The Madness of King George (1994)

The Madness of King George (1994) Alan Bennett wrote the screenplay from his successful historical drama, which rehabilitated King George III from popular scorn for having gone mad and having lost the colonies in the American Revolution. The source of his malady was never understood, but Bennett subscribes to a later analysis that porphyria caused imbalance during the Regency Crisis of 1788–89. Nicholas Hytner directs this spectacular picture that won an Academy for Best Art Direction Award. But the heart of this movie is captured by the confrontation between Ian Holm, as an unorthodox physician, and Nigel Hawthorne, as the King, in a performance that is harrowing.

Mad King George loved his family

And all the little piggies in his colony.


What made him rant like such a kook?

Was it arsenic in his peruke?

One doctor scraped beneath a papule.

One doctor preferred the look of his stool.


One doctor restrained him tight with a screw,

Or was the royal piss actually blue?

Well rump, trump, ring-a-ding-ding!

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 America’s got her own mad King.

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 His doctor’s paid to do as he’s told,

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While advisers hope to be paroled.

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He wants to protect his property,

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So he walls it in with reality tv.

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What’s real is fake if he says it’s so,

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And he should know, yes, he should know.


The wig hat now is oranger than the sun,

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As he twitters tantrums at everyone.

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[Disposable Poem January 29, 2019]

Dr. Mike



from The King and I

Alan Bennett

THE LONDON REVIEW OF BOOLKS Vol. 14 No. 2 · 30 January 1992
pages 3-7


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.

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.’

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’.

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.

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.

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.’

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?










2 thoughts on “The Madness of King George (1994)

  1. Really enjoyed this one and learned quite a bit. My mother loved the movie *The King’s Speech *and remembered the sentiment of her Puerto Rican community during the debacle. I love discovering snippets of culture that have been forgotten – or unknown to me! I have been writing up a storm since my miserable divorce began, and I am seriously considering putting energy in a collection of these angry/sad/emancipating thoughts/poems. What do you think about this one? I would love to have your opinion or feedback. Thank you. And keep up the magnificent work. You should be published!

    The vulture who lives in Lands End

    under my breath, I say what I want to scream go on now – nothing to see here to the silver sedan circling the block and driving at a snail’s pace and watching my sons struggle to push the nasty boat their dad left in the driveway into the fenced backyard Abandoned them, with their torn tarps and flat tires getting stuck in the damp earth Abandoned them as he abandoned us

    she, a circling vulture with her coiffed white hair peering through glitter glasses scowling at the entire spectacle and clutching her spotted dog so he can see too. I am the stereotypical doctor’s wife who is getting my just desserts because nobody wants to believe the small town doctor is an abuser


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