The first draft of The Madness of King George (then called The Madness of George III) was prefaced with this note:

The Windsor Castle in which much of the action takes place is the castle before it was reconstructed in the 1820s. The 18th century wasn’t all elegance and there should be a marked contrast between the state rooms, in which the King’s life was largely spent, and the back parts of the building, those tiny rooms and attics, cubicles almost, where, because the court was so crowded, most of the courtiers had to lodge. This was certainly the situation at Versailles and, I imagine, at most of the courts of Europe. Greville is lucky to have a little room to himself and the pages sleep stacked in a cupboard like a scene from Alice in Wonderland.

It’s not simply a contrast between public opulence and private squalor. I don’t imagine the living quarters of the court, cramped though they were, to have been particularly squalid; I think of them as being long boarded passages, lined with doors, narrow staircases and abrupt changes of level – accommodation not unlike that in colleges at Oxford and Cambridge or on the top floors of country houses. But scrubbed and white-painted as these quarters may have been, cramped they certainly were and often situated behind and adjacent to the state rooms and grand corridors where the ceremonial life of the court was led. Access to these back parts is through doors flush with the panelling or covered in camouflaging wallpaper; when Greville, say, comes on duty it’s as if he’s threading his way through a complicated backstage before coming out onto the set.

There should be a sense, too, that what happens to the King in the course of his illness is reflected in the topography of the castle. His behaviour, previously geared to the public and state rooms, gradually becomes inappropriate for such settings; when he periodically escapes into the back parts of the castle (as when he is looking for the Queen, for instance) it’s comparable to his escape into the back parts of his personality, the contrast between what he seems and what he is echoed by that between the state rooms and the attics.

The notion of courts as overcrowded places I took from Nancy Mitford’s The Sun King with its vivid account of conditions at Versailles. Not to be at court in France was social death and the aristocracy were prepared to put up with almost any inconvenience to avoid having to reside on their estates. In order to cope with the demand rooms in the palace were divided and divided again, the elegant state apartments backing onto a labyrinth of poky lodgings and what were, in effect, bedsitters.

While the social set-up was different in England, the court never quite the same magnet, nevertheless here too conditions must have been pretty cheek by jowl, particularly in unreconstructed Windsor. Formality there was (too much of it, the courtiers complained) but with a crowd of well-to-do people crammed together in a tight place it was always under strain and once the door closed on the King and Queen the relief must have been as palpable as it is in the film; the Prince of Wales and his brother sink thankfully onto the vacated thrones and take off their shoes and poor pregnant Lady Townsend is at last permitted to sit down. In the first version of the script I wanted to emphasise the unbuttoning that occurred once the King and Queen left the room by having Fitzroy unexpectedly return; the court is suddenly stunned back into silence and immobility, thinking Their Majesties are about to come back; however, Fitzroy is only retrieving a shawl the Queen has left, so the hubbub resumes. Revising the script, I could see that there would be no time for such underlining and it was an early cut.

‘No time’ is, of course, always the problem. Film is drama at its most impatient, ‘What happens next?’ the perpetual nag. One can never hang about, thinks the writer, petulantly. There’s a bit more leeway on stage, depending on the kind of story one’s telling, and more still on television where the viewers are close enough to the characters not to mind whether they dawdle a bit. With film meandering is out of the question: it has to be brisk, so very little of my atmospheric backstairs stuff made it to the final script; so little in fact that I wonder now how I could ever have thought it would – and was that preamble to the script just a sales pitch?

Not really, as the odd glimpses of life behind the scenes that did make it to the screen do pay off. There is the cupboard in the wall opened by the distraught King to reveal his three pages sleeping stacked on shelves one above the other (like the Fettiplaces on their monument in Swinbrook church in Oxfordshire). The King dashes along a vaulted corridor (Broughton Castle) and bursts in on a sleeping lady-in-waiting and demands her chamber pot. ‘Do it, England,’ he adjures himself. ‘Do it.’

But time and the budget put paid to much of the rest: no back corridors thronged with courtiers, still primping and titivating themselves as they hurry down to the opening concert; no shot of the same corridors silent in the small hours as one by one the doors open and sleepy courtiers stumble out en déshabillé to listen to the distant howling of the King. The loss of such scenes was a sacrifice, but they were cut with resignation and general agreement, the telling of the King’s story always taking priority and so edging out some of these vignettes.

