I’ve always had a soft spot for George III, starting all of forty years ago when I was in the sixth form at Leeds Modern School and reading for a scholarship to Cambridge. The smart book around that time was Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History, which took the 19th century to task for writing history with one eye on the future, and in particular for taking as the only path through the past the development of democratic institutions. On the Whig interpretation, historical characters got a tick if they were on the side of liberty (Cromwell, Chatham), a cross (Charles I, James II) if they held up the march of progress. Because he went in for active royalty and made some attempt to govern on his own account rather than leaving it to the Whig aristocracy, George III had been written up as a villain and a clumsy tyrant. This view Butterfield had helped to discredit, so a question on George III was thought likely to turn up in the Cambridge examination, which it duly did. Sitting in the freezing Senate House in December 1951, I trotted out my Butterfield and though I didn’t get a scholarship, counted myself lucky to be offered a place at Sydney Sussex, that Christmas when the college letter came the best Christmas of my life.

Before university, though, there was National Service to be got through, regarded at best as a bore but for me, as a late developer, a long dreaded ordeal; it was touch and go which I got to first – puberty or the call-up. I served briefly in the infantry, then like many university entrants at that time was sent on the Joint Services Language Course to learn Russian, first at Coulsdon, then at Cambridge. So what I had dreaded turned out a happy time and, although I didn’t realise it till later, far more enjoyable than my time at university proper. However, I began to think that since I was now spending a year at Cambridge studying Russian the gilt was off the gingerbread so far as Cambridge was concerned and I might get the best of both worlds if I were to go to Oxford. This wasn’t altogether the beady-eyed career move it might seem, in that I had a hopeless crush on one of my fellow officer cadets, who was bound for Oxford – that his college was Brasenose, then a mecca of rowing and rugger, somehow exemplifying the futility of it. Still, I suppose I ought to have been grateful: he might have been going to Hull – or even back to Leeds.

So now in the evenings, after we’d finished our Russian lessons, I started to read for a scholarship again, biking in along Trumpington Road to work in the Cambridge Reference Library, a dark Victorian building behind the Town Hall (gaslit in memory, though it surely can’t have been), where George III was about to make his second entrance. Sometime that autumn I bought, at Deighton Bell in Trinity Street, a copy of George III and the Politicians by Richard Pares, a book I have still, my name written in it by a friend, as I disliked my handwriting then as I do now. It was a detailed, allusive book, demanding a more thorough knowledge of 18th-century politics than a schoolboy could be expected to have, but I mugged it up. Like the good examinee I always was I realised that to know one book well is a better bet than having a smattering of several. A year in the Army had made me more flash too, so this time I did get a scholarship, to read history at Exeter College, where I went when I came out of the Army six months later.

The Oxford history syllabus takes in the whole of English history, beginning at ‘the Beginnings’ and finishing (in those days) at 1939. This meant that one didn’t get round to the 18th century until the middle of the final year. Seeing that Pares, of whom I knew nothing other than his book, was lecturing at Rhodes House, I went along to find it only sparsely attended, though, curiously for a general lecture, I saw that quite a few of the audience were dons.

When Pares was brought in it was immediately plain why. Propped up in a wheelchair, completely paralysed, nodding and helpless, he was clearly dying. Someone spread his notes out on a board laid across his knees and he began to lecture, his head sunk on his chest but his voice still strong and clear. It was noticeable even in the eight weeks that I attended his lectures that the paralysis was progressive and that he was getting weaker. I fancy that in the final weeks, as he was unable to turn his head, someone sat beside him to move his notes into his line of vision.

Now, the 18th century is not an inspiring period. Whether by the Whig interpretation or not, there are none of those great constitutional struggles and movements of ideas that animate the 17th and dramatise the 19th. The politics are materialistic, small-minded, the House of Commons an arena where a man might make a name for himself but where most members were just concerned to line their pockets. That Pares, with death at his elbow, should have gone on analysing and lecturing on what I saw as such a thankless time made a great impression on me – the lesson put crudely, I suppose, being that if a thing is not worth doing, it’s worth doing well. As it was, these must have been the last lectures Pares gave – he died the following year – but when I found I was able to stay on after taking my degree to do research and teach a little and possibly become a don, the memory of those lectures cast for me a romantic light on what is a pretty unromantic profession.

