is the French title of the film "The King's Speech" which significant other and I saw on Sunday afternoon. To those readers who cannot read French, it must be awful for you. To those who can, how would you translate the French title back? O-level French would give you "The Speech of a King", I suppose. Mais le O-level French est un passeport a nowhere. Anyway, it must be clear by now that "le discours" is "speech" in the sense of "making a speech", which of course is only part of the meaning of that title. And yet it is probably good enough as a translation, although it has only half the meaning of the original, because it contains within it a key idea from the film, namely that the then Duke of York, "Bertie", was quite happy in his personal and private life, he had learned to live with his speech impediment since childhood, and it was only when it began to be intimated to him that because of his brother's unsuitable antics it was quite possible that he would be King one day, and therefore would have to speak in public, that he agreed to get some help for his stammer.
Nobody really understands what stammering is, and why it happens. Typically it starts in early childhood, at around three, when most children are fairly new to being fluent talkers. My granddaughter is this age, and when I saw her in December I monitored her quite closely for signs of stammering. None. She is a fluent talker, and last time she spoke to me on the telephone her mother tried to get her to pass the phone over. "No", she said. "I've still got a lot of words to say." My son stammered a little at that age, and when I took advice I was told "He'll grow out of it", which fortunately he did. My son talked early, and has rarely shut up since. The reason for mentioning all this is that stammering appears to be heritable. I stammered myself at the same age, although I don't remember doing so, and similarly grew out of it. But later, when I changed schools at the age of ten, I stammered again. A teacher helped me through it. The most efficacious technique he showed me was to touch my ears so as to close them partially to sound, and to pretend it was someone else talking and not me. That worked most of the time. The film showed the same technique being used on the Duke - he was made to wear headphones with music playing through them so he could not hear his own voice. It is not hard to see that changing schools, especially when you are a year younger than your classmates, might kick off a speech problem that had existed before. It is not hard to see that a speech problem you have learned to live fairly comfortably with might become a disabling difficulty when you are pushed into a public role you did not wish for. I stammered again, later, when I was nineteen and went to France for a long summer being an au pair - but only when I spoke French. The family I worked for were very kind and tolerant, for which I have always been grateful. I have never stammered since. But the fact that I did stammer then contributed I suspect to the difficulty I had when I came to live in France four years ago in becoming fluent in French. Overcome now. My father stammered all his life, fortunately not seriously enough for it to be an impediment to interaction with others - he was a talkative, entertaining raconteur to the end of his life, and of his family members the most talkative are his elder daughter, me, who has been a broadcaster and a politician, and his grandson, my son, who is an actor, and both of us inherited the stammer. Go figure.
I know what stammering feels like. It is not about breath control, though breathing exercises help. It feels as though the diaphragm has turned into an iron bar, and that the words you want to say are banging against it from underneath and can't get through. And the fear, of having to say words which are difficult, doesn't help either. Colin Firth showed that in the movements of his face. It was all I could do not to burst into tears as I watched. I don't stammer any more, but if you ever have it is always there, waiting in the shadows behind your words.
The coronation of Elizabeth was some months before I was born, so I know George VI only from bits of old film. Last night I called my mother to ask her what he really sounded like in his radio speeches, and what people thought about him. She said his speeches were halting and hesitant, and although he was known to stammer, and people sympathised with him for it, he never stammered in his speeches. People didn't know though that he had his Australian speech therapist with him all the time when he made his radio speeches.
The film is also about having no choice. Colin Firth as the King says this several times. His elder brother made a choice, but Bertie could not choose. The two brothers were both kings, one uncrowned, and one made the choice to walk away from the crown. The other had no voice and had to find a voice so he could wear the crown he had never wanted. What a great story.
Go and see the film, and ponder on the nature of discourse. Great frocks too.