Besides, the screenwriter’s hopes for his film must always be a little fanciful. I’d have liked (who wouldn’t) the scene (later cut) where the King, gone suddenly mad, is followed at a discreet distance by the wondering court, to have had some of the suspense and trepidation of a similar scene in Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. I may even have put that daunting note in the stage directions. It can’t have helped; I might as well have said: ‘If it can be arranged I’d like this film to be a masterpiece.’

Earlier in life I used to revel in the break from my routine that filming provided while feeling myself as scriptwriter to have as necessary a role as the Make-Up Department or Costumes. The scene often needed tweaking, for instance, to adapt it to the chosen location; the dialogue might need tweaking too, particularly if it was a Northern piece. So I used to take my place in that ritual dance that unfolds before the shot. The production assistant calls for ‘Final checks’ and as the camera assistant runs out his tape to determine the focus, Make-Up and Costumes dart in to powder a nose or straighten a tie while the author (director, of course, permitting) has an earnest word with the actor about some emphasis or other.

That this hands-on authorship has loosened is partly due to age. Happy enough to sit around on the set all day if I’m acting, when I’m in attendance as scriptwriter I feel it’s not a proper investment of time. Besides, many of the cast knew this piece better than I did, having played it on the stage off and on for two and a half years. So whereas once upon a time I’d have been able to give a day-by-day account of the shooting of the film, my visits to the unit on The Madness of King George were quite sporadic. My notes on some of these visits were published in the 15th-anniversary issue of the London Review last autumn. Here are a few more.

5 August, Oxford. Most of the cast of the stage play are taking part in the film, though some of them in much smaller roles just for old times’ sake. I have been given the part of a loquacious MP who happens to be addressing the Commons when news arrives that the King, whom everyone believes still to be mad, is actually outside in Palace Yard. The House rapidly empties leaving the MP (MP4, as he’s known in the script) addressing the empty benches with only the Speaker left. Eventually the Speaker tiptoes out too.

The House of Commons has been set up in Convocation with the adjoining Divinity School representing the Lobby. Coming onto the set, the place crammed with two hundred extras and Pitt and Co on the front bench, I am struck, as one often was in the stage production, by how like an 18th-century illustration it looks.

‘Do you do much extra work?’ asks my neighbour on the backbenches. ‘Not really,’ I say and am thankful for it as it’s swelteringly hot and more humid inside than out because of the vapour machine pumping out steam to make the scene more photogenic and blur its edges a bit. The extras, some of them undergraduates, others local amateurs, are far more tolerant and unprotesting than their professional London counterparts. Despite the heat they seem actually to be enjoying themselves, strolling about between takes in the Sheldonian quad, showing off their costumes and being photographed by Japanese coach-parties, who maybe think that this is all a normal part of university life.

6 August, Oxford. Today is cool and grey (‘Shakespeare in the park weather’, someone says) which is perhaps fortunate as we have to get through eighteen or so set-ups in the day, the normal quota for a feature film some five or six. Still, everybody is greatly encouraged from having seen last night a rough assembly of what has been shot so far, the snow scenes at Thame looking particularly good with no hint that these were filmed on the hottest day of the year. Nor had I anticipated the change-over to much more muted colours as the King’s madness takes hold, Kew (Thame Park) almost in black and white with the bearded King in his black cloak looking especially dramatic. At the moment we don’t have enough money to finish the shooting at Thame, where we needed an extra day, just as we really need an extra half-day in Oxford.

The Unit Base is in the grounds of the Dragon School and after lunch I walk across the playing-fields to look at the war memorial, a cross by the cricket pavilion on the bank of the river. Names of boys virtually cover the cross, not listed in an impersonal fashion with surname and initials but with the boy’s first name (and sometimes his nickname) written out in full, and no indication of the rank he attained or the service in which he died. After the rain there are mushrooms dotted about the field and two of the ground staff are marking out the football pitch for next season. I have a pee behind the sightscreen as the school lavatories have no locks on the door (though at least they have doors), the bleak dressing-rooms and showers making me thankful it’s not a childhood I had to go through.

