Things The King’s Speech was silent about

I got the book The King’s Speech for Christmas and just finished it; in the very wide field of “slender material adapted into a thrilling hit movie, on whose strength it is then flogged”, it must be some kind of record-breaker. I enjoyed the book, as a reader with about a degree-and-a-half in European history and a keen interest in the pre-war period, but I do not have the creative imagination to have imagined it as fodder for Hollywood. The plain fact is that Lionel Logue scored his big breakthrough in treating the Duke of York (the future King George VI) very quickly, taking a matter of literally a few weeks in late 1926 to help him overcome his stammer and to raise his oratorical abilities to a standard of adequacy. After that time, Logue was consulted very occasionally, serving the King as a sort of good-luck totem on major occasions like the Coronation.

The men obviously got on well, and for decades His Majesty treated Logue with a touching solicitude. Logue’s life was otherwise uneventful. As even the most unschooled reader must have intuited, most of the stuff of the movie—the shouting match in the street, the poignant reconciliation, the surprise royal visit to Logue’s home—is a fairy tale.

Lionel Logue clippingBut the Hollywoodization of the source material, which researcher/grandson Mark Logue waited until the Queen Mother’s demise to bring to the big screen, goes even further than that. A year after the Oscar triumph of The King’s Speech (still a marvellous film, in my view), most of the audience may still not know that the real Lionel Logue didn’t look anything like Geoffrey Rush. I was surprised to flip to the illustration plates in the book and find that Logue, far from being a vaguely ruined-looking, sad-faced fellow, was actually handsome in a Kennedy-family way. He seems to have positively shone with health and confidence—which, when you think about the background, should really be no surprise at all.

As the movie concedes, Logue had no professional credentials to speak of. He fell into “speech therapy”, a field that did not really exist when he started out, almost by accident. Elocution was about all Logue was any good at in school. In his day, that talent opened the door to a career in entertainment, as a reciter of poems and dramatic monologues. Mark Logue records that, as a young stage performer, he was an erotic sensation among the “goldfield girls” of Western Australia during a resource boom. The movie, by contrast, suggests that Logue’s acting career was no more than a pathetic fantasy. (How could somebody who looked like Geoffrey Rush ever have been a star of stage and screen?)

It was only with the return of Australian soldiers from the First World War that Logue’s calling as an elocution teacher began to tilt, almost imperceptibly, toward the bailiwick of medicine. Like chiropractors of today, he was ostensibly able to assist some afflicted people for whom scientifically validated medical care cannot do much good. His looks, along with a bit of actor’s training, must have helped a great deal.

(Incidentally, after Logue climbed to the top of the new discipline with royal help, he shrewdly pulled the ladder up after himself, employing George VI in an effort to establish standards and licensing criteria he could never himself have met when he was starting out. Public-choice economists will find this a textbook example of how health cartels establish “restricted entry” barriers.)

There’s something else the movie doesn’t disclose: Logue had cash. His grandson’s book shuffles around this topic a tad, but he mentions that the founder of the Logue family in Australia ran a leading brewery that eventually became part of a South Australian beer cartel. Young Lionel went to the best private schools, had the means to travel the world more or less on a whim, and seems to have had no trouble coming up with the cash to obtain office space in London’s Harley Street in 1924—the key decision of his life, amounting to a more or less outright purchase of instant quasi-medical respectability. (Even today Harley Street is the world’s most recognizable physical marketplace for private medical consulting.) Logue was not what you call rich, but the movie depicts a sort of brave, shabby gentility that probably understates the class standing of the real Logue—just as Geoffrey Rush’s rubber mug does poor justice to Logue’s looks.

Of course, “Handsome, affluent guy works his way into the good graces of royalty without much difficulty” wouldn’t have made for much of a movie, would it?