The King’s Speech

The astounding success of The King’s Speech has been the main talking point of British film this year. By now there are few people who aren’t aware of its simple yet affecting story, following George VI (Colin Firth) and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) as they work together to overcome his stammer and, in the process, form an unlikely friendship. Since its release in January, audiences have flocked to see the film again and again, while the bestowal of both Best Film and Best Director at the Oscars only confirmed its enormous popularity. Yet this success was not always a sure thing, as I learn when I sit down to chat with its executive producer, Paul Brett. He reflects that it wasn’t necessarily as easy a ride as the slick final product might suggest, especially financially: ‘There was a very unfortunate move in the dollar rate… and so that issue meant that a million dollars was taken out of the budget just before they shot, and it meant that absolutely every shot had to be planned… Necessity is the mother of invention. There was never any wasted celluloid, we were so careful. It was so well storyboarded – [director] Tom Hooper and his incredible team just did such a phenomenal job of planning and preparation.’

Indeed, the point to which Brett comes back again and again is in praising the sheer dedication of its creative team to produce what appears to be a fairly effortless final product, both behind and in front of the camera: ‘The camaraderie is just extraordinary, A lot was made of the bromance between Colin [Firth] and Geoffrey [Rush], but it’s genuine.’ He also highlights Helena Bonham Carter’s BAFTA winning and Oscar nominated performance for praise, emphasising just how much work she put into the film: ‘I want to point out that Helena did six weekends in a row for us, Saturday and Sunday, and her day job, Monday to Friday, was Harry Potter 7 and 8. She did 42 days in a row, while raising two children and having Tim Burton as a partner. So that’s really quite extraordinary.’

In addition to this commitment by its makers, The King’s Speech also had its fair share of luck, most significantly in David Seidler’s script: ‘This amazing thing happened nine weeks before the start of principle photography, which is that Lionel Logue’s grandson, who lives in London, was tracked down, and he had two trunks full of diaries and letters, which were a goldmine. And that’s where a lot of the best lines of the film came from, and they were inserted right up to the shooting date… They were put in relatively late in the day, and I think helped turn it into the masterpiece it is.’ In addition to this, they were also particularly lucky that the play upon which the script was based remained unproduced, ‘which is why it won Best Original Screenplay. Otherwise we’d have been up against Aaron Sorkin…’

It was soon clear to Brett that the filmmakers’ dedication was paying off; he remembers the first cut as being ‘the best first cut I’d ever seen… I remember saying to Tom [Hooper] at that first screening in March, two months after the principle photography, I said to him, “It’s a masterpiece.” And I’d like to think I’m the first person to use the word about the film.’ Momentum behind The King’s Speech rapidly gathered pace, with a rapturous reception at the official premiere in October, and from there, its success seemed inevitable. Brett recalls this night, remembering how, ‘when it premiered in Toronto last year, [Christian] Colson, who produced Slumdog Millionaire, he said, “Don’t forget to enjoy it, because I did.” But it’s been such an enjoyable ride.’ Indeed, the link between The King’s Speech and Slumdog is a strong one, as together they are the two of the most successful British films of the decade. In 2008, Danny Boyle’s hyperkinetic snapshot of Indian slums, torture and quiz shows won eight Oscars, and with The King’s Speech winning four, it seems that we are witnessing a contemporary flourishing of British filmmaking talent. ‘In this country we have great scriptwriters, and we have amazing technicians behind the cameras. So although in the first half of the Oscar ceremony it wasn’t going so well for us, quite a few of the technical awards went to Inception – almost entirely British talent – or Alice in Wonderland – almost entirely British talent. In this case, you rarely found an American winning. There were so many British winners at the Oscars this year, it was extraordinary.’

Yet although the British film industry appeared to flourish this year, many have lamented its impending demise with the closure of the UK Film Council – is he optimistic about its future? ‘Oh absolutely. I’m the world’s most optimistic man, and I always think that there’s some strong stuff. I mean I think Slumdog did a fantastic job for the British film industry, just as Chariots of Fire did in its day, just as A Matter of Life and Death did in its day. The talent that comes out of Britain shows that we really punch above our weight. The sheer passion we have within this country for filmmaking is extraordinary, and the death of the UK Film Council (while those funds are being transferred to the British Film Institute) I think is very unfortunate… The UK Film Council nurtured training, distribution, education, and myriads of other things, and did a fantastic job, and that’s all got to be relearnt now. The BFI will do a fantastic job, but it’s just a shame, especially because they were in the process of slimming down and refocusing on nurturing British talent through to the world stage. And that’s what this is all about.’

Originally published by Cherwell on 29 April 2011, in print and online.

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