10 August, Eton. Eton is standing in for the Palace of Westminster and the exteriors of the State Opening of Parliament at the start of the film. We film first in the cloisters, the walls of which are studded with memorial plaques to the dead of both world wars, the First War particularly. There are bronze plaques so dark as to be indecipherable, ceramic panels that look quite festive, a memorial to all the Etonians who died in the Grenadier Guards and umpteen others, some in tribal Latin to masters as well as boys, the conclusion of many of them, Floreat Etona.

A dolly mounted with a ramshackle light screen trundles the camera round the cloisters with the actors rushing along behind as the King argues with the Prince of Wales and the courtiers scurry after them trying to keep up. What I hope we capture is how wanting in proper ceremony the 18th-century monarchy was; how slipshod and unmanaged were its public appearances; and whatever the flummery, not much dignity about it at all.

Then we shift to School Yard where the MPs mass on the staircase by the chapel watching the departure of the royal party. I sit by the statue of Henry VI (a pigeon feather caught on his nose) as the coaches wheel about the yard and Janine Duvitski as Margaret Nicholson rather shyly tries to assassinate the King. Afterwards I wander down the immaculately preserved High Street. Here is Coutts Bank and some smart tailor’s, established in the 18th century, there’s a grand photographer’s established around the same time and other smart and elegant shops that are hangers-on and camp-followers of the school; and the message is plain: these boys are rich. And I hate it and feel the worse for hating it because the school has been so helpful and co-operative over the film. I can see, though, that to be educated here isn’t an unmixed blessing and that afterwards it could, as in Cyril Connolly’s case, be downhill all the way, even the most lustrous Oxford or Cambridge college something of a comedown after all this.

I go back to the filming to find Greville on camera knocking at a door covered, as is most Eton woodwork, in ancient graffiti. Some of it, though, is not quite so ancient (or not ancient enough for us) and it’s only when we view the rushes that we see the date ‘1862’ large and plain on this door at which he is knocking in 1788.

3 September, Broughton. Drive in grey drizzle to Banbury. Feel, even just passing through the town, the rootless anonymity that has swamped the place, the centre still intact and even handsome but ringed by superstores and huge drive-in centres that service the acres of fuck-hutch estates that house its expanded population. ‘Thriving’, I suppose it’s called.

Broughton, a mile or two away, could not be in sharper contrast; the most beautiful of houses, medieval in a 16th or 17th-century shell with Gothic additions, entered across a moat and through a gatehouse, almost a standard kit for an idyll. There’s a formal garden, great plush borders along the old ramparts and cows and sheep grazing in the water meadows beyond, overlooking it all this rambling honey-coloured house.

Onto this rural paradise the film unit has descended like an invading army. Twenty or so vans have ploughed up one of the meadows, thirty cars are parked under the trees; there are half a dozen caravans, two marquees and the sodden ground is rapidly turning into a quagmire. Churning up the edges of the perfect lawns, company cars ferry the actors to and from the location in the house where the sparks, who have seen it all before, lug their lights and tripods down the superb vaulted corridors.

Seemingly unaffected by all this is the lady of the house. Lady Saye – really Lady Saye and Sele, only nobody is sure whether one drops the Sele in ordinary conversation. She’s tall and cheerful and happy to show anybody round, the house as magical inside as out, handsome rooms lined with linenfold panelling and a splendid drawing-room overlooking the moat. My wonder at the place makes me foolish and I’m sure I gush, though it’s partly to offset the unimpressed one-location-very-much-like-another behaviour inseparable from film crews, who congregate at the door having coffee and a cig and trampling on another bit of the lawn.

As always, I find I’m pretty surplus to requirements, my only contribution a muttered suggestion to Nick Hytner that Rupert Graves’s ad lib ‘I’m fine, I’m fine’ would be more in period if he said: ‘It is no matter, no matter.’ I watch Nigel H. rehearse the pisspot scene, then walk round the garden with Mark Thompson before buying some plants on sale in the potting-shed and coming away. Except then I call in at the church which is full of the sound of hoovering, a friendly grey-haired man, Welsh, who may be the vicar, though I don’t like to ask, seemingly vacuuming the altar. It’s the bats, he explains, the church disputed territory between English Heritage, who want them expelled, and English Nature, who don’t. In the meantime he hoovers.