Pares kept cropping up in subsequent years. As the memoirs and letters of the Twenties began to be published, it turned out that as an undergraduate he had been one of the group round Evelyn Waugh and Harold Acton. But whereas most of that charmed circle went down without taking a degree, Pares turned his back on all that, took a First in Greats and was elected a fellow of All Souls. Thirty years later in December 1954, Evelyn Waugh wrote to Nancy Mitford:

I went up to Oxford and visited my first homosexual love, Richard Pares, a don at All Souls. At 50 he is quite paralysed except his mind and voice, awaiting deterioration and death. A wife and four daughters, no private fortune. He would have been Master of Balliol if he had not been struck down. No Christian faith to support him. A very harrowing visit.

My vision of myself pursuing an academic career did not last long, though as a postgraduate I was supervised by the Medieval historian K.B. McFarlane, who had, incidentally, shared a flat with Pares when they were both drafted into the Civil Service during the war. McFarlane was a great teacher and yet he scarcely seemed to teach at all. An hour with him and though he barely touched on the topic of my research, I would come away thinking that to study Medieval history was the only thing in the world worth doing. McFarlane himself had no such illusions, once referring to Medieval studies as ‘just a branch of the entertainment business’, though when with the onset of Beyond the Fringe I eventually abandoned Medieval studies for the entertainment business, this did not make him any less displeased. The rest, one would like to say, is history. But of course what it had been was history; what it was to be was not history at all and when a couple of years ago I began to read about George III, it was the first systematic historical work I’d done in twenty years.

In the meantime I found that George Ill’s rehabilitation had proceeded apace. No longer the ogre, he had grown altogether more kindly, wiser even, and in his attachment to his people and his vision of the nation over and above the vagaries of politics, he had come to seem a forerunner of a monarch of the present day. But it was a joke that made me think of writing about him – just as when a few years ago I thought of writing about Kafka, what started me off was a joke that Kafka had made on his deathbed. Dying of tuberculosis of the larynx, he was fetching up a good deal of phlegm. ‘I think,’ he said (and the joke is more poignant for being so physically painful to make), ‘I think I deserve the Nobel Prize for sputum.’ Nothing if not sick, it is a joke that could have been made yesterday. Less poignant, George III’s joke also occurred during his illness. He had an equerry, Colonel Manners, who, bringing him his dinner one day, discovered the King had hidden under the sofa. A Jeeves before his time, Manners imperturbably laid a place for His Majesty on the carpet and put down the plate. He was retiring discreetly when the King said (still sous bergère), ‘That was very good … Manners.’ The pun was thought to signal a further stage in the King’s recovery. The anecdote hasn’t found its way into the play, but it did make me think that George III might be fun to write about.

My interest in the King’s story had also been rekindled by reading some of the medical history that was being published in the Eighties, particularly by Roy Porter. Michael Neve and Jonathan Miller separately suggested that the madness of George III would make a play, and Neve lent me The Royal Malady by Charles Chenevix Trench, which is still the best account of the King’s illness and the so-called Regency Crisis. I also read George III and the Mad Business by the mother-and-son partnership Richard Hunter and Ida Macalpine, who first put forward the theory that the King’s illness was physical not mental and that he was suffering from porphyria. I found it a difficult book to read, convincing about George III himself but less so about the other historical cases the authors identified, the slightest regal indisposition being seized on to fetch the sufferer under porphyria’s umbrella.

From a dramatist’s point of view, it is obviously useful if the King’s malady was a toxic condition, traceable to a metabolic disturbance rather than due to schizophrenia or manic depression. Thus afflicted, he becomes the victim of his doctors and a tragic hero. How sympathetic this would make him to the audience I had not realised until the previews of the play. I had been worried that the climax came two-thirds of the way into the second act, when the King begins to recover, and that there was no real dramatic development after that. What I had not anticipated was that the audience would be so wholeheartedly on the King’s side, or that when he does recover it would prove such a relief of tension that the rest of the play, in which little happens except that various loose ends are tied up, would go by on a wave of delighted laughter. ‘The King is himself again’ means that the audience can once more take pleasure in his eccentricities, enjoy the discomfiture of the doctors until in a nice sentimental conclusion Mr and Mrs King are united in regal domesticity.

