I helped Colin Firth speak like the King
PUBLISHED: 12:00 24 May 2011
It's the film of the year - and earned Colin Firth a plethora of much-deserved awards for his starring role. Norfolk-born voice coach Neil Swain tells EMMA LEE how he helped the actor perfect the King's Speech.
There have been few films recently which have captured the public’s imagination like the King’s Speech.
The story of King George VI’s battle to overcome his stammer with the help of his unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue was a hit with both critics and film goers.
And when red carpet season came around it scooped awards including four Oscars, seven Baftas and a Golden Globe best actor award for Colin Firth as the titular King.
Norwich-born Neil Swain – or the “masterly voice coach Neil Swain” as Firth described him in his Bafta acceptance speech – played a starring role behind the scenes.
He worked closely with Firth to make sure that his portrayal of King George VI – or Bertie as he was known – was authentic.
And he also worked alongside the rest of the cast, which included Geoffrey Rush, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall, Michael Gambon and Jennifer Ehle, on their accents.
Neil first heard about the film through the actress Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, who he had previously worked with on the films Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland.
“She was sent a script by the producers and Tom Hooper the director and she said to me ‘look I have this script and would you look at it, it’s to play the Queen Mother – it’s a really interesting film and the part is really interesting’,” Neil says.
“I read it and for me as somebody who works with the voice it was fascinating. It was very well written and I said to Helena ‘I think it’s great’.”
Neil later had a meeting with director Tom Hooper, who he knew from when they almost worked together on a project for America’s HBO channel.
“That cast of actors must have been every producer and director’s dream: Michael Gambon, Guy Pearce, Geoffrey Rush, Colin and Helena. They’re just a fantastic bunch of people and I did get to work with most of the actors,” says Neil.
He says that Bertie was a fascinating character to work on and he and Firth went in to forensic detail to make sure that the portrayal was accurate.
“The stammer had such a profound effect on Bertie,” says Neil. “We watched a lot of archive footage of Bertie and listened a lot. Colin had already done quite a bit of research himself and we earmarked the sounds that Bertie had problems with – in the end the reality was that he had problems with nearly every sound really to varying degrees.
“We listened to him before therapy and the results of his work with Logue after the therapy.
“One of the things Colin did so brilliantly is that in the final speech you get a sense of him just having to think and being aware of certain sounds when he’s speaking. And you see it in his eyes,” he says.
Neil says that he enjoyed the challenge of working on characters who were real people – and incredibly famous, iconic real people at that.
“If you think about Winston Churchill you can close your eyes and hear his speech patterns. He was one of the most famous voices of the 20th Century. And to research Wallis Simpson and listen to the Queen Mother, that was just fascinating for me. It was a great thing to do.”
Neil says that one of the nicest thing about the film’s success is how many people it has reached out to.
He recalls sitting on a train near a group of teenagers on a train and overhearing them talking about the film.
“They were really animated about the film and the issues in the film. I think they had been really affected by it. It’s brilliant to think it could capture an audience like that. And there’s also the fact that it’s been very successful not just in this country – it’s been a worldwide success. For a film that when I first used to describe the premise to people they would look at me and say ‘you’re making a film about what?’. And when you describe it it doesn’t sound as though it’s going to be a blockbuster. But that’s what it ended up being.”
Neil actually started his career as an actor. He grew up in Norwich, where he still has family, and went to Heartsease High School. He cut his teeth on the local entertainment circuit, performing at venues including the Norwich nightclub The Talk, talent shows at Norwich Theatre Royal and holiday camps.
“I think that looking back on it, this is probably something that I should have been doing really. Not to say I didn’t enjoy acting, but even before I had gone to drama school, as a teenager I was a mimic and did a lot of impressions.”
Neil left Norwich at the age of 18 and moved to London to attend drama school, thinking that acting was the direction he wanted to take in his career.
“I had acted as a child and did a fair amount as an adult, but then I realised that I’d fallen out of love with it. But I loved working with language and text.”
So Neil went to the prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama to train as a voice teacher. “After leaving there I taught in drama schools and joined the voice department at the Royal Shakespeare Company for four years. Now most of my work as a voice coach is in film, but I still occasionally work in the theatre,” he says. Neil is very much in demand. He has worked on some of the biggest British films of the last decade including Atonement, Hot Fuzz and An Education and has worked with Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Helen Mirren and James McAvoy among others.
And he’s just starting on his next project. He’ll be reunited with Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp for director Tim Burton’s next film Dark Shadows, which also stars Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Michael Sheen and Chloe Moretz.
“This is the third time I’ve worked with Tim Burton. He’s fascinating,” Neil says.
The King’s Speech is out on DVD and Blu Ray now.