Madness: The Movie

Alan Bennett

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.

The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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