Having been working on the play for a year or so, I had eventually got it into some sort of order by April 1991, when, knowing it was far from finished and in some despair, I put it through Nicholas Hytner’s door. Coming away from the house, I felt rather like one of those practical jokers who arrange for an unsuspecting victim to be landed with a load of slurry. That Hytner was then enthusiastic about the script and with him the director of the National Theatre, Richard Eyre, cheered me up so much that I forced myself to reread it. No, I had been right: slurry at that moment it was. Later I discovered that Hytner had a gap in his schedule and Richard Eyre had a gap in his, so that the script had come as the answer to both their prayers.

Reading the play for the first time and knowing only a little of period, Nicholas Hytner had been surprised when the King recovered. With this in mind his first suggestion was that I should make the play more of a cliffhanger, relying on the fact that most people would know there was a Regency without quite knowing when it began or that the Prince of Wales would have to wait another twenty years before he finally got his hands on the government. This was just the first of many invaluable suggestions he made and in the course of the next three months the play was completely reshaped. The role of a director at this stage of a play is more like that of an editor and directors who can fill this role are few and far between.

Though it began and ended much as it did in the finished version, the original manuscript meandered about quite a bit, so the two rewrites I did between April and August cut out a good deal in an effort to make the progress of the King’s illness and his recovery more clear. In August 1991 a reading of the text was set up in the National Theatre Studio, actors working at the National taking the various parts almost on a first-come-first-served basis, the purpose being for us to hear the text and see how it played. The only actor already cast was Nigel Hawthorne and it was plain from his reading how he would transform the part. That said, to sit and hear the play read, knowing it was unfinished, was both depressing and embarrassing, and I fear that some of the actors, who seldom see a play at this stage, must have wondered why we were bothering. But I then began a third rewrite which solved many of the problems the reading had thrown up and gave the play more dramatic thrust: this was the script we began to rehearse at the end of September.

That we were able to rehearse for ten weeks was a great luxury, and one only possible in a subsidised company. However, in that time Nicholas Hytner had also to rehearse the new production of The Wind in the Willows, so it was Pitt and Fox in the morning, Rat and Mole (and Fox) in the afternoon. When at the end of the seventh week we were able to run the play, it was immediately clear that while the course of the King’s illness and recovery was plain and worked dramatically, the political crisis it brought with it lacked urgency. So the final bout of rewriting was only a couple of weeks before the play went on stage. I have never worked on a play where so much reconstruction has been required. That it was unresented by the actors, who by this stage in rehearsal are naturally anxious for a finished text, says a good deal both for their forbearance and for the atmosphere in which the rehearsals were conducted. Not since Forty Years On, which is, I suppose, my only other historical play, have I enjoyed rehearsals so much.

One casualty of the rewrites was strict historical truth. In the early versions of the play I had adhered pretty closely to the facts: the Prince of Wales, for instance, was originally a more genial character than presented here and more reluctant to have it admitted in public or in the press that his father might be mad. However, the play only works if the antipathy between father and son, never far below the surface with all the Hanoverian kings, is sharpened and the Prince made less sympathetic. In the original Fox, too, was a more ambiguous character, much troubled by his own lack of scruple, and the votes in the Commons were not so narrow, the Government majority never as low as ten. In other respects, though, events needed no sharpening, the King’s recovery, for instance, being only slightly less dramatic than it is in the play; certainly it took the politicians by surprise. This was because the King’s illness was such a political football that no one was quite sure what information was to be trusted. Even the King was plainly on the mend the doctors could not guarantee that he would maintain the improvement (and there were some alarming lapses).

In this process of recovery the ‘what-whatting’ was crucial. This verbal habit of the King’s was presumably the attempt of a nervous and self-conscious man to prevent the conversation from flagging – always a danger in chats with the monarch since the subject is never certain whether he or she is expected to reply or when. The onset of the King’s mania delivered him from self-consciousness and so the ‘what-whatting’ went; the King was in any case talking too fast and too continuously for there to be need or room for it. When he began to calm down and come to himself again he came to the ‘what-whatting’ too, the flag of social distress now a signal of recovery. As Greville wrote, ‘though not a grace in language, yet the restoring habits of former days prescribed a forerunner of returning wisdom.’

