‘…worth a look for fans of the sainted Cleese canon…’

Something of a comic Messiah in his British homeland, Cleese was already a tv household name before Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which he quit before the final season to make twelve episodes of his own sitcom, Fawlty Towers. A Fish Called Wanda proved to be a worldwide hit, but before that, he flexed some considerable comic muscle in Clockwise, a Home Counties farce written by Michael Frayn. Freshly remastered, it’s probably the least celebrated of Cleese’s best work, but is essential viewing for fans of the star.

Cleese plays Brian Stimpson, a Conservative-leaning headmaster in a public (ie non nee-paying) school near Birmingham; organised and effective, he’s feared and admired by his pupils, and chastise those who are late for lack of character. We first see him rehearsing his speech to the annual headmasters conference, which he’ll attend in Norwich at 5pm that day, but life gets in the way; he leaves his speech on the wrong train, missing the right one, and ends up cajoling a pupil (Alison Steadman) into giving him a lift. Stimpson’s wife and the girls family fear they are having an affair and give pursuit, as do the police when the master and pupil forget to pay for petrol. Stimpson’s meltdown is complete when he ends up bathing in a monastery as various factions arrive at the Conference and his reputation is dragged through the mud.

As a farce, Clockwise is admirably written; Stimpson is not an ogre or bully, but a social climber whose ambitious are tripped by his lack of empathy; he’s so concerned with the failings of others that he’s blind to his own short-comings. His obsession with time is a slow burn; it takes a while for Stimpson to realise he’s late, and then his refusal to admit it digs him deeper into the mire. Not quite as rage driven as Fawlty, it’s still an impressive comic creation, and there’s good humour scattered throughout. A running gag about a car-load of dementia patients, however, is not, and probably has something to do with the film’s relative obscurity today.

Cleese recently complained about the poor quality of criticism, or specifically with critics themselves; claiming that most of today’s critics have no actually skills other than as rudimentary entertainers, he feels that their lack of creative experience leads to a lack of empathy with performers. He’s right to be cynical; there’s few good critics out there, and Cleese’s own popularity has led him to be swamped by endless tabloid enquiry by the worst kind of journalists. Assessed on the basis on his work, Cleese has created some of the greatest comedy ever, and while Brian Stimpson isn’t his most celebrated creation, Clockwise is certainly worth a look for fans of the sainted Cleese canon.

Thanks to Studio Canal for access to this film.



Leave a Reply
  1. I remember enjoying it, but being disappointed that it was a very conventional comedy. It wasn’t ever going to be Python-esque but at the time I kind of needed the Pythons to be that kind of absurdist wild comedy (I wasn’t aware of any of the behind-the-scenes career efforts of his or the other members of my beloved team). I’m sure this is a completely competent comedy . . . but just the sending up of a particular kind of wonk didn’t impress me at the time. I’m sure I’d like it better now.

  2. Hey….here’s another comedy I enjoyed: Fawlty Towers! See….there are comedies that I did enjoy after all lol 😂
    As for this film, doesn’t ring a bell, but well with me that’s not saying much as comedy movies is the genre that I hardly know anything about😅 That said, I do like Cleese, so who knows maybe if I come across this one at some point, I might watch it 😊

  3. Ahh, humor. I have never understood why everyone thought Cleese was funny. I don’t know if it’s a British thing but whenever I watched his stuff, his humor seemed to come from tearing down things that I admired.
    He even co-wrote a comic book about Superman and it was awful because Cleese did everything possible to make the character as non-Superman as possible, all the while mocking everything.

    I guess I just don’t like humor that relies on mocking. Which is a huge part of humor.

    • There’s different types of humour/humor to be sure, even the name changes from one continent to the other. I am a fan of Cleese, but I get that there’s undercurrents there which are not for everyone. Was not aware of his Superman comic, will look into that. It seems to be that he’s able to observe human frailties, and depict them in a way that provokes identification; as I get older, I understand Basil Fawlty more, and see my own weaknesses in him. So to me, it’s not a cheap laugh, but something more cathartic. To each his own, however…

    • I really regret the old-folks joke; not sure if that’s the reason this film has vanished, but it looks great remastered, and there’s some good laughs. Did well on initial UK release, but Wanda kind of made it redundant…

      • Haven’t seen Wanda either since it came out. I’m going to have to go back and take another look and see if it’s held up. Did you think the old-folks jokes were funny at the time? A lot of stuff back then wasn’t what we’d accept today. Mel Brooks with all his black and gay jokes. Even in Wanda there was the stuttering stuff.

        • And it’s the stuttering stuff that’s held me back from re-watching Wanda. Something cruel there. Comedy seems to date fast, but there’s some gags in this that really stand up well, and I think are worth ignoring the unfortunate lapses of taste.

        • I struggled a bit with this as well, but kind of concluded there was no way the intelligence of those performers really allowed for that kind of harm. Ken is a hero, and saves the day against the psychopath! 🙂

          • Good point. At the time, this kind of middle-class suburban comedy seemed like a step down from Python absurdity. Seeing it now, I’m impressed by the way it reflects and attacks the values of Thatcher era Britain; maybe that’s why the tabloid did, and still do, have it in for Cleese. There’s a few groaners in here, but also some ingenious gags, it’s worth exhuming as peak Cleese for me…

          • That is true, and Wanda has many other things going for it. But neither dementia nor stammering seem like great ideas of comic bits in 2020, so I guess we should focus on the more successful moments in these films, of which there are plenty…

Leave a Reply