Interview: David Seidler
'The King's Speech' is back where it started: in the theatre. Oscar-winning writer David Seidler talks about a very personal drama.
David Seidler hit the Hollywood big time last year at the ripe age of 73, when he won an Oscar for writing 'The King's Speech'. Now he's about to have his first West End hit at the age of 74: his stage play of that same story arrives at London's Wyndham's Theatre, after a warmly received UK tour, on March 22.
Not many people know that 'The King's Speech' started life as a play script: the movie's director, Tom Hooper, came into contact with it after his parents saw a reading of it at a somewhat humbler London Fringe venue in Islington, the Pleasance.
It's one of many remarkable facts and coincidences behind Seidler's quest to tell this particular story - which has so much human interest and so many bizarre twists that it could itself be a gong-laden fiction.
'It's had a very strange career,' says Seidler, whose laid back charm and easy intonation owe more to Long Island, where he was brought up after his family relocated to avoid the Blitz, than they do to his brief three years of English childhood.
But his connection to the material owes everything to that perilous emigration: parted from his nanny and sailing to New York in a convoy which was attached by German U-boats, Seidler's own stutter began somewhere between his first memory, the sound of distant guns at Dunkirk, and his second, the Statue of Liberty.
'For years I knew I wanted to write about the king,' Seidler explains. 'He was a childhood hero of mine, because I stuttered and he stuttered. They always tell young writers, “Write what you know.” And that is often misinterpreted. You literally write about yourself and your loves and the poetry in your heart and all the stuff you feel so passionately about. But that's not what the advice means. Don't write about yourself, write about something that has a resonance with you; an experience you can understand. So to a large extent “The King's Speech” is not only about George VI, it's about David Seidler, about my journey through stuttering.'
Seidler stuttered for 13 years of his childhood. He was cured, he recalls, 'In exactly the same way as the scene that got us an “R” rating in the USA and put the film in the same category as “Chainsaw Massacre”. In a country where you can advertise a film called “Little Fockers” everywhere. I mean, who are we kidding? But yes, it was the swearing which is, I now find, a not uncommon breakthrough. I was 16. Hormones were raging. I couldn't ask a girl on a date or talk to her if she had said yes. And I found myself jumping up and down on my bed, yelling the F-word.'
Hormones, frustration and outrage were a potent cocktail which helped the schoolboy Seidler smash through his personal speech barrier: 'I was yelling the F-word and saying to myself, “This is bloody unfair,” ' Seidler reflects. 'What have I done wrong? I haven't slept with my mother. I haven't killed my father. Why have the gods visited this affliction upon me? I thought: If I'm stuck with this F-word for the rest of my life, the rest of you are bloody well going to listen to me - I have a voice and I have a right to be heard.'
The trouble he had expressing himself verbally was instrumental to Seidler becoming a writer: he penned his first story, an O Henry rip-off called 'The History of a Penny', at the age of ten. 'If you're a hambone and a show-off, which I am,' he chuckles, 'yet you can't speak, you have to look for other ways of expressing yourself and getting the attention that a poor little boy needs.'
A late developer in his chosen career, he only arrived in Hollywood as a writer at the age of 40. The bromantic period drama that has made Seidler's name has also had a leisurely journey to the limelight.
'I started researching it in the 1970s,' says Seidler. 'Nothing was written about Logue at that time. So I had a friend in London do some detective work - which I think consisted of looking in the telephone directory - and she came up with Valentine Logue, Lionel's son, an eminent retired Harley Street brain surgeon. He had the notebooks he kept while his father treated the king and was happy to talk to me, but only if I got written permission from the Queen Mother.
So I wrote to her and she wrote back, via her private secretary, and said, “Please Mr Logue, not during my lifetime; the memory of these events is too painful.” I'm not a monarchist but I am respectful. And when the Queen Mother asks, you obey. And she was an old lady; I didn't think I had long to wait. But it was 30 years later that she had her last gin and tonic. Only then could I write the play.'
The screenplay had its politics and its humour toned down for the movie market. 'There were many, many drafts,' says Seidler. 'There were lots of lingering gremlins of theatricality that Tom Hooper wanted expunged. And I'm very delighted to have them back in the stage play!'
The prime example is the roles of Winston Churchill, Cosmo Lang (the then Archbishop of Canterbury) and Stanley Baldwin, who barely interact in the film. 'In the play they act as a kind of comic Greek chorus, commenting on the politics of the era,' says Seidler, 'They're rather like the old guys in “The Muppets”.'
Some critics of the film felt that it was too apolitical with regard to the monarchy. Seidler's own ideals lie with the Fabian socialism of his idol George Bernard Shaw (who, it transpires, was Lionel Logue's wife's bridge partner). But he feels that the film 'hit the right balance. The only editorial choice I did object to was the removal of the euthanasia of George V, which was filmed but taken out because it was felt to be so controversial it might overpower the film.'
George V's doctor, Lord Dawson, documented how he injected the terminally ill monarch with heroin and cocaine in time for his death to be reported 'in the morning papers rather than the less appropriate evening journals'. It is revived as an issue in Seidler's play - which is directed by Adrian Noble and boasts debonair stage star Charles Edwards in the central role of Bertie and Jonathan Hyde as Lionel Logue.
The stage tour is happening exceptionally soon after the film. And Seidler argues that charismatic Aussie Lionel - as much as titled Bertie - is the reason for the story's broad appeal. 'As a movie it played unexpectedly well in black communities that don't usually go to foreign films,' says Seidler. 'And it played well with the kids too. I saw the play at Guildford, which you'd expect to be an elderly home counties audience, and it was a very youthful audience. It gets audiences who understand what it's like to be marginalised; not to be heard and to find your voice. I think we all long for a Lionel Logue in our life: a mentor, rabbi, priest or just somebody that we could absolutely trust as a friend. Seeing that on stage or screen, I think, is a very powerful experience.'