Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The Madness of King George (1994)

"We consider ourselves blessed in our constitution. We tell ourselves our Parliament is the envy of the world. But we live in the health and well-being of the sovereign as much as any vizier does the Sultan."

This is scripted by the great Alan Bennett and stars the great Nigel Hawthorne (who, sadly, only graduated from the excellent Yes, Minister to a glorious film career at the end of his life), so obviously it's superb. It's as historically accurate as it's sensible for a play-cum-film to be (Alan Bennett did this period when he read History at Oxford, you know), full of heart, and funny. Cyril Shaps' poo-obsessed doctor is a particular delight.

We begin with a few scenes establishing where we are. Greville, the King's new equerry, is our POV as an audience, and we establish what the King is like as a person- pretty damn eccentric, what what? This is essential: before he goes mad, we need to see what he's like when he's sane. We also see his loving (but probably sexless) relationship with the Queen, his traditional Hanoverian hostility to the profligate and indolent Prince of Wales, and the political context of all this. Cold fish and budding alcoholic Pitt the Younger relies on the King's survival and sanity for his career and that of his faction of Whigs. If the King is replaced by Prince George as Prince Regent, then Charles James Fox is waiting in the wings with a somewhat more radical bunch of Whigs, which could mean a load of extremist nonsense like the abolition of slavery. Heavens above.

(The Tories are, incidentally, in no position to form a government: it was they who lost America and they will be out of contention for a generation.)

It is, of course, as popular culture always shows us, extremely dull at the court of George III. Versailles this is not. Nor, thank heavens, is it the awful Brighton Pavilion. But things soon become interesting as the King's behaviour takes a turn for the bizarre.

The film concerns the progress of his madness- mercifully brief, this being his first lapse in 1788: he would not recover, alas, from another attack in 1810, long after the film ends. The film seems to adopt the prevailing theory that the King's malady was, in fact, porphyria. A caption at the end reminds us that this is hereditary. Ha!

The meat of the film consists of the battle of wills between the King and Dr Willis, a man who is now able to exercise his authority over no less than a King ("No, Sir! You are the patient!"), if only for a little while. The Prince Regent will not have his way. Yet.

These scenes are fantastic, but the whole film is so damn watchable. It's brilliant. I mean, it's Alan Bennett. Just go and watch it now.

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