❉ ‘It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.’
John Cleese’s eighties were book-ended by two big screen successes – his decade began with the 1979 release Monty Python’s Life of Brian continuing to court controversy (and local bans) everywhere from Norwich to Norway, and ended with A Fish Called Wanda, a critical and commercial global success that merged the knockabout Ealing spirit of The Lavender Hill Mob with the transatlantic screwball humour of John Landis’ Trading Places – due in no small part to harnessing the filmmaking savvy of the former’s Charles Chrichton and the star power of the latter’s Jamie Lee Curtis.
Both films frequently appear near the top of ‘funniest movies of all time’ polls and enjoyed a successful afterlife on home video, but an oft-neglected stepping stone between these two smash hits was Clockwise, released by EMI Films in March 1986 and newly released on DVD and Blu-ray by StudioCanal, remastered and restored from the original colour negative in 4K HD.
Despite being the first of the Pythons to bail out from the Flying Circus (the remaining five soldiered on for the Cleese-less fourth and final BBC TV series in 1974), Cleese was not the first Python to explore solo pursuits outside the team – that would be Eric Idle, whose proto-Rutland Weekend radio series Radio Five debuted in 1973 – but he was the most immediately recognisable of the troupe, certainly in the eyes of the casual viewer. The two series of Fawlty Towers that he co-wrote and starred in achieved mainstream success and recognition far beyond that of his peers at the time, and he went on to lend his star appeal to everything from Amnesty International’s comedy & music charity galas and the SDP/Liberal Alliance, to an Emmy Award-winning appearance in Cheers and a cameo in Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin’s Time Bandits, as well as becoming a poster boy for the ‘self help’ movement with the bestselling Families And How To Survive Them, written with psychotherapist Robyn Skinner in 1983.
So it’s perhaps surprising that the erstwhile man from the Ministry of Silly Walks didn’t find a star vehicle for his lanky frame until 1986’s Clockwise, although anyone familiar with the contents of Michael Palin’s diaries will find that it’s more surprising that any member of the Pythons found more than a day to themselves in the ‘80s, as although Python was ‘not dead, but resting’ their prolific activities put even the most egregious over-achiever to shame.
In Autumn 1982, Cleese told Monty Python historian Kim Johnson, that Michael Frayn’s script for Clockwise (then known as Man Of The Minute) was “the only really funny script I’ve ever received through my letterbox”, going on to say of Frayn, “He’s a top class playwright who’s written two or three of the best plays that I’ve seen in the past ten years; he’s written a wonderfully funny script about a headmaster, so I’m going to do that next summer.”
At the time, Cleese had no plans to work on film, until he read Frayn’s screenplay: “If Michael Frayn’s screenplay had not been so funny, I wouldn’t be running around for a movie next year” Cleese went on to tell Johnson, “When you see a script like that, you just always want to do it. It simply gets the adrenaline going because it’s so wonderful.”
When Clockwise hit screens in 1986, it looked like an incongruous anomaly in the cinematic landscape of its time. This was the heyday of lovelorn teen angst movies, adolescent sex-crazed comedies, gross-out slasher films, Eddie Murphy’s fast-talking machismo, militaristic action movies, and Merchant-Ivory. The ailing but defiant British film industry was fighting a rear-guard action that the Pythons had unknowingly kindled when George Harrison and Denis O’Brien launched Handmade Films, whose ’86 efforts Withnail & I and Mona Lisa were amongst their finest productions, while Julien Temple’s all-singing, all-dancing, Absolute Beginners became the victim of its own hype.
Clockwise was, and remains, a uniquely English type of movie, from Cleese’s personification of a certain kind of punctual, punctilious stickler not a million miles from Cleesian archetypes such as a certain Torquay-based hotelier, to its settings that span from the bog-standard comprehensive where Cleese’s headmaster Mr. Stimpson presides, to the picture book rural hamlet where Cleese unleashes on a phone box a damn good thrashing and encounters his former girlfriend, Pat – played by Penelope Wilton, in a role not dissimilar to that as Richard Briers’ long-suffering, tolerant wife Ann in sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles, hugely popular at the time.