The opening concert was shot in the Double Cube room at Wilton House, where the hand-bell ringers perform their somnolent version of ‘Greensleeves’ (‘Fascinating stuff!’ says the King) in front of the sumptuous backcloth of Van Dyck’s portrait of the Earl of Pembroke and his family. The Prince of Wales’s lodgings were at Wilton and the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, which was also the setting for the second concert when the King runs amok. The wonderful long gallery in which George III sees Pitt at the start of the film and the finish, and down which Pitt bows himself endlessly out, is at Syon House, as was the Prince of Wales’s breakfast room. Arundel Castle doubled for Windsor. Restored slightly earlier than Windsor, Arundel shares many of its features while being less familiar – but catch either of them on a wet day and neither is unlike a long-stay institution for the criminally insane.

The title of the stage play is The Madness of George III and of the film, The Madness of King George. This was a marketing decision: the American backers somewhat shamefacedly explained that the audience might think, seeing The Madness of George III, that they had missed out on The Madness of George and The Madness of George II. A survey had apparently shown that there were many movie-goers who came away from Kenneth Branagh’s film of Henry V wishing they had seen its four predecessors. Where this leaves The Third Man (or The Second Mrs Tanqueray) I’m not sure.

The marriage of the Prince of Wales to Mrs Maria Fitzherbert comes into the film as it didn’t into the play. The Prince had married her secretly (in her own drawing-room) in 1785 really in order to satisfy Mrs Fitzherbert’s Catholic conscience as she refused to sleep with him otherwise. Valid in the eyes of her Church, the marriage was always invalid in legal and constitutional terms, as the Prince could not marry without his father’s permission, and if he married a Catholic he forfeited his right to the throne. Not that this mattered to Mrs Fitzherbert who, sensible woman that she was, had no interest in the throne anyway. No one has a wrong word for her: sweet-natured, amiable and no great beauty, she was received at court and was on good terms with the King and Queen, with no one seemingly in any doubt Of her relation to the Prince. However, when, early in 1787, the existence of the marriage was raised in Parliament, the Prince of Wales denied it even to his friend Fox who, believing him, stood up in the Commons and denied it too. Not surprisingly Mrs Fitzherbert was very cross and though she forgave the Prince she never forgave Fox who, in turn, found it hard to forgive the Prince.

All this had blown over by the time George III became ill late in 1788 and the marriage played no part in what came to be called the Regency Crisis. In my script it does, partly because the plot needed thickening and also because I wanted Mrs Fitzherbert to have her own story and not just be sitting around as the companion of the Prince. At the end of the film the Prince is seen to have rejected her, but in fact they lived together openly for another 14 years, even after the Prince’s marriage (legal but disastrous) to Princess Caroline. Rejection when it did come in 1803 was as crude and brutal as royal behaviour often is, recalling the unfeelingness with which a later Prince of Wales, having met Mrs Simpson, briskly put aside his long-time mistress, Mrs Dudley-Ward. Sometimes it’s as if royalty know about good behaviour by hearsay and can only give a faulty imitation of it. Or as Willis remarks before meeting the King: ‘Deferred to, agreed with, acquiesced in – who could flourish on a daily diet of compliance? To be curbed, stood up to, in a word thwarted, exercises the character, elasticates the spirit, makes it pliant. It is the want of such exercise that makes rulers rigid.’ Or spoiled, as Nanny would say.

In general the Prince of Wales is more forceful and more of a villain in the film than he was on the stage or in life. There’s no doubt that he was anxious to be made Regent but he was more careful of appearances than I have made him and was more governed, too, by that fellow-feeling all royals have with each other. The Prince of Wales, for instance, was understandably sensitive to any suggestion, particularly in the press, that his father was mad. For a subject to remark on the King’s state of mind seemed to the Prince insolent and intolerable. Or sometimes seemed to him insolent and intolerable. For the Prince himself to make such a suggestion (and to make jokes on the subject) was permissible; and it was permissible too, a lot of the time, for his cronies, but suddenly they would find they had gone too far, the Prince would get on his high royal horse again and his friends would have to mind their p’s and q’s for a bit. It’s a characteristic of royalty that one minute they are happy to masquerade as ordinary persons and the next they demand to be treated as a race apart. Like the rest of us I suppose they just want things both ways, but this ‘Now you “Sir” me, now you don’t’ must make intimacy with royalty a little wearing and friendship with them must always involve an element of Grandmother’s Footsteps. Like Fitzroy, courtiers must learn to be pretty sure-footed with little hope of ever being ‘natural’: the ideal somewhere between those who can’t forget the royals’ highness (and so are stilted) and those who forget it altogether (and so are cheeky).

