I recently went to see The King’s Speech at the cinema. I did so for a number of reasons: Colin Firth is always a pleasure, obviously; the 1930s seem to be receiving more dramatic attention at the moment, what with the BBC’s Upstairs, Downstairs getting broadcast over Christmas; the film’s been gaining a lot of awards-related attention, especially for Firth’s performance (and having briefly stammered as a child myself, I was interested to see how he would rise to the particular challenges of this role); and what with it focusing on Britain at a time of some great upheaval for the nation and released at a time of some significant unrest, I thought it could well offer some interesting ideas about Britishness.
So these were the issues I was pondering as I was settling down with my assorted snacks, and the narrative was beginning to unfold. And then – I don’t remember exactly at what point – I register that Jennifer Ehle has been cast in the film, in a minor role (Myrtle Logue, the wife of the speech therapist treating the king’s stammer). That is Jennifer Ehle as in Lizzie Bennett from the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. In which she stars opposite Colin Firth. In what is quite possibly the most fondly remembered of all the fondly remembered costume dramas ever to have graced the telly.
I was very pleased with this turn of events; there should be much more of Jennifer Ehle on the screen. And I wasn’t terribly surprised either; certain intertextual links due to casting are only likely to be expected within a relatively small industry – indeed, the wonderful David Bamber, who played Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice (in what is one of the most enjoyable performances I have ever seen) also appears in The King’s Speech.
Then, the film reaches the moment when King George VI visits his speech therapist at home, and comedy ensues from the unexpected presence of a monarch in the Logues’ living room. And I find myself gripped, unable to think anything other than: Are Ehle and Firth about to actually share some screen time? There is a moment of slight tension in the film, about whether or not the king will step through a door and encounter Myrtle Logue, and I can’t not read this through the lens of my long-standing relationship with Pride and Prejudice. Is the film here addressing the coming together of Firth/Darcy and Ehle/Lizzie? But then the moment when the two do meet face to face is presented as though of no special significance. What to make of it all?
So, puzzling over this, I then decided to ask someone who worked on the film – as you do. I got in touch with Will Emsworth, one of our ex-students and now Development Producer at Bedlam Productions, the company that made The King’s Speech. Will, who had done research for the film, finding transcripts and recordings, tells me it was unlikely that there had been an explicit intention to draw on the intertextual link between the two actors in question. Will thinks that more attention had been paid to the particular casting of Derek Jacobi, famous stutterer in I, Claudius, who in The King’s Speech plays a character who prides himself on being eloquent and vocal. That is a very good point that I can’t believe I didn’t think of myself when watching the film. Never mind.
I’m still mulling over the experience of watching the film, of getting both drawn into the film and somehow removed from it at the same time. I still think there is something there, in this moment as Firth and Ehle are about to meet, but how much of this is located within the film and/or my reading of it, well, that is one of those questions forever coming into matters of textual meaning and interpretation that I’m glad I don’t need to resolve.
I will certainly re-watch the film to see whether this intertextual distraction is going to arise again, or whether, now that I know how the scene plays out, it will be a different viewing experience for me. Will also tells me that Colin Firth and Derek Jacobi both drew inspiration from the same man, a charismatic stutterer who worked as a grip on separate projects that they had previously worked on. That’s most certainly the kind of fascinating nugget of information that makes me extra glad to have been distracted from The King’s Speech.