
We opened to a packed house at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford with bravos, cheers and a standing ovation. This joyous reception continued in Nottingham, Bath, Brighton, Richmond and Newcastle. Now we embark upon the West End.
As a young lad in austerity England (the one after the war), my grandfather would take me to plays at the Hippodrome. The diva and leading man would swoop on stage, stop in a pool of light, strike a grandiose pose, and everyone would clap thunderously. I so wanted to be part of that world.
Now I’ve got both what I wanted and needed. No need to sing another Rolling Stones number, the one about not getting no satisfaction.
This is very satisfying indeed.