These reservations apart I found I was less sceptical about the monarchy as an institution than most of the production team, partly because (and slightly to my surprise) I was older than most of them and more set in my ways. Certainly I’m no republican and find nothing particularly extraordinary in the difficulties and embarrassments of the present Prince of Wales. It’s a role which has seldom been satisfactorily filled; I suppose George V was good enough at it but he was a dull man who became the heir apparent to universal relief on the unexpected death of his unsuitable brother, for whom no one had a good word, some identifying him with Jack the Ripper. (Even the Sun hasn’t managed to insinuate that Prince Charles is a serial killer.) But when the Prince of Wales in the film says that to be heir to the throne is not a position, it is a predicament, it’s meant to be both a cry from the heart and a statement of an obvious truth.

Given my royalist inclinations, I haven’t followed the goings-on over the break-up of the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales or read any of the literature it has occasioned. I don’t say this prissily. In my own circle of friends divorce dismays me for entirely selfish reasons: it alters the social landscape in unpredictable ways, curtailing friendships, shutting down havens and generally making life less comfortable. The Prince of Wales’s marriage, I need hardly add, does not impinge in this way, but like everything to do with the monarch I’d just like to be able to take it for granted as one used to do. I don’t want to have to think about it. I just want it to be there.

However, I would like to tiptoe into a royal bedroom if only to see how far, when one party is royal and the other not, the game of Grandmother’s Footsteps still goes on between the sheets. At what point is rank suspended and royalty discontinued and is the subject even when forgetting him/herself utterly still obliged to remember his/her place? Toiling over that regal eminence I can imagine Edward VII’s mistresses still feeling constrained to call him ‘Sir’, and without their ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’ royals may feel too naked altogether. Though maybe the discarding of this last rag of distinction gives them a thrill denied to the rest of us who, when we have no clothes on, have nothing left to take off. More reports please.

The parallels with today’s monarchy were largely unsought but they become more obvious as the film proceeds, the final shot of St Paul’s consciously recalling the television coverage of the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales. (On the other hand, if one is going to film the entry into St Paul’s there is one place from which to do it: television chose it and so did we.)

Still, the conversation as the Royal Family pauses at the top of the steps to acknowledge the crowd has acquired a resonance it did not quite have when the play was written three years ago. ‘We must try to be more of a family,’ says the King. ‘There are model farms now, model villages, even model factories. Well, we must be a model family for the nation to look to.’

‘But Pa,’ complains the Prince of Wales, ‘I want something to do.’

‘Follow in my footsteps,’ says his unfeeling father. ‘That is what you must do. Smile at the people. Wave to them. Let them see we are happy. That is why we are here.’

George III has a bad reputation in the United States because he is thought of as the king who caused the War of Independence. Were this true (which it isn’t) then he could be said to have earned America’s gratitude: if without him there would have been no war there would also have been no United States (or they would at least have been postponed). By the same token I always feel Judas deserves some sort of slap on the back because without him Christianity would never have got off the ground.

By 1788, as Pitt says in one version of the stage play, ‘America is over,’ meaning not merely the war but the relevance of America as a factor in English politics. In the shake-up of Parliamentary allegiances brought about by the war Pitt had sided with Fox against the King and Lord North. This so rankled with George III that he would not leave the subject alone, to the extent that when at the King’s request Pitt formed a ministry in 1784 he made it a condition the King would not mention America. So when, at the outset of his illness, the King starts to ‘harp on about America’ it is a sign that the royal self-control is beginning to break down.

Fox was temperamentally drawn to the colonists, Pitt less so but neither was in sympathy with the King’s view that the colonies were an inalienable estate and part of his royal patrimony. The King’s attitude has echoes today, with the monarch much more wedded to the idea of the Commonwealth than is the Prime Minister; it was one of the points of difference between the Queen and Mrs Thatcher, who probably found Her Majesty every bit as in tractable on the subject as Pitt did George III. In the language of the higher Civil Service George III was ‘a bit of a loose cannon’; one never knew what he would be up to (and into) next. At the end of the 18th century the monarch was, of course, less circumscribed than today and constitutional practice still permitted the Crown a good deal of freedom, and it wasn’t freedom George III was prepared to share.

