COLIN FIRTH'S FORGOTTEN STAMMER

~ Posted by Maggie Fergusson, April 3rd 2012

Thanks to “The King’s Speech”, and particularly to Geoffrey Rush, we’re all familiar with Lionel Logue—the tough-minded but compassionate Australian speech therapist who helped George VI to overcome his stammer. But when did Colin Firth (aka George VI) first acquire that stammer, and who taught him? Interviewed after the release of the film in 2010, he paid tribute to voice coach Neil Swain. But actually Firth was stammering confidently years before “The King’s Speech” was ever conceived.

Recently, I watched the DVD of “A Month in the Country”, the 1987 adaptation of J.L. Carr’s novel about a shell-shocked soldier returning from the Western Front to spend a long, hot summer in the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby. Directed by Pat O’Connor—who’s just completed a film of Michael Morpurgo’s “Private Peaceful”, to be released later this year—it seems to have slipped from most people’s consciousness. 

I’d remembered only the barest outlines of the plot: that the veteran, Tom Birkin (Firth), sets to work restoring a medieval mural in the village church, and that in doing so he reaches a psychological truce with the horrors he’s witnessed. I’d half forgotten that he befriends another veteran, played by Kenneth Branagh (almost absurdly youthful-looking, fair and fresh-faced as a choir boy); and I’d completely forgotten that Birkin’s shell shock manifests itself in a crippling stammer. 

And if, as George VI, Firth affects a slightly plummier accent, the two stammers are otherwise strikingly similar: there’s the same relentless, guttural battle with troublesome consonants, the same painful contortions of face and throat, the same headlong race to disgorge sentences before the hangman’s noose tightens around the larynx. 

For Tom Birkin, there’s no Lionel Logue, but the combined beauty of the Yorkshire countryside and of the vicar’s wife (Natasha Richardson) effects a cure. By the end of the summer, as he passes through the church gate and leaves Oxgodby behind, he is speaking fluently. Then the credits roll—art director, make-up artist, wardrobe master, sound mixer, location manager, gaffer; but no mention of a voice coach. Who was he, or she?

Maggie Fergusson is literary editor of Intelligent Life