LONDON (Sept. 17, 1939) — King George VI used a radio broadcast last night to rally the British Empire in its looming battle with Nazi Germany. Miraculously gone was the monarch’s notorious stammer as he spoke clearly and strongly about the coming struggle. In its place, however, were repeated musical interruptions that seemed designed to urge the king to wrap it up.
With Britain’s declaration of war earlier this month following the German invasion of Poland, the nation looked to its sovereign for words that would inspire them in the struggle ahead. Many, however, feared a repeat of the disastrous 1925 performance at the British Empire Exhibition, in which then-Prince Albert blathered incoherently as he attempted to overcome his speech impediment.
“Let the power of this empire — uh, uh — let the power of this empire never fa-, fa-, fa-, fade,” Albert told that crowd of thousands. “We will continue, uh, continue to rule the world. Here’s something, here’s something … you’re never going to forget — Ba-ba-ba-baby, you haven’t seen anything yet.”
“Uh–, uh–, um, uh,” he continued. “I, uh, I, uh, I need to step away and use the throne — ha, ha.”
Ever since the king’s older brother abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, there have been reservations about George VI’s ability to step into the royal shoes. His quiet demeanor and unease in the public eye have not exactly inspired confidence in a nation about to enter an epic battle. Many, in fact, doubted the new king could lead Britannia out of a paper sack.
But his address yesterday had all the hallmarks of a confident leader ready to take the reins and lead his nation to victory in the impending world war. Or, at least, to remain sequestered in an undisclosed palace in the countryside while Winston Churchill does all the heavy lifting of defending This Blessed Plot, This Realm, This England.
The King’s speech began slowly, deliberately.
“In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas this message spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself,” the ruler began.
He stood stiffly before the microphone in the broadcast room of Buckingham Palace. No audience of film stars dressed in their elegant suits and gowns sat before him. No worldwide audience of over 1 billion people watched his every move. No Anne Hathaway mugged for the camera next to him, wearing a Givenchy creation some described as looking like upholstery.
“For the second time in the lives of most of us we are at war,” the king continued. “Over and over again we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now our enemies. But it has been in vain.”
The monarch looked up briefly from his prepared notes to see a large clock counting down the seconds until his allotted time was complete. Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen, twelve …
“We have been forced into a conflict,” he said. “For we are called, with our allies, to meet the challenge of a principle which, if it were to prevail, would be fatal to any civilized order in the world.”
The clock continued its inexorable progression toward zero. Three, two, one …
“Such a principle, stripped of all disguise, is surely the mere primitive doctrine that might is right,” said the king. As the clock finished its countdown, the royal orchestra, gathered in an adjacent room, began playing a low-volume rendition of incidental music, featuring primarily the string section.
The king appeared startled at first, but the music was so soothing and subtle, and his message so critical to the survival of Western Civilization, that he continued his speech.
“For the sake of all that we ourselves hold dear, and of the world’s order and peace, it is unthinkable that we should refuse to meet the challenge.”
Now, the orchestra’s woodwinds section joined with the strings, ramping up both the volume and the pace of the unexpected accompaniment.
“It is to this high purpose that I now call my people at home and my peoples across the seas, who will make our cause their own,” the monarch read.
Now the brass section joined in, and the king had to raise his voice and speak more rapidly to head off the point at which he couldn’t be heard above the symphony.
“I ask them to stand calm and firm, and united in this time of trial,” he said, his earlier measured tone now raised to what was nearly a shout. “The task will be hard. There may be dark days ahead, and war can no longer be confined to the battlefield.”
By the time the percussion unit boomed into the composition, the king had gotten the message loud and clear. His time — and possibly the time of British global hegemony that stretched back to the 17th century — was up.
“But we can only do the right as we see the right and reverently commit our cause to God,” the king said in almost inaudible tones as he was now drowned out by the rising music.
His speech coach, proud of his student’s composure, led the king away from the microphone. Outside the palace, crowds that had gathered to hear the address broadcast over loud speakers cheered their approval. Everyone who heard the speech now had renewed confidence that their nation could withstand the onslaught of the German war machine and ultimately prevail.
Unaware that his task had been completed successfully, the king continued just out of range of the microphone:
“I’d like to thank my manager, I’d like to thank my agent, and I just want to say that Cameron Diaz and Mark Ruffalo were an absolute pleasure to work with,” he said. “And most of all, I want to thank God. Oh, and also our producer, Harold Everson, who had the faith in me that we could make this production a successful one.”