Wednesday, 26 January 2011

A Churchillian view of the 1930s? Cinematic representations of politics and monarchy in 'The King's Speech' By Gary Love

The following is an essay written by Dr. Gary Love from the Cardiff School of History, Archaeology and Religion and relates to our sciSCREENing of The King's Speech yesterday.

‘The King’s Speech’ focuses mainly on the relationship between King George VI and his speech therapist Lionel Logue, but the film also introduces audiences to other important historical characters, namely Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, and Winston Churchill, and the influential role of the new mass media (radio, film, and the popular press) in Britain. I plan to say a few words about the historical accuracy of the film before moving on to comment on the role of the new mass media in relation to other established modes of communication, which had dominated the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

The film portrays Edward VIII and George VI in ways that most historians would now recognise, but its brief depiction of Stanley Baldwin and the broader political scene is wide of the mark. In short, the filmmakers are woefully inaccurate with regard to Baldwin and the National government’s policy of appeasement, which is disappointing because it would have made little difference to the overall cinematic experience if they had paid more attention to historical detail.

Stanley Baldwin did not retire in shame in 1937 as the film suggests. It is simply wrong to argue that Baldwin misjudged the Nazi menace and that this was the main reason for his resignation as Prime Minister after the Coronation of George VI. As a historian, the moment in the film when Baldwin states ‘Churchill was right all along’ made me cringe because this is a classic example of accepting a Churchillian narrative of the 1930s at face value. In fact, Baldwin’s reputation remained high until 1940. It was only the publication of the book Guilty Men by ‘Cato’ and Churchill’s war memoirs that destroyed Baldwin’s and the National government’s reputation. In the end, they took much of the blame for ‘failing’ to rearm during the 1930s and this view was sustained by historians until the 1960s. As we can see, it still gains currency today and we should question why this is the case. Perhaps the filmmakers had an American audience in mind when choosing to elevate Churchill from the political fringe to the centre of British political and monarchical life.

As recent scholarship has shown, Baldwin was the chief architect of a Christian, anti-totalitarian message, which he delivered in his speeches, radio broadcasts, and on film from the early 1930s. In the political world, Baldwin was the first to use and adapt successfully to radio and film. Baldwin was the unrivalled political media star of his age, but after the Second World War his political reputation lay in ruins. Undoubtedly, Baldwin laid the rhetorical groundwork for Churchill’s unifying messages during the Second World War. Nor is it the case that he purposefully neglected rearmament. After all, he was the first to warn in Parliament that ‘the bomber will always get through’ and he had accepted that Britain’s defensive frontier lay on the banks of the river Rhine. True, Baldwin’s reputation suffered in 1935. After campaigning during the general election in support of collective security in view of Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, he soon abandoned the League of Nations. This was interoperated by many as an act of political deception, but Baldwin’s handling of the ‘Abdication Crisis’ in 1936 restored his reputation. On the eve of his retirement, Baldwin was once more characterised as the archetypical English gentlemen who governed genuinely in the national interest, the ideal figurehead for a national government. If he had any regrets they related to handing on the British ‘torch of freedom’ to his successor Neville Chamberlain. Baldwin recognised that his successor lacked the common touch, which had been a key feature of his own leadership.

A few examples should illustrate my point. On 20 May 1937, a few weeks after the Coronation, Thomas Jones, Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet, wrote in his diary: ‘Outside on the pavement, on the Foreign Office side, people were waiting on the chance of a glimpse of him and earlier in the week there had been crowds shouting, “We want Baldwin,” but he had not responded. He has ceased to be thought of as leader of the Tory Party and stands out as the national leader “par excellence”.’ Of his retirement, the writer, journalist, and broadcaster, Harold Nicholson proclaimed, ‘No man has ever left in such a blaze of affection.’ This was a common view shared both by political and educated elites and by the general public. On 9 February 1938, Viscount Hinchingbrooke wrote an account of a private meeting with Baldwin: ‘[Baldwin’s] conscience is clear about rearmament…He believes sincerely that we started rearming as soon as we could and the country could not have stood it a moment sooner, nor had the Government the information to acquaint the country with.’

Baldwin retired in 1937 simply because he was an old man (he was 70) who had been at the forefront of British politics for most of the interwar period. He thought about retiring much earlier in the 1930s but he felt that it was his duty to remain in power to bring the ‘Abdication Crisis’ to an acceptable conclusion. Now he was happy to relinquish his role as PM. Churchill was not a central figure in this story nor was he an important adviser to King George VI during 1937-39. Indeed, during the ‘Abdication Crisis’ Churchill had played a major role in advising Edward VIII on how to stay on the throne. He was seen as a troublemaker who was bent on disrupting Baldwin’s honourable efforts to secure the retention of public values and constitutional propriety. If anyone should have advised George VI on his broadcasts it should have been Baldwin who had mastered the medium like no other politician. Churchill had few occasions to broadcast in the 1930s because he was denied access by Conservative Central Office which selected Conservative political speakers.

