Stuttering: It’s on everyone’s lips now
Colin Firth’s performance as the stuttering King George VI in “The King’s Speech” was difficult for me to watch. Don’t get me wrong — the acting is superb, and the true story the film portrays is certainly British filmmaking at its best. It was discomforting for me because it was a reminder of many childhood days spent sitting across the kitchen table from my father, waiting patiently as he, like his monarch, wrestled with an often paralyzing stutter.
For the world’s 65 million or so stutterers, it’s little consolation to know that kings can suffer as much as commoners, or that some notable orators, including Winston Churchill, and movie stars such as Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt have had the same problem. If you stutter, your life is different. Simple things that the rest of us take for granted, like telling a joke or addressing a group at work or giving a speech at your child’s wedding, become potential minefields of embarrassment. For my father, daily dialogue was a frustrating ordeal. It is no wonder he had a short fuse.
My father’s stutter was never discussed. Some days it was negligible and I would hope that perhaps he was getting over it. Then the next day it would be back, and worse. Simple statements blocked up in his mouth. One of us might unwittingly make things worse by hurrying him into what we thought he wanted to say.
I don’t mean to paint a portrait of unalloyed gloom. We had many happy times together. But there were also awkward moments. At Christmas one year, we gathered round the wireless radio to hear the king read his annual Yuletide message, but his obvious difficulty getting the words out seemed embarrassingly close to home.
A few years after my father died, John Cleese, who had known him, told me he was writing a new film in which one member of a desperately dysfunctional gang of crooks had a stutter. He asked if I could help him understand how a stutter worked. That’s how the character I played in “A Fish Called Wanda,” Ken Pile — with his bad haircut and rudely tight trousers — was born.
Actual stutterers had mixed reactions to the role. Some were pleased that a stutterer figured so prominently in the film and that he got revenge in the end on those who had taunted him for his affliction. Others felt that stutterers themselves were being mocked.
Four years after the movie’s release, I was contacted by Travers Reid, a successful businessman and a funny, warm and delightful person. He was also a stutterer. He and a speech therapist, Lena Rustin, were wondering if I’d support the establishment of a clinic in London to treat stuttering in children. That is how, in 1993, the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children was born.
It was a revelation to see how the clinic worked with stammerers. Problems with speech fluency can emerge in children as young as 3, and the goal of therapy is to intervene quickly, when it is most treatable. The clinic’s approach is to treat the stutterer, not just the stutter. The whole family is involved in the therapy, and family members learn to deal openly and freely with the fact of the stutter. An effort is made to understand how and why it has arisen. Children with stutters also meet in groups to discuss their experiences.
The center now has 10 full-time therapists, and it has improved the lives of many hundreds of children. Three years ago it received a government grant to extend its expertise to other treatment programs across the country.
Stuttering and all the problems that go with it need no longer be suffered in silence. When I was a child, we would never have talked about my father’s stutter. His struggles to speak meant tense evenings around the kitchen table. Now, thanks to a powerful film, the topic is on everyone’s lips. If “The King’s Speech” instills hope in those who suffer from stuttering and galvanizes the rest of us to do what we can to help, then it will have achieved something even more valuable than its deserved Oscar nominations.
Michael Palin, a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe, is an actor, humorist, novelist and global explorer. Information about stuttering can be found at https://www.StutteringHelp.org.
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