KING: When people in Parliament oppose, go against my wishes, I still find it very vexing. Try as I can it seems to me disloyalty.

PITT: Your Majesty should not take it so personally.

KING: Not take it personally? But I’m king. This is my government. How else should I take it but personally?

PITT: The Whigs believe it is their duty to oppose you, sir.

KING: Duty? Duty? What sort of duty is that?

It was a duty to the future, in fact, as the idea of an opposition that was legitimate and not just bloody-minded was only just beginning to emerge. I have made Pitt say: ‘The King will do as he’s told.’ That’s a bit in the future too as it was quite hard, until his health began to fail, to tell George III anything; he was far too conscientious and well-informed for that. Certainly had he been less dutiful, less busy, he would have been less trouble to the politicians and perhaps to himself, as some at least of his mental torment can be put down to the frustrations of a conscientious nature. ‘Cork too tight in the bottle,’ says Dundas. ‘The man has to break out’

Whether America played any part in causing his ‘breaking-out’ it would be hard to say. He never wanted to be opposed, and to be contradicted as ordinary mortals were was, as Willis says, one of the lessons he had to learn. Certainly after his illness he was able to swallow America as he could not before and he learned to be more sly, neatly reversing Pitt’s embargo on mentioning America by making Pitt promise that he in his turn would not mention, still less propose, Catholic emancipation.

KING: As for the future, Mr Pitt, you are not to disagree with me on anything, what? My mind is not strong enough to stand it.

PITT (dryly): I will do my duty, sir.

Monarchy is a performance, and part of the King’s illness consists in his growing inability to sustain that performance. When the King is on the road to recovery Chancellor Thurlow discovers him reading King Lear and congratulates him on seeming more himself. ‘Yes,’ says the King, ‘I have always been myself but now I seem myself. I have remembered how to seem.’

The King is then rushed off to Westminster to be shown to the MPs, who, still under the impression that he is mad, are busy passing the Regency Bill. They rush out to greet him and he addresses them, haltingly at first but with increasing confidence, muttering to the pages at the finish: ‘How’s that lads? Not bad, eh?’ The performance has gone well: he has remembered how to seem. These scenes would, I hope, have rung a bell with the American sociologist, the late Ervin Goffman, whose analysis of the presentation of self and its breakdown in the 20th century seems just as appropriate to this deranged monarch from the 18th century.

The Thanksgiving Service at St Paul’s did not have to be invented: it’s a nice conclusion to the King’s illness and needed no departure from historical truth. Beginning my career as an historian, I find it harder to take liberties with the truth than someone whose upbringing has been less factually inhibited. I have to be forced into these departures from history by the exigencies of the drama, the insistence of the director and finally sheer desperation. Had Nicholas Hytner at the outset suggested bringing the King from Kew to Westminster to confront the MPs I would have been outraged at this departure from what had actually happened. By the time I was plodding through the third draft I would have taken the King to Blackpool if I thought it would have helped.

Whether or not George III was suffering from the metabolic disease porphyria remains an open question. In their book, George III and the Mad Business (1969), Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter argue convincingly for this retrospective diagnosis on the strength of the purple tinge the King’s urine took on while he was ill. Less convincingly, they traced the supposed incidence of the disease in other royals, nipping up and down George Ill’s family tree attributing no end of assorted ailments to the same cause. So Mary Queen of Scots was said to have had the condition, and her son James I; Queen Anne, George IV and even Frederick the Great. Although Hunter and Macalpine suggest that George IV’s brother, the Duke of Kent, was similarly affected the condition does not seem to have been passed on to his daughter, Queen Victoria, so the (rather heartless) joke of the final caption probably has no substance.

