The King’s Speech

I was tremendously impressed by the king’s address to the Bundestag last week.  Slipping apparently effortlessly between English and German, he appeared entirely relaxed.  I got the impression he was speaking Hochdeutsch that was scrupulously korrekt whilst still idiomatic.  I suppose a native German speaker might have proofread his text, might even have composed it, yet I didn’t get the impression the king was merely lip-syncing.  I think he knew what he was talking about.  I suppose he has been trained all his life to address august bodies.  But still, to address the assembled Bundestag in German… He appeared to go down very well.  Funnily enough, the part of his address which I least understood was given in English.  He made a reference to Miss Sophie’s “the same procedure as every year, James?” which elicited laughter.  I had no idea what he was talking about.  I wondered if it might be some reference to a James Bond movie, perhaps some thinly veiled double entendre from Miss Moneypenny, but no.  It was apparently a reference to a theatrical sketch from 1963, entitled Dinner for One, aka The 90th Birthday (German: Der 90. Geburtstag), written by Lauri Wylie, and starring May Warden and Freddie Frinton.  A deluded upper class English lady presides over a dinner party for four guests who are all in fact absent because deceased.  The butler serves up a four course meal of soup (mulligatawny), fish, chicken, and fruit, each course accompanied in turn by sherry, white wine, champagne, and port.  The butler is required to fill in for the absent guests, thus toasting the hostess sixteen times and becoming progressively more and more plastered.  There is plenty of slapstick, chiefly the butler’s repeatedly tripping over the head of one of these absurd tiger skin rugs from the colonial era.   Apparently this sketch is hugely popular in Germany, and is shown every New Year’s Eve. 

To be honest, it left me cold.  That probably says more about me than about the sketch.  But drunkenness is seldom funny.  There is a sketch by Rikki Fulton, in his persona as the Reverend Jolly, giving an armchair “Late Call” homily on telly, unaware that the water decanter he takes copious advantage of contains neat gin.  When I watch it, I feel like Malvolio in Twelfth Night.  I need Sir Toby Belch to berate me.  “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”  I wonder if the Germans might be similarly unmoved by Henning Wehn (the king called him Germany’s comedy ambassador), who tells the tale of a child, seemingly, to his parents’ consternation, unable to speak, until one evening at the dinner table, aged five, he announces, “The soup is cold.”  His parents, overjoyed that he is no longer mute, ask him why he has not spoken before.

“Until now, everything has been satisfactory.”

The king made reference to his forthcoming coronation in Westminster Abbey next month.  This reminded me of the coronation of his grandfather, George VI, immortalised in the movie The King’s Speech, in which Colin Firth played the king, and Geoffrey Rush, his Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue.  At the coronation rehearsal, Bertie berates Lionel for sitting on the throne above the Stone of Scone.  It’s a vignette about kingship, un coup de théâtre.  Charles will occupy that seat next month. (At least, as far as we know.)  I wonder what George VI would have thought if somebody had told him in 1939, that his grandson would address the Reichstag at a time of peace and harmony, at least across Western Europe.  At the time, his own challenge was to control his stammer and address, on the radio, The United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, and the Empire.  He pulls it off in the movie, somewhat aided by the allegretto from Beethoven 7, and subsequently soothed by the slow movement of the Emperor Piano Concerto.

There is a powerful scene in The King’s Speech in which George VI asks the Archbishop of Canterbury to find a place for Lionel Logue in the pew reserved for the immediate royal family.  Canterbury, who is a snob and who thinks Logue is a parvenu and a charlatan, scratches his chin and says, “Well, of course sir, I’ll see what I can do, but it is going to be very, very difficult.” 

I’ve come to regard that reply as a marker for the establishment’s consummate ability to close ranks.  I’ve just finished reading Jon Snow’s The State of Us (Bantam, 2023).  It’s really a book about inequality in the modern world, especially in modern Britain.  Grenfell Tower lies at its heart.  It’s about the disadvantaged in search of the life more abundant, who are continually fobbed off with the rejoinder, “Well, of course, I’ll see what I can do, but it is going to be very, very difficult.”    

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