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.