The condition presents problems that are as much metaphysical as medical. If porphyria is a metabolic disease the symptoms of which are similar to, and which even today can be mistaken for, those of mental illness, in what sense is a sufferer from porphyria different from someone who is more routinely deranged? In what sense is all mental illness physical in origin? These are large questions and I didn’t want to venture into what is both a swamp and a battlefield but felt that I needed at least to show that I was aware of the problem. Hence this exchange between Greville and Dr Willis:

GREVILLE: Do you think His Majesty is mad? Sometimes he seems ... just ... ill. [The dots indicating my opacities as much as Greville’s.]

WILLIS: Perhaps. But he has all the symptoms of madness.

GREVILLE: So what is the difference?

WILLIS: I am a doctor, Mr Greville, not a philosopher.

‘And this is a film’, he might have added, ‘And I’ve not been got up in a bob wig and black silk stockings just to safeguard the intellectual credentials of the author.’ So it was cut.

There had to be some sort of explanation, though, if only because of the scenes involving the urine. But since it was only identified in the Thirties porphyria could not be acknowledged in the film or the play without anachronism. When the play was put on at the Royal National Theatre there was a penultimate scene which catapulted the pages and equerries into the 20th century where Mrs Macalpine explained about the blue piss. This didn’t entirely work and when the play was revived the following season the scene was omitted. Trying to work out how to get across this information in the film I sometimes wished I’d been writing for Hollywood thirty years ago because then there would have been no problem.


As Braun and Papandiek pour the contents of their chamber pots into the river a sudden shaft of sunlight catches Papandiek’s face and he looks up, dreamily.

PAPANDIEK: There will one day come a time when our master’s disease will be recognised for what it is ... not madness (cue Heavenly Choir) but porphyria!

He raises the crystal chamber pot to heaven and we see looking down on him the faces of Mary Queen of Scots, James I, Queen Anne, George IV and Frederick the Great. And they are all smiling!

Except of course that they wouldn’t be smiling because even though the condition is more often (though not always) diagnosed today there is still no cure, just improved alleviation.

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Vol. 17 No. 4 · 23 February 1995

Porphyria has become the likeliest accepted reason for George III’s behaviour (LRB, 9 February). However, when an undergraduate in the dear dead Sixties I seem to remember waking during a lecture by one of Manchester’s distinguished 18th-century scholars, to be told that George’s illness was down to drinking lemonade. It had apparently become fashionable at the court and the acidic effect on pewter and crystal transported the lead content from pot to pot belly. Lead poisoning over a long period followed and caused the King’s illness.

David Townsend
Director of Social Services, London Borough of Croydon

Vol. 17 No. 5 · 9 March 1995

Alan Bennett (LRB, 9 February) states that George III’s alleged porphyria raises ‘problems that are as much metaphysical as medical’. I would venture a non-metaphysical explanation for the King’s condition. Pace Macalpine and Hunter, as well as Occam and his razor, ample contemporary accounts of the King’s circumstances suggest that the primary illness in this ‘case’ was some form of bipolar disorder – the entity previously classified as manic-depressive disease. Under this rubric, porphyria – assuming it did indeed exist – would have to be rated a secondary, co-morbid condition. In what fashion, and to what extent, the metabolic disturbance articulates with fundamental affective illness is always a vexed question. Bipolarity itself, be it noted, is now also widely assumed to have a strong biological and hereditary basis.

Harvey Roy Greenberg
Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York

Vol. 17 No. 6 · 23 March 1995

Since I’ve paid twice for Alan Bennett’s piece on The Madness of King George (it was reprinted in the Guardian) I find I have just that extra bit of animus to object to his use of ‘fuck hutch’ to describe the housing estates surrounding Banbury (LRB, 9 February). The term better suits the back rooms of pre-reconstruction Windsor Castle which we are ushered round at the beginning of the article. In fact Bennett doesn’t imagine these quarters, ‘cramped though they were, to have been particularly squalid’, but he does imagine as much of Middle England suburban architecture. I hadn’t realised his non-republicanism was so emphatic. I come to Bennett from, and revert from Bennett to, reading his Polish near-contemporary Miron Bialoszewski, a ninth-floor poet who never gets crueller than calling his block of flats an ‘anthill’. Bialoszewski is very hard to compare with other Poles (as a hero he’s not exactly unsung, but no one’s sure which key to sing him in), let alone an English writer, but Bennett is the closest I can get. Can any of your readers get closer or, better, help me to translate Bialoszewski?

Nicholas Benda
London E1

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