There are other distinguished character actors from the small screen that add to Clockwise’s endearing familiarity as a vision of an imperfect, shambolic 1980s Britain far from the orderly, sceptred isle that Stimpson idealises – Alison Steadman, here much loved for her work with Mike Leigh but some years away from the national treasure status bestowed upon her for Pride & Prejudice and Gavin & Stacey, is reliably dependable as Stimpson’s wife, barely comprehending the chaos that’s engulfing her husband’s race against time, and Stephen Moore (who we sadly lost earlier this year) does great work with an under-written role, thanks to his hangdog countenance and dour demeanour with flickers of understated, wry humour, that made him the perfect fit for his most celebrated role as Marvin in The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, and the dejected, eternally shat-upon father George in the TV adaptation of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.
On paper, it’s easy to flippantly label Clockwise as ‘And Now For Something Completely Fawlty’, or ‘Basil: The Movie’, but there’s a world of difference between Stimpson and Fawlty. Both characters have a desire for life to run in an orderly, organised fashion that’s frequently frustrated by life’s obstacles, leading to a cumulative breakdown of their personality that sends them over the edge. Scriptwriter Michael Frayn taps into uniquely British anxieties of a certain age as he casts Stimpson into one farcical roadblock after another, and your sympathies always lie with Cleese’s character, moreso than Basil, because his frustrated idealism is identifiable even as we laugh at his ordeals: His anguished cry, “It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand” is more relatable than ever in these toxic times.
This despair was something Cleese himself could relate to, as he was dissatisfied with the film’s conclusion and while the film performed respectably with its domestic audience (its second terrestrial screening, on the August 1991 bank holiday, found its way into the top 10 ratings – not bad for a five year old movie), it was perhaps too British to translate in the million-dollar US market he had one beady eye on.
“I like a lot of the early part of the film enormously, but I think we screwed up the ending”, John Cleese told George Perry in 1994. “We were trying to tell too many stories. We should have been cruder, we should have let Stimson win the headmasters over, because he has them on the run when he treats them like kids. The ending is a downer. We were all wrong, Christopher Morahan, Michael Frayn and I, we should have spotted that we were torpedoing a good film.”
“Clockwise was a huge learning experience,” Cleese would tell Kim Johnson in 1993’s Life Before And After Python. “I look back to it in amazement at the thought that I really believed at the time that Clockwise might be successful in America… Wanda wouldn’t have worked anything like it did if I hadn’t failed with Clockwise.”
Cleese’s misgivings over the film may not mark it out as a qualified success in the eyes of the comic messiah himself, but it certainly succeeds on its own merits, boasting memorable scenes and quotable dialogue, not to mention Cleese’s totally committed performance surrounded by a cast of stalwart actors (Tony Haygarth’s farmer and gimlet-eyed veteran Ann Way’s dotty pensioner are treasurable highlights). Furthermore, in some respects it’s aged better than A Fish Called Wanda, sitting nicely with a pantheon of oh-so-English farces and comedies of manners that’s part of the small island’s comedy DNA.
StudioCanal’s DVD and Blu-ray release comes with some minimal extras, but is worth the entrance fee alone for the bang-tidy restoration, showcasing the film’s setting of Crap ‘80s England in all its grainy glory, and a great reminder of when Cleeseness was next to Godliness.
❉ Clockwise was released by STUDIOCANAL on November 18 on DVD, Digital Download and Blu-Ray. 1986 / Cert: PG / Total Running Time: 91 mins approx.
❉ James Gent is the Editor of We Are Cult, and is the co-editor of ‘Me and the Starman’, (Chinbeard Books, 2019) Available in paperback from Amazon: https://amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1079052577/ All profits from this book go toward supporting the work of Cancer Research UK