Clockwise (1986)

2008 #76
Christopher Morahan | 92 mins | DVD | PG / PG

ClockwiseClockwise, so I’m told, was written after John Cleese (who, I should point out, isn’t credited as the writer) attended Robert McKee’s famous screenwriting seminar. What this means for your average viewer is that Clockwise is expertly constructed. More importantly, it’s also very funny.

The first 15 minutes are a little dubious, but it soon becomes apparent that some of McKee’s principles are being followed (if you’re aware of them, of course) as this opening serves to establish the everyday life of Cleese’s character, headmaster Brian Stimpson. The point of this soon becomes apparent: when everything goes to hell over the next hour-and-a-quarter, the viewer can fully appreciate the impact on Stimpson’s existence. And all go wrong it does, in a manner that’s rather reminiscent of Fawlty Towers — not in the sense that Cleese is repeating himself, but rather that you could replace Stimpson with Basil Fawlty and merrily carry on along much the same path; though, I hasten to add (to this over-punctuated sentence) that Stimpson is not a clone of Fawlty, but he is prone to ending