I have no experience of royal persons, some of whom I think may still ‘what-what’ a little. Today, though, it’s easier. What royalty wants nowadays is deference without awe, though what they get more often than not is a fatuous smile, any social awkwardness veiled in nervous laughter so that the Queen moves among her people buoyed up on waves of obliging hilarity. How happy we must all seem! Such tittering would have been unthinkable at the court of George III, reputedly the dullest in Europe, where no one laughed or coughed and where it was unthinkable ever to sneeze.

Had the King insisted on such formality outside the court he would not have been as popular as he was. A stickler for etiquette at home, he and the Queen remained seated while his courtiers stood for hours at a time, dropping with boredom: but outside the court, often riding unattended, the King would stop and chat with farm labourers, road-menders and anybody he came across. When they went to Cheltenham he promised the Queen, with a lack of formality that not so long ago was thought to be a modern breakthrough, that they would ‘walk about and meet his subjects’.

One difficulty when writing the play was how to furnish the audience with sufficient information about the political set-up at the end of the 18th century for them to understand why the illness of the King threatened the survival of the Government. Nowadays of course it wouldn’t, and the fact that there were seemingly two parties, Tories and Whigs, could mislead an audience into thinking that nowadays and those days were much the same.

What has to be understood is that in 1788 the monarch was still the engine of the nation. The King would choose as his chief minister a politician who could muster enough support in the House of Commons to give him a majority. Today it is the other way round: the majority in the Commons determines the choice of prime minister. Though this sometimes seemed to be the case even in the 18th century, a minister imposed on the King by Parliament could not last long: this was why George III so much resented Fox, who was briefly his minister following a disreputable coalition with North in 1783. All governments were to some degree coalitions and a majority in the Commons did not reflect some overall victory by Whigs or Tories in a general election. Leading figures in Parliament had their groups of supporters; there were Pittites, Foxites, Rockingham Whigs and Grenvilles, who voted as their patron voted. A ministry was put together, a majority accumulated out of an alliance of various groups, and what maintained that alliance was the uninterrupted flow of political patronage, the network of offices and appointments available to those running the administration. In the play Sir Boothby Skrymshir and his nephew Ramsden are a ridiculous pair, but as Sheridan says (though the phrase was actually used by Fox), they are the ‘marketable flotsam’ out of which a majority was constructed. At the head of the pyramid was the King. All appointments flowed from him. If he was incapacitated and his powers transferred to his son, support for the ministry would dwindle because the flow of patronage had stopped. If the King was mad it would not be long before the Ins were Out.

As I struggled to mince these chunks of information into credible morsels of dialogue (the danger always being that characters are telling each other what they know in their bones), I often felt it would have been simpler to call the audience in a quarter of an hour early and give them a short curtain lecture on the nature of 18th-century politics before getting on with the play proper.

The characters are largely historical. Margaret Nicholson’s attempt on the King’s life was in 1786, not just before his illness as in the play, but it is certainly true, as the King remarks, that in France she would not have got off so lightly. As it was, she lived on in Bedlam long after the witnesses to her deed were dead, surviving until the eve of the accession of George III’s granddaughter, Queen Victoria.

I thought I had invented Fitzroy but discover that in 1801 George III had an aide-decamp of this name, who was later the heartthrob of the King’s youngest daughter, Amelia. He was ‘generally admitted to be good-looking in a rather wooden sort of way, he had neither dash nor charm and seems to have been on the frigid side into the bargain,’ which describes our Fitzroy exactly. That he was playing a double game and was an intimate of the Prince of Wales is my invention.

Greville is a historical character, his diary one of the most important sources for the history of the royal malady. However, Greville was not in attendance throughout as he is in the play. A fair-minded though conventional man, and clear-sighted where the King’s illness was concerned (and often appalled at its treatment), Greville along with the King’s other attendants was excluded when Dr Willis, ‘the mad doctor’, took on the case. Willis brought with him some of his own staff, presumably from his asylum at Greatham in Lincolnshire, and took on other heavies in London. In the play they only appear once, when the restraining chair is brought in at the end of the first act, but in fact they remained at windsor and Kew in constant attendance on the King until willis eventually went back north. This was not, as in the play, immediately before the thanksgiving service in June 1789, but some months later.

