‘The King’s Speech must win for proving a stammer is nothing to be ashamed of’ – my Mail on Sunday article

Whether The King’s Speech deservedly sweeps the board at tonight’s Oscars, it has already achieved a significant victory as far as I am concerned.

The film, and Colin Firth’s brilliant performance, have done more to advance the understanding of stammering than anything in my lifetime.

Today’s open discussion of stammering is profoundly liberating for the thousands of children and adults, like myself, across Britain who have to deal with it every day.

And the fact that the condition is portrayed so accurately and sensitively is a relief to everyone with a stammer who has seen it mocked on screen for laughs or used as a scriptwriter’s cipher for weakness.

No one really knows what causes stammering. But it is often passed down the generations and affects men more than women.

People say a stammer is like an iceberg – a small bit above the surface, but a huge mass of tension and emotion concealed underneath.

Some people, especially children, hide the condition behind a wall of silence. Every school has children who ‘never say anything’ – and too often it’s because they will not risk the embarrassment of exposing their stammer.Some people have an overt stammer, stuttering out loud over difficult words.

For others, like King George VI, the stammer is interiorised. I call it blocking. When it happens, there is no sound, just an uncomfortable pause before the next word comes out. It is in conveying the physical and mental struggle of those moments that I could see the true genius of Colin Firth’s performance.

Stammering is often inherited. My dad faced similar problems. I have no memory of stammering when I was very young. But at secondary school I noticed it more and more.

I learned to avoid sentences starting with ‘H’, and I gained a habit of starting sentences with ‘well’ or ‘look’ because it helped get the words flowing. The hardest thing – then and now – the Bible, because I could not change the words or insert the odd ‘look’.

Many learn how to hide the problem. In my early working life many colleagues would never have noticed anything unusual in the way I spoke. But in frontline politics it is harder. When you have to make speeches or speak often under pressure on national media, stammering becomes much more obvious.

In 2004, I went on the radio programme Any Questions. Friends wondered why there were delays when it was my turn to speak or in the middle of my answers. My dad rang me the next morning and said: ‘You’ve got the same thing as me.’

The House of Commons was a challenge, too. Political journalists and sketch writers didn’t understand the problem and thought I kept forgetting what I wanted to say. Opposition MPs would heckle if I paused too long at the Dispatch Box.

No child should be held back because of their speech, disability or special need. So I hope that the The King’s Speech will inspire children and adults who stammer to get the help they deserve.

For me that was the start of a battle: not to hide my stammer any more, but to work out how to deal with it. Just as in the film, I found the greatest help came simply from talking about the problem with an expert, and with friends and family.

I learned that there were tried and tested ways of improving the condition by reducing the tension and being relaxed about how you speak – like the techniques pioneered by Geoffrey Rush’s character, Lionel Logue.

Like the King, I was sceptical at first that it would work. But I came to see that it was OK not to be word-perfect. And I learned to relax when the inevitable blocking happened and wait for the words to come, instead of panicking.

Most important, I saw that by concealing the problem and trying to pretend it did not exist, I was simply making it worse.

Breaking the taboo that you don’t speak about it has made a big difference for me. In my role, people will normally be patient and hear me out. Many schoolchildren are not so fortunate: people often think the best way to support a child with a stammer is to help them finish the words they are struggling to say themselves. It’s the worst thing anyone can do.

The key is to give children the space and confidence to speak in their own way, and talk about what works for them. That is what children and parents learn on the courses run by the brilliant Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children in North London.

Michael Palin’s father had a bad stammer. With Michael’s support – and the Prince of Wales as patron – we are now fundraising to support a centre for stammering children in Leeds.

No child should be held back because of their speech, disability or special need. So I hope that the The King’s Speech will inspire children and adults who stammer to get the help they deserve. I know I will never be ‘cured’ of my stammer. But I no longer feel worried about it and I would rather joke about it than hide it. It’s part of who I am.

My favourite scene in The King’s Speech – the real moment of triumph – comes when Lionel Logue and the King are reviewing his final performance. ‘You still stammered on the “W”,’ says the therapist. The King replies: ‘Well I had to throw in a few so they knew it was me.’

That’s worth an Oscar in my book.

Ed Balls is the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. The fee for this article will be donated to the appeal for the Northern Centre for Stammering Children. For more information or to donate to the appeal, go to www.stammeringcentre.org.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Add to favorites
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Technorati
  • email
  • Facebook
  • MySpace
  • Reddit
  • RSS
  • Twitter
Posted February 27th, 2011 by Ed

Leave a Reply