Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The King's SMS

I think we'd all better prepare ourselves for more "The British are coming..." speeches in the next few weeks, since there's a UK film that seems to stand a genuine chance of bagging all the big gongs during this awards season.

Unlike most British period drama, which are full of starchy characters and showcase more stiff upper lips than Meg Ryan's bathroom mirror, The King's Speech is being championed as a feel-good film that just happens to be set in the past. Of course, some of the genre staples are all present and correct - plummy accents, obsequious footmen and Helena Bonham Carter. But people are going to see it because it's an entertaining and uplifting movie, rather than as a shortcut in their English Literature revision. 

The film couldn't have come at a better time, after the double-whammy of Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs 2.0. The whole nation is currently in the grip of period drama - and before you know it we'll be in a new age of civility. Instead of knocking back a Smirnoff Ice in a bus-stop, girls will be practicing pouring tea whilst delivering pithy bon-mots. 

But let's not forget that we are British, after all. So it's our collective responsibility to start kicking The King's Speech* before it's even completed its ascendence to Oscar and BAFTA glory. Leading the charge (shocked faces all round) is the Daily Mail, which today ran an extraordinary piece of nitpickery by self-proclaimed 'elitist' Philip Norman. 

You have to feel a little sorry for Philip. Whereas audiences around the world have been lapping up Colin Firth's exceptional portrayal of a stuttering monarch, Philip found himself peering through his fingers in disgust, like the Girl Guides' screening of I Spit On Your Grave

Philip claims: "I watched it in a state of agonised suspense unconnected with whether he would succeed in spitting out the next syllable. For like almost every ‘period’ film nowadays, and certainly every British one, it is riddled with preposterous historical distortions, over-simplifications and out-of-period anachronisms." Taking a somewhat hyperbolic approach to film criticism, he compares the Archbishop of Canterbury's involvement in the pre-Coronation rehearsal, to Uma Thurman travelling on a plane armed with an unsheathed samurai sword.

If you're not already falling into a consumptive swoon at the audacity of these fly-by-night film-makers, then consider the fact that Sooty, the world's least interesting hand-puppet, is mentioned a good fifteen years before he was created. Even worse, a stuffy BBC executive refers to a royal broadcast "going out live tonight". With such astounding inaccuracies in place, we should perhaps be thankful that we were spared a scene of the Queen Mother shopping for Manolos

And what of the Queen Mother herself? Well, Philip's not happy with her portrayal either. It took Herculean resolve on his part to "accept Helena Bonham Carter, usually such a sensitive actress, playing Queen Elizabeth as a sharp-tongued snob, crushing ordinary people as the future, lovely Queen Mum would never have dreamed of doing." Perhaps his own subjective sense of history has blinded him to the fact that she would have happily bitten the head off a chambermaid, if only her teeth were up to the job.

As you might expect, the entire article is just another in a long line of stories designed to convince Mail readers that IQs are dropping around them. A couple of weeks ago, the Mail ran a story claiming that Downton Abbey had lost 25% of its running time for airing in the States, due to concerns that "American TV executives fear its intricate plot will baffle U.S. viewers". So, the country that gave us Mad Men, The Sopranos and The Wire, is somehow too stupid to grasp concepts like inheritance and advanced bonnet-wearing.

As it happens, the whole story was as fictional as the plot of Downton itself. One of the show's producers wrote a scathing critique of the article, pointing out that he had repeatedly explained to journalist Chris Hastings how the show's running time would be different on a channel with no ad breaks. None of these details made it into the final story since Hastings "clearly had an agenda of its own". 

Call it a classic case of misdirection. The more stories that the Mail runs about 'dumbing down', the less likely it is that its readership will notice that its preferred paper has a world-view that amounts to little more than 'us' and 'them'. Now put that in your period-appropriate prop pipe and smoke it. 

*Oh, and good luck to Iain Canning, who produced the film.

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