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Submitted Literature

The Madness of King George (FILM)

By Alan Bennett



Made in 1994 and directed by Nicholas Hytner 'The Madness of King George' is adapted by Alan Bennett from his play, The Madness of George III. The film is set in the Regency period of around 1788 and tells the true story of the king's deteriorating mental health. One of several subplots of the film is the decline of the power of the monarchy with parliament becoming ever more powerful and the monarchy merely figureheads. Another strand to the film is a fairly accurate portrayal of the crude methods of the doctors in their attempts to cure the king. In part it is therefore a window on early psychiatry. Modern medicine has suggested that the King's symptoms were the result of an illness called porphyria, which of course was unknown at the time.

Biology and Psychiatry

Chemicals in the body called porphyrins are essential for producing haem (a molecule which is vital in red blood cells for carrying oxygen, as in haemaglobin). The process is controlled by enzymes. In porphyria there is a deficiency of these enzymes, causing porphyrins to accumulate to toxic levels in the body. People with an acute type porphyria experience episodes of severe pain particularly in the gut and extremities and disruption of the nervous system. But it can develop rapidly causing a wide range of symptoms throughout the body. Because of the wide range of symptoms it can be difficult to diagnose. There is often depression and some sources suggest personality change is a key feature and manic episodes can be seen which may suggest bipolar disorder.

The film deals with the relatively primitive medical practices of the time and the suppositions that physicians made in their efforts to understand the human body. The King is frequently strapped into a restraint chair and many attempts are made to purge the illness from his body. The King's doctors attempt several 'humoral' cures such as blistering (painful) and purges. These are an attempt to rid the body of the 'humours' which were bile, phlegm and blood. This was not as bizarre as it seems as treatment using venesection (removal of a unit of blood at regular intervals) is currently thought to help in some cases.

Meanwhile, another of the King's physicians, Dr. Pepys, blindly analyses the King's stool and urine believing that body wastes may contain some clue to the Royal malady. Again this is not as daft as it may at first seem as one of the symptoms of porphyria is a red or purple discoloration in the urine. There is also a very funny episode when the king shows his contempt for his doctors. They had given him senna and told him it is was a mild purgative... "Mild?" he rants "forteen motions and you call it mild? I could have manured the whole palace."

Finally, Lady Pembrooke recommends Dr. Willis, an ex-minister who attempts to cure the insane through behaviour modification. He runs a farm on which his patients work and tries to force them to 'behave'. The expression 'funny farm' derives from such places. None of the three methods of treatment entirely cures the King; eventually his body heals on its own. Today there is still no cure.


The film is very funny and the wit and humility of the king make him a likeable hero, but it is the practices of and attitude of his doctors which strikes one most. The ease with which they 'clinically' inflict pain is apparent. The ease with which they resort to the restraining chair each time the King behaves inappropriately feels harsh. However, cynics would point out the fact that today we often rush to medicate before trying other treatments and that we also are perhaps quick to section the client if they do not wish to take that medication.

Guardian Review Alex Von Tunzelmann. Thursday 18 February

The king crashes children's cricket matches, pretends a shrubbery is the Americans and wallops it with his stick, runs around in his pyjamas, and launches himself upon ladies-in-waiting. These seem like the sort of things a lot of people might do were they king for a day. But in the film, and in real life, they were taken to indicate that George III was going mad. The famous story that he mistook an oak tree for the King of Prussia does not make it to the screen: correctly, because it was almost certainly not true. The film doesn't mention porphyria as a likely cause of the king's condition until the closing title cards. This, too, is quite correct. The diagnosis is a modern one, suggested by some historians, but not provable. It does, however, lay into George's doctors, depicting them as a bunch of wackos obsessed with scrutinising his effluvia and inflicting blistering, cupping and purgatives. Unfortunately, this is accurate.

Key Themes:

  • History of Psychiatry

Significant Quotes / Pages

 DR Willis.......If the King refuses food, He will be restrained. If He claims to have no appetite, He will be restrained. If He swears and indulges in MEANINGLESS DISCOURSE... He will be restrained. If He throws off his bed-clothes, tears away His bandages, scratches at His sores, and if He does not strive EVERY day and ALWAYS towards His OWN RECOVERY... then He must be restrained. 
George III....... I am the King of England. 
DR Willis............ NO, sir. You are the PATIENT.

Reference: Alan, Bennett. 1994. The Madness of King George (FILM). Channel 4 films, 1994


Mr Danny Walsh
Date Review Submitted: Tuesday 12th October 2010