"Oh you can't always get what you want/ No, you can't always get what you want/ But if you try sometimes you just might find/ You get what you need." So sang Sir Mick and his Perambulating Pebbles. I should've paid attention.
It's fairly well known (publicists are relentless) that I had wanted to write something about King George VI ever since "Bertie" became my boyhood hero for handling his stammer a great deal better than I was handling mine.
"Listen to him," my parents urged, as we crowded around our wood-cabinet vacuum-tube wartime radio, listening to his measured tones accompanied by a symphony of static.
"He was far worse than you," the parental team assured me. "Listen to him now." Translation: there's still some hope for you, poor stammering blighter.
Years later I started doing some research and stumbled across the King's speech specialist, Lionel Logue – an untrained, non-credentialed Australian wannabe actor with a Harley Street practice. Ah ha!
I made contact with one of his sons, Valentine, who offered to meet me and show me the notebooks his father kept while treating the King. There was one minor caveat: I had to get permission from the Queen Mother. She wrote, "Please, not during my lifetime, the memory of those events is still too painful." I dutifully waited a quarter of a century until that wonderful lady had her last gin and tonic. Then I got to write the movie and the play. Got what I wanted. Easy peasy. Not quite.
I was two-thirds into the screenplay when I had the distinct feeling that air was leaking from the tyres. I showed the pages to my then wife who, with great diplomacy, suggested that while of course it was utterly brilliant, it was just a tad... er... diffuse. She recommended – as an exercise – it might benefit by being written first as a play. The physical limitations of the stage would force me to concentrate on my key relationship. After all, The King's Speech is basically two men in a room.
Trouble was, once written, I began to view it as far more than an exercise. I'd always wanted, above all things, to be a playwright. Being a born show-off is an unfortunate state for a boy who can't speak publicly. However, if stammering meant I couldn't say the lines, at least a playwright might create them. So I wrote leaden imitations of George Bernard Shaw, and the occasional earnest homage to Bertolt Brecht.
It will not come as a total shock to learn that this didn't help me earn a living. Then, after decades of bill-paying years in the trenches of Madison Avenue, Fleet Street and Hollywood... Eureka! TKS had been born.
My offering made its way to the desk of a fledgling producer, who managed to arrange a reading at the Pleasance theatre in Islington. The director, Alan Cohen, had only a few hours to work with the cast and then... There I was listening to my play. People were laughing, crying, clapping. Good Lord.
Afterwards, a nice couple came over and asked if they could send the piece to their son. I had no idea who they were, or who their son was, but feeling benign, I said "Send to your heart's content." Later I learned that their son was the TV and film director Tom Hooper.
Meanwhile, attempts were being made to get the play produced. Some of the very best people said no. A rejection note I will always treasure came from a reader at the National Theatre who sniffed, "This is not yet a play, and if it were to become one it still wouldn't be for us." I've had it framed.
Other energies were afoot. Bedlam Productions and See-Saw Films teamed up and raised enough development money for me to transform my stage play back into a screenplay. That took about two weeks. Geoffrey Rush committed to play Logue. Momentum jumped in on the UK side, The Weinstein Company from America..
After six months' silence, Tom Hooper surfaced and asked if the rights were available. I said no, but the job of director was. Suddenly we were off to the races. Colin Firth came on as Bertie (did I get lucky!) and a truly Best of British cast was assembled.
The film went on to win every gong in sight and make buckets and buckets of money for everyone except the author (bad contract!).
But truly, I was thrilled with the film. Yet I desperately wanted to see it on stage. The first requirement was a name director. A friend was appearing in a production of The Madness of King George, directed by Adrian Noble. When I saw it, I knew he understood how to do a history play.
Timing, however, presented a problem. The film was almost too successful. Would people really want to see it again, albeit in a different form? Would there be any actors brave enough to test their mettle against the acclaimed work of Firth and Rush? It was decided that it would be very modest. A nice UK tour. That would suit me fine.
We opened to a packed house at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford with a standing ovation. This joyous reception continued in Nottingham, Bath, Brighton, Richmond and Newcastle. Now we embark upon the West End.
The King's Speech, Wyndham's Theatre, London WC2 (0844 482 5120) to 21 JulyReuse content