The number of physicians attending the King varied. They were known as the ‘London doctors’ to distinguish them from Dr Willis and his son. I have restricted them to three but there may have been as many as ten. Nor have I included Willis’s son, who was also a doctor and in charge of the King during his next attack in 1802.

The pages who in the play bear so much of the burden of the King’s illness were probably older than I have made them, the youngest and Kindest, Papandiek, being the King’s barber, with his wife another of those who kept a diary of this much journalised episode. Some pages were sacked when the King recovered because ‘from the manner in which they had been obliged to attend on Him during the illness, they had obtained a sort of familiarity which now would not be pleasing to Him.’ However, these were not Papandiek and Braun. In the play depicted as heartless creature, Braun was in fact one of the King’s favourites and still in his service ten years later. The other page, Fortnum, left to found the grocer’s, and in the Seventies, I remember, one used to be accosted in the store in far-from-18th-century language by two bewigged figures, Mr Fortnum and Mr Mason – actually two unemployed actors.

I found the Opposition (an anachronistic phrase for which there is no convenient substitute) much harder to write than the Government ‘What can they do?’ Nicholas Hytner would ask, which is the same question of course thai opposition politicians are always having to ask themselves, even today. Pitt, Dundas and Thurlow carry on the government; Fox, Sheridan and Burke can only talk about the day when they might have the government to carry on. And drink, of course. But, as the King says, ‘they all drink.’ Pitt was frequently drunk before a big speech and on one occasion was sick behind the Speaker’s chair.

With Pitt I had first to rid myself of the picture I retained of him from childhood when I saw Korda’s wartime propaganda film The Young Mr Pitt. Robert Donat was Pitt, kitted out with a kindly housekeeper, adoring chums and maybe even a girlfriend. What there was no sign of was the bottle. At one point in the play he talks of when he was a boy, though boy he never really was, brought up by his father to be prime minister, destined always for ‘the first employments’. The son, the nephew and the first cousin of prime ministers, the only commoner in a cabinet of peers, perhaps he was arrogant but no wonder. Long, lank and awkward, he made a wonderful caricature, and if he was the first prime minister in the sense we understand it today it was because, as Pares says, the cartoonists made him so.

Pitt’s career ran in tandem with that of Fox, though Fox was the older man. Meeting the boy Pitt, he seems to have had a premonition that here was his destiny. They are such inveterate and complementary opposites, Pitt cold, distant and calculating, Fox warm, convivial and impulsive, that they are almost archetypes, save or squander, hoard or spend, Gladstone and Disraeli, Robespierre and Danton, Eliot and Pound. Pitt had his disciples, but Fox, for all his inconsistencies and political folly, was genuinely loved, even by his opponents (though never by the King). His oratory was spellbinding, as Pitt ruefully acknowledged (‘Ah,’ he said to one of Fox’s critics, ‘but you have never been under the wand of the magician’). Burke, whom posterity remembers as a great orator, was in his day considered a bore, his speeches often ludicrously over the top, and known as ‘the dinner bell’ because when he rose to speak he regularly emptied the House.

Fox had charm, even at his lowest ebb. ‘I have led a sad life,’ he wrote to his mistress, ‘sitting up late, always either at the House of Commons or gaming, and losing my money every night that I have played. Getting up late, of course, and finding people in my room so that I have never had the morning time to myself, and have gone out as soon as I could, though generally very late, to get rid of them, so that I have scarce ever had a moment to write. You have heard how poor a figure we made in numbers on the slave trade, but I spoke I believe very well … and it is a cause in which one cannot help being pleased with oneself for having done right.’ Baffled as to how to convey Fox’s charm, I included much of this letter in the first draft of the play, the speech originally part of the much altered final scene. ‘A danger this is becoming Fox’s story,’ noted Nicholas Hytner, so I took it out again.

