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The Humble Roots of 2011 Oscar Frontrunner 'The King’s Speech'

Director Tom Hooper poses at a screening of his film
Director Tom Hooper poses at a screening of his film "The King's Speech" at the Grauman's Chinese theatre in Hollywood, California, 5 Nov 2011.

The front-runner for the 2011 Academy Awards is “The King’s Speech” with 12 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and top acting awards for three main cast members.

It tells the true story of how Britain’s King George the Sixth overcame a speech impediment with the help of Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue. While the film has become a commercial and critical success, the script behind the movie had humble beginnings, as an unproduced play in a London theater.

That may have been the end for “The King’s Speech” if not for one audience member who insisted that her son should turn the play into a movie. Meredith Hooper is an Australian author and the mother of British director Tom Hooper, who is nominated for an academy award for his work on the movie.

Author Meredith Hooper, mother of British director Tom Hooper.
Author Meredith Hooper, mother of British director Tom Hooper.

VOA's Sarah Williams spoke with Meredith Hooper about how “The King’s Speech” came to be made.

"Well, 'The King’s Speech' was an unproduced play. That is, the play’s agent in London hadn’t been able to find anyone to produce it. And so, a decision was made to just give [the] play reading in a very small North London theatre, and because it was about an Australian in London, a small group of Australians in London were sort of gathered together to see if they would help provide an audience. It was a weekday.. and there, I think, there was possibly 30 of us in the theatre, and to be honest, even though I go to the theatre a lot, I’ve never ever been to a play reading. And there was a semi-circle of kitchen chairs on the stage, and these people came in holding a sheet of paper each, and I thought, 'Fine.' And then they began to speak the words of the play, and I can’t remember how many minutes in, I’d suddenly thought, 'My goodness gracious, this isn’t a play, this is a film, this is a most extraordinary film. And what’s more, it’s a film that Tom, my son, should do.'

And so by the end of it, I was completely convinced the reason was that it had superbly inter-leading plot lines, it had wonderful balance between the public and the private, it was about a colonial Australian in Britain, and I was a colonial Australian in Britain. And also it had that really magic thing as a writer I recognized... it was a story with a very good beginning, an absolutely splendid middle, and a perfect end. So, having listened to this unrehearsed, unperformed play, the writer David Seidler was in the audience, and I got my nice, bold English husband to go up and ask him if he would let Tom see the script, and he said, 'Yes.' And we posted it to Tom, who was currently in Los Angeles, working. But I rang him up and said, 'Tom, I’ve found your next film,' and he said, 'Yes, Mum.'  And he was very busy and we had to ring him [on] a couple of more occasions, nagging, 'Have you read it yet?' Eventually, the poor bloke got time to read it.  And he said, 'You’re right. It’s amazing,' and he went straight to see David Seidler."

Now, as you mentioned, you yourself are Australian, but your son, your children, are dual citizens of both Australia and the United Kingdom.

"Yes, I was very, very insistent on this and I’ve never given up my sense of being Australian or wanting to be. As a writer, I write quite a lot about Australia, but all the children were given Australian citizenship at birth, and we took them back to Australia a lot, first of all to see their grandparents, which I thought was very important. Recently... we were lucky enough and we bought a beach house in Australia, so Tom knows that very well. And he’s hugely fond of Australia, and he feels that it’s part of his background and part of his life."

There are scenes in the film, very powerful scenes, between the King and Lionel Logue, the Australian speech therapist, where the different nationalities, it’s sort of interesting to see how they relate to each other.

"One of the interesting things about this film is Tom has talked about his childhood and given a narration of it in things that we never expected or knew about. He says that I am very specifically Australian in the way I brought the children up, in the way I related to my English husband. And that I had a directness which he noticed from the very beginning, and he felt that was one of the themes in the film that Lionel Logue, the Australian speech therapist, was extremely direct. He didn’t have an enormous obsequiousness towards the royal family, he just got on with it. And I think that’s how Tom feels is part of the Australian approach."

"In addition to being Tom Hooper’s mother, you’ve had an extensive career as a writer. You’ve written a number of children’s books. Do you think that has helped you to identify material that is appropriate for your son?"

"I think children’s books are one of the hardest kinds of books to write. You’ve absolutely got to be able to capture a child from the beginning, and plotting and thinking about what you’re trying to say and how to make it clear is central. But also, in 'The King’s Speech,' there’s a complex back story. The front story is this relationship between the King and his Australian speech therapist. But it all takes place in the complexity of politics, the time, the build up to the war.  And the back story needs to be there so that it makes sense, but not get in the way of the close up narrative, the personal narrative. Quite honestly, whenever I write a book, whether it’s for children or the adult market, getting the back story in place is one of the most difficult things to do. And I think that this was one of the things that is intriguing about 'The King’s Speech,' that it’s this combination of the close up, personal story and the complex, wider political story, and the way the two interweave and informed each other."

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