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

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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear