On the set of 'The King's Speech'

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Tom Huddleston ventures to Draper's Hall in central London too observe the filming of this Brit Oscar condender

British cinema’s definite frontrunner in the current awards season, ‘The King’s Speech’ wasn’t always such an easy sell. A wordy period drama from the director of ‘The Damned United’ about a largely overlooked monarch – George VI, who was thrust on to the throne following his elder brother Edward’s abdication – and his friendship with an Australian speech therapist, the film could have been a stuffy portrait of royal reserve and aristocratic angst.

When I visited the film’s set one snowy morning in February, I saw little to counter that initial impression. In the freezing confines of the Draper’s Hall in the City of London, cast and crew were preparing to film a brief but important scene in which George accepts the English crown. Surrounded by a gaggle of elderly, distinguished-looking extras dressed to the nines in regal finery, director Tom Hooper was clearly feeling the pressure, huddled over a monitor as his star Colin Firth stuttered his way through the royal oath.

The resulting film displays the end result of Hooper’s single-minded dedication not only to a convincing recreation of a particular period in British history, but to making that period feel relevant to modern audiences. ‘This isn’t the chocolate-box version,’ enthused Timothy Spall, whose performance as Winston Churchill is one of the film’s highlights. ‘There’s a real emotional content, it’s definitely not stiff. It’s naturalistic, but written in the parlance of the time. People aren’t saying, “Prime Minister, it’d be really cool if the King was replaced by his bro!” The script is riddled with facts, but it’s not leaden. It flows.’

While it seems remarkable he’s never played the part before, Spall is a perfect physical fit for the role of the original British Bulldog. He’d spent the weeks leading up to shooting immersing himself in Churchillian arcana. ‘I listened assiduously to all of his major speeches, and I watched lots of footage of him. I just imbued myself with Churchill.’ And although he’s far from the lead, the future PM is key to the events in Hooper’s story. ‘He’s a backroom manipulator,’ smiles Spall. ‘A mover and shaker in the corridors of power. Very much a person who knew how to manipulate the wheels of state.’

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As the unwordly George VI, Colin Firth has a unique viewpoint on Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler’s efforts to fuse historical fact with emotional truth: ‘I’m playing someone who exists in this rarefied world where everyone has to bow to him and call him “Your Royal Highness”,’ says Firth. ‘Obviously I’ve no idea what that’s like. But one of the things that’s interesting to me is that it doesn’t make you feel important: it makes you feel lonely and isolated.’

And in the Draper’s Hall, Firth’s (or at least George’s) isolation was plain to see. Standing alone before a line of admirals, parliamentary advisors and royal bigwigs, the King looked like a man overwhelmed by the role history had chosen for him. The ornate vastness of the room didn’t help – festooned with flags, banners and stern royal portraiture, it’s daunting even
for the casual bystander.

But luckily for Firth (and for the audience), George’s battles with the rigid forces of aristocratic propriety aren’t the focus of Seidler’s script. Instead, it explores the relationship between the King and his radical Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush. For producer Iain Canning, this sense of intimacy was the script’s biggest selling point. ‘Everyone has an opinion about the royal family, about how state events unfold, but no one has an insight into those one-on-one moments,’ Canning told me over stew in the crew canteen. ‘There are so many little details. For example, George was told to smoke for his stammer, and then he died of cancer. And Logue was doing fascinating work. There are all these ideas about taking someone apart and putting them back together.’

What ‘The King’s Speech’ proves is that given a smart script, a dedicated director and a terrific cast, just about any story, however obscure and apparently demanding, has the potential to become a crowd-pleasing film. And while the atmosphere on set that day in the Draper’s Hall may have been icy and oppressive, the result is anything but. In finding the tipping point between dry historical biopic and intimate emotional drama, Hooper’s film illuminates history in a convincing, affecting and, above all, entertaining fashion.

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