In "Clockwise" John Cleese plays a character who has much in common with Basil Fawlty from the television series "Fawlty Towers". Like the manic Torquay hotelier, Brian Stimpson is a control-freak who finds his own life going out of control. The headmaster of a small-town comprehensive school, he is a stickler for discipline, with a particular obsession with punctuality. He is the sort of man who knows the school timetable off by heart; upon seeing a pupil idling about the school he can instantly tell that pupil exactly what lesson he or she should be attending at that precise moment. (The school is, in an in-joke, named after the famous English clockmaker Thomas Tompion).
Stimpson is disliked by his pupils and staff, who see him as authoritarian and patronising, but he is evidently held in high regard by the wider teaching profession, because he has been elected Chairman of the prestigious Headmasters' Conference. The film tells the story of what occurs on the day on which Stimpson is due to address the annual meeting of the Conference in Norwich. Things start to go wrong when, due to his misunderstanding what he is told by a ticket-collector at the station, he finds himself on the wrong train and ends up missing the train he should have caught. Told that there will not be another train to Norwich for several hours, he decides to make the journey by road and returns home, only to find that his wife has taken the car. He meets Laura, one of his sixth-form pupils, and in desperation persuades her to drive him on the 163-mile journey to Norwich. A further chain of misunderstandings leads to them being pursued across the English countryside by the police, by Laura's parents (who suspect that their daughter is having an affair with her headmaster) and by his wife (who suspects the same thing). On the way they kidnap a former girlfriend of Stimpson's whom they meet by accident, drive the car into a field and get stuck, find themselves in a monastery and, in their desperation to get to Norwich on time, end up holding up a passing motorist in order to steal his clothes, his money and his car.
The film's central joke is that a man who is so obsessed with punctuality should find himself running very late in his attempts to get to the most important meeting of his life. Although Stimpson is the sort of man that most people would automatically dislike if we were to meet him in real life, Cleese manages to arouse a certain sympathy for his character, whose sense of panic arises from a sense that he is the victim of circumstances, that the entire universe is united in a vast conspiracy to prevent him from fulfilling what should have been a relatively simple task. His desperation is increased by the remote possibility that he might just be able to get to Norwich on time. ("It's not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It's the hope I can't stand). There can be few of us who have not had, at some time or other, a similar feeling.
Although the film is sometimes described as a farce, that word should not be taken as implying that it is a purely mechanical comedy; character also plays an important part. Fortunately, Cleese is not only a very good technical comedian- his timing in this film is superb- but also a very good character actor. (A gift shared by another ex-Python, Michael Palin). Cleese also receives good support from the rest of the cast, particularly from Alison Steadman as his long-suffering wife Gwenda and Sharon Maiden as the wild and headstrong Laura, for whom driving her headmaster cross-country is a much more interesting way of spending her day than a few hours of boring lessons.
The film is not quite in the same class as Palin's two great post-Python comedies, "The Missionary" and "A Private Function". For most of the time it is very funny indeed; for most of the first hour and a bit I was laughing out loud. (Remarkably, my wife was too- normally she loathes the Pythons and all their works). Unfortunately, the scriptwriter Michael Frayn was unable to maintain this sense of comic invention to the end. The story needed some dazzling twist to finish on, but instead it fizzles out rather tamely and the last quarter of an hour or so, after Stimpson finally arrives at the Conference, is rather disappointing after what has gone before. Nevertheless, this is still one of the better British comedies of the eighties; I certainly prefer it to the overrated "A Fish Called Wanda". 7/10
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