In one scene in the film there is a wall-poster enjoining people to ‘Stand by the King’. This was produced by the fascist Blackshirt newspaper. There was some fear at the time that Churchill and other political rogues such as the fascist leader Oswald Mosley would work to construct a King’s party to rival the National government and the crowning of George VI. Of course, nothing like this ever occurred, but it was not until the war years that Churchill assumed much importance and established a genuine rapport with George VI. So the imposition of Churchill on much of this story at the expense of Baldwin, not to mention Chamberlain who barely gets a mention, is largely based on a retrospective popularisation of Churchill as the ‘greatest Briton’.

However, what the film does recapture rather successfully is the response of educated elites in the 1930s to the importance of radio as a national unifying medium, which could be used for the projection of Christian values and democratic constitutionalism against revolutionary ideas of both left and right. The interwar years saw the development of a democratic and commercial media culture, which responded to the franchise reforms of 1918 and 1928. Britain was now a democracy and educated elites could no longer dictate policy or define the parameters of political debate like they had done during the long nineteenth century. Some elites refused to engage with new media because they judged its sensationalism to be unworthy, but others sought to adjust to it and use it to further their ambitions. In the film, you get a good sense of how elites lamented a by-gone age. George V recognises broadcasting as a necessity but he cannot hide his contempt for the changing role of the monarchy and his closer relationship with his subjects. Likewise, Archbishop Lang describes radio as ‘a Pandora’s box’ and he makes sure to edit the newsreels before they are broadcast.

Yet as the film also recognises, the role of the monarchy and its ability to communicate with the general public was vital in this period. Although the monarchy’s political power had declined, it gained in popularity during 1935-37, a period that saw the Silver Jubilee (a new addition to monarchical pageantry), George V’s death, the ‘Abdication Crisis’, and the Coronation of George VI. A resurgence of royalist feeling amongst the general public even inspired the creation of the social research organisation, Mass Observation, which sought to explain why this had occurred. Certainly, this popular feeling for monarchy lasted until the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Indeed, it is at least arguable that such feeling continues to exist today as millions lined the streets of London during both her Silver Jubilee in 1977 and her Golden Jubilee in 2002. George VI’s Christmas broadcast was extremely popular, but it was meant to end the tradition once and for all. It was only on the eve of war that George VI was persuaded to embrace it again. In the end, his D-Day broadcast proved to be the most listened-to broadcast of the war years.


  1. Thank you to all the speakers at sci screen this week - I just wanted to make a point I didn't get to raise during.

    Art has explored the link between speech impediments and particularly the interwar period before.

    Pat Barker's Regeneration describes a hospital where returning soldiers are treated for speech impediments caused by shell shock, and it traces changing attitudes to mental health and trauma at the time.

    Interestingly relating to the the class dynamic which was raised in the discussion, the 'rank and file' soldiers in Regeneration largely suffer from muteness, the officers have stammers - explained by one character as being because their position demanded they speak.

    Both Seigfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, real-life wartime poets, feature in the book - and I believe they have also explored the topic.

    I wanted to ask - was stammering something which is in general associated with the new extent of mass trauma of WWI, or is this simply a matter of several different writers exploring a very effective tool for emotional narrative?

  2. Hi xhalmers_860. I did quite a lot of work on speech disorders as part of my research on shell-shock. The medical literature of the time contains a fair amount on mutism and stammering. These were generally seen as variants of hysteria or other nervous disorders. Doctors did not single out stammering or mutism as particularly emblematic of the mass trauma of WWI - many kinds of dramatic symptoms were included under the umbrella of shell-shock, and it was commonly commented that these types of symptoms had not been seen on this scale before, but speech disorders were not singled out.

    Doctors at the time did not make the connection between class and speech disorders that Pat Barker makes. Barker takes the idea of speech disorders as symbolic of a stance against the war from Elaine Showalter's consideration of shell-shock in The Female Malady. Showalter in turn took the idea of differential symptoms according to rank from Eric Leed's book No Man's Land. However, although the assertion that symptoms were experienced differently according to class/rank is often repeated by historians, this was the view of only a few influential doctors, including W.H.R. Rivers. Most doctors in WWI did not comment on the class of patients (though of course we don't know what they left unsaid, and it is likely that medical encounters were mediated by class in all kinds of interesting and unrecorded ways).

    I think both Sassoon and Owen had stammers before the war (though this is not my area of expertise). From a non-WWI medical point of view, speech disorders were gaining attention and their treatment evolving as a separate discipline from the beginning of the century. So several strans could have converged during and imemditely after the war in making stammering/speech/silence a more obvious tool for writers both then and now interested in exploring emotional narrative.