Hello, I’m Colin Sanders and this is the history books review. It isn’t a book today. I have just watched the film of the King’s Speech, starring Colin Firth and Helena Bonham-Carter. I’ll leave the merits of the film to the film critics, though I will say that it are nearly brought a tear to my eye. But the thing that interested me was how it showed just how much attitudes have changed in a relatively short period of time. It tells the story of events that are still just about within living memory. I talked about them to my grand parents who remembered them vividly. George VI, the main protagonist, still appeared on coins when I was growing up.
So this is really very recent history. But it seems like an age ago in terms of the attitudes of the people involved. The plot revolves around two historical events: the abdication crisis of 1936 and the world war. The war still seems like a big deal and attracts a lot of attention. But the abdication crisis is not talked about much. In fact it seems almost incomprehensible. That the king of Britain should be obliged to give up his throne to marry the woman he loved seems completely bizarre. But there it is – in 1936 it was not considered to be possible to allow a woman who had previously been divorced to marry the head of the Church of England.
The Church of England was of course founded by a man who was rather keen on divorces and who was prepared to break just about any convention to get a consort that suited him. But that was centuries ago. Edward VIII was the uncle of the current queen. This is all very recent history.
The film portrayed Edward as a bit of a twit, and rather under the influence of Mrs Simpson. She wasn’t just a divorcee – she was also American. On top of that she wasn’t even an Anglican, though I suspect that was something that could probably have been overcome. But by today’s standards Edward’s actions seem rather laudable. Rather than living a lie by keeping her as a mistress, he held out to have his relationship recognised or he would simply walk away. He attracted quite a lot of popular support at the time – his reported comments on the suffering of workers in South Wales had gone down well with his less well off subjects. Today we know he might well have been a sympathiser with fascism, which tends to put you off him. But I think his desire to live with the love of his life would not be held against him.
That is quite a shift from the way it was handled at the time. The details were kept under wraps by the press for a long time. It seems inconceivable today that a major constitutional crisis could unfold behind closed doors, but that is what happened. Again, my grandparents remember the abdication as a more shocking event than the second world war. The saying that the past is a different country where they do things differently is very true, and seems to be true even about relatively recent history.
So what has happened?
I have a feeling that up until the middle of the 1960s the morality of the abdication crisis would have been unquestioned. Of course a divorcee could not be crowned queen. Since then we have become much more tolerant, and I think wiser. Because although Edward’s behaviour is no longer regarded as particularly reprehensible, we still admire George’s dedication to his duty.
Getting back to George VI, when he found himself unexpectedly becoming the king he handled the situation with great dignity. He suffered from a stammer making it very difficult to give an effective speech. But with the country on the point of being overrun by fascists, he knew what he had to do. He engaged the services of the top man on speech therapy. He persisted and overcame his disability to make the speech to the empire that the occasion demanded. He lived up to the needs of the moment, and his crucial contribution to his country’s needs did the job.
This dedication to doing what is required is something his daughter has inherited, and it is the main reason she is so popular. Even people for whom the very idea of a monarchy is laughable still tend to find a good word to say for the actual current occupant of the throne.
We are much less judgemental about people, but we still see the good in them. This sounds like progress to me. Oh, and it is a good film.