I made Sheridan a man of business, a manager of the House, and he was certainly more canny than Fox, whom he regularly scolded and who, he always said, treated him as if he were a swindler. I began by peppering his speeches with self-quotation, which is never a wise move. I had done the same with Orton in an early draft of the screenplay of Prick up your ears, and that didn’t work either; one thinks, too, of all the movies about Wilde in which he talks in epigrams throughout. There was originally a parody of the screen scene in School for Scandal, in which the Prince of Wales and his doctor are discovered hiding from the King. It had some basis in fact but it was an early casualty. I give him two shots at explaining it, but what I find hard to understand is why, has having made a name for himself in the theatre, Sheridan should have wanted to go into politics at all. On the rare occasions I have talked to politicians I have found myself condescended to because I’m not ‘in the know’ (political journalists and civil servants do it too). So perhaps that was part of it. Poor Sheridan never quite managed to be one of the boys, even in death. In Westminster Abbey Pitt, Fox and Burke are buried clubbily together, whereas Sheridan has landed up next to Garrick. His distaste for this location was another casualty of the final scene of the play. Of course what I really wanted to include but didn’t dare was the playwright’s bane, a conversation (with Thurlow, it would be), beginning: ‘Anything in the pipeline, Sheridan?’

Dundas was much older than I have made him, but, dramatically, Pitt needs a friend or else he would never unburden himself at all. Thurlow, foul-tongued and ‘lazy as a toad at the bottom of a well’, was well known to be a twister. When he made the speech on the King’s recovery, quoted in the play – ‘And when I forget my sovereign, may God forget me’ – Wilkes, who was seated on the steps of the throne, remarked: ‘God forget you? He’ll see you damned first!’

Queen Charlotte was every bit as homely and parsimonious as she’s presented, stamping the leftover pats of butter with her signet so that they would not be eaten by the servants. Her name is preserved in Apple Charlotte, a recipe that uses up stale bread. I thought I had caught her rather well until Janet Dale, who was playing her, said that the game little wife was a part to which she was no stranger: not long ago it was the first Mrs Orwell and more recently Mrs Walesa. ‘ “Have another cup of tea, Lech, and let Solidarity take care of itself …” Solidarity, Animal Farm or porphyria, I’m always the plucky little woman married to a hubby with problems.’

There are some fortuitous parallels with contemporary politics; and had the play been written before the downfall of Mrs Thatcher there would have been more. Pitt’s ‘kitchen principles’ were not dissimilar to hers and one could see that Dundas having Willis redraft the bulletin while Pitt kept his hands clean is reminiscent of Mrs Thatcher’s conduct in the Westland affair. Thinking that the Regency Bill must pass and that he faces imminent dismissal, Pitt says that he needs five more years. The audience laughs. But what politician doesn’t? Pitt of course got them, but what he actually meant was live more years of peace, and these he didn’t get. Mrs Thatcher’s fortunes were made by a war that came just in time, Pitt’s ruined by a war which (as Fox thought) should not have come at all. The audience applauds again when Pitt, reviewing his seemingly bleak future, says that having been prime minister he does not now intend to sit on the back benches and carp. This isn’t an easy gibe at Mr Heath, for whom I’ve got some sympathy. Pitt had always aspired to be prime minister, but on his own terms; in 1783 he had even refused the King’s invitation to form a ministry because he was not yet ready; defeated, he would never have played second fiddle to anybody. Any account of politics whatever the period must throw up contemporary parallels. I think if I had deliberately made more of these it would have satisfied or pandered to some critics who felt that that was what the play should have been more about. But it is about the madness of George III, the rest amusing, intriguing, but incidental. Mention of the critics, though, reminds me that one of the jokes when we were rehearsing the play was that it would take audiences ten minutes to reconcile themselves to the fact that it wasn’t set in Halifax. Such jokes tempt fate and I’m told that the critic of the Independent spent most of his notice regretting that it wasn’t more Trouble at t’Mill.

Though I have known sufferers from severe depression, I have had little experience of mental illness or of the discourse of the mentally ill, since depression, though it can lead to delusions, doesn’t disorder speech. Of course, as Greville cautions Willis in the play, the King’s discourse is slightly disordered to begin with, not normal anyway, and his idiosyncratic utterance has to be established in the audience’s mind before it gets more hurried and compulsive and he starts to go off the rails. Even then, Willis has to tread warily because behaviour which in an ordinary person would be considered unbalanced (talking of oneself in the third person, for instance) is perfectly proper in the monarch. Some of the contents of the King’s mad speech I cribbed from contemporary sources, such as John Haslam’s Illustrations of Madness, an account of James Tilly Matthews, a patient in Bethlem Hospital in 1810. Other features of the King’s mad talk, his elaborate circumlocutions (a chair ‘an article for sitting in’), for instance, are characteristic of schizophrenic speech.

What was plain quite early on was that where mad talk was concerned a little went a long way; that while it is interesting to see the King going mad and a great relief to see him recover, when he is completely mad and not making any sense at all he is of no dramatic consequence. Since what he is saying is irrational it cannot affect the outcome of things, and so is likely to be ignored: thus an audience will attend to what is being done to the King but not to what he is saying. There was also a difficulty with the sheer quantity of the King’s discourse (on one occasion he was reported as talking continuously for nine hours at a stretch). Two minutes’ drivel, however felicitously phrased, is enough to make an audience restive, and though what the King is saving is never quite drivel, the volume of it has to be taken down to allow other characters to speak across him, subject sense taking precedence over regal nonsense. Of course speech is not the half of it, and without Nigel Hawthorne’s transcendent performance the King could have been just a gabbling bore and his fate a matter of indifference. As it is, the performance made him such a human and sympathetic figure, the audience saw the whole paly through his eyes.

The final scene of the play proved the most difficult to get right. I knew from the start that the play must end at St Paul’s when the nation gives thanks for the King’s return to health. As originally written, the doctors emerged still quarrelling as to who deserves the credit for their patient’s recovery. Then Dr Richard Hunter, joint author of George III and the Mad Business, materialised in modern dress to tell the 18th-century doctors that they were all wrong anyway and that the King was not mad but suffering from porphyria. The discussion that followed was long and detailed, too much so for this stage of the play and made longer when the politicians emerged and started quarrelling too. Finally the King himself came out, found the doctors disagreeing over the body of the patient, and the politicians disagreeing over the body of the state, said to hell with it all and, taking his cue from Hunter, described how he would eventually end up mad anyway.

Nigel Hawthorne felt, I think rightly, that he couldn’t step out of his character so easily and that if he did the audience would feel cheated. It was Roy Porter who suggested that Richard Hunter’s mother Ida Macalpine was as much responsible for George III and the Mad Business as her son and that in the interest of literary justice (and political correctness) she should be the voice of modern medicine. Accordingly I wrote the brief Scene just before the finale where she explains to the sacked pages (who had been the only ones to take notice of the King’s blue piss) what this symptom meant. Whereas in a film one could deal with this explanation in the final credits. I felt at the time the play opened that the facts had to be set out and the matter settled within the play. Now I’m less sure, though the scene has a structural function as it enables the King and Queen to nip out of bed and into their togs ready for the finale.

One ending I was fond of, though it was determinedly untheatrical, and perhaps just an elaborate way of saying that too many cooks spoil the broth; still, it’s the nearest I can get to extracting a message from the play. The King and Queen are left alone on the stage after the Thanksgiving Service and they sit down on the steps of St Paul’s and try and decide what lessons can be drawn from this unfortunate episode.

KING: The real lesson, if I may say so, is that what makes an illness perilous is celebrity. Or, as in my case, royalty. In the ordinary course of things doctors want their patients to recover; their reputations depend on it. But if the patient is rich or royal, powerful or famous, other considerations enter in. There are many parties interested apart from the interested party. So more doctors are called in and none nut the best will do. But the best aren’t always very good and they argue, they disagree. They have to because they are after all the best and the world is watching. And who is in the middle? The patient. It happened to me. It happened to Napoleon. It happened to Anthony Eden. It happened to the Shah. The doctors even killed off George V to make the first edition of the times. I tell you, dear people, if you’re poorly it’s safer to be poor and ordinary.

QUEEN: But not too poor, Mr King.

KING: Oh no. Not too poor What? What?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences