For how much longer must all men be judged against Colin Firth?

A lot of questions arise from The King's Speech, the recent film in which - spoiler alert - a king can't speak very well, but then manages to, thanks to an Australian. Among these questions: for how many decades must the rest of us men be judged by the impossible standards of sexiness set by Colin Firth? Did Edward VIII really want to marry the seemingly irritating Wallis Simpson, or did he just want to get out of being king, since it's clearly no fun? And in the script, d . . . d . . . did the screenwriters have to write out every stammer l . . . l . . . like this, or was it covered by the stage directions?

But there's one question that arises from the tense final scene, in which our hero rises to the challenge of delivering a long and rousing speech to his subjects. Could they not have recorded him doing it and played it half an hour later, removing the possibility that the King's erratic voice would fail live on air and thus deal a blow to Britain's spirit on the brink of war?

Earlier in the film, we see that the technology existed to record His Majesty's efforts, because his Australian guru does just that. Even if editing in 1939 was less a matter of going into a Soho suite with a couple of Macs and more a case of someone taking a hacksaw to a piece of vinyl, surely it would have been possible to spare the King the ordeal? It wouldn't have been quite so dramatic a climax to the film - "right, Your Majesty, a couple of little slip-ups there, but we'll snip those out" - but it would have been a lot less stressful for all concerned, at a time when Hitler was causing quite enough stress for most people.

The answer to this riddle, it seems, has less to do with technological shortcomings and more to do with a faith in the idea of live broadcasting. The BBC in its infancy broadcast everything live, not purely because of logistics, but because that was the only way it could enjoy the trust of its listeners. If its material could be recorded, edited and fiddled with, how were we meant to rely on BBC radio for all the things for which we have usually relied on it: news, national morale and very slow-moving farming dramas?

A fascinating book by Denis Norden called Coming to You Live! recounts some of the problems the BBC faced in the 1940s and 1950s as a result of this dedication to live broadcasting. There's one anecdote about a drama that involved what was then the longest tracking shot in history, the camera making its way down an endless line of violinists; but they could only afford four violinists, so the actors had to keep running down the line and appearing again and again. There's another one about a play that was all ready to go when someone realised the BBC hadn't paid for the rights and wouldn't be allowed to broadcast it. When they turned up that morning, the actors were told they'd have to learn a new play from scratch.

All this makes you wonder whether live broadcasting is worth the misery - and yet idiots will keep trying it. And by idiots, I mean myself. On 28 February, I'm doing a special edition of my Radio 4 show absolutely live. This might sound like a plug, but it's not: I'm not even going to tell you what time it's on. The amount that can go wrong is terrifying.

The prospect of saying something obscene by accident - like James Naughtie giving an extra "C" to Jeremy Hunt - looms large, as does the even worse idea of being swept away by that I-might-jump-off-the-top-of-this-building impulse and sabotaging the whole show by shouting nothing but the word "duck" over and over again, just because I can. Then there's the worry that I might completely blank and leave minute after minute of silence on the air. Producers would have to hope listeners would mistake it for a particularly stodgy episode of The Archers.

The King and I

But these dangers are precisely the reason everyone still loves listening to live shows. They're pretty similar to the reasons poor old King George had to brave the microphone all those years ago. We like listening to the tremor in someone's voice, knowing that the anticipation in their guts at the sound of the opening credits is exactly the same as ours.

Above all, we like feeling that we're experiencing exactly the same thing as the person on the other end of the wire. Which is all very well for you, but awful for the King, and - in a rather less high-stakes way - scary for me, too. I don't even have the benefit of a dauntless Aussie to see me through by making me sing. We'll just have to hope that I can channel some of whatever magical BBC energy helped the King. Anyway, I have to make a phone call. I'm trying to get hold of 79 violinists.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants

Getty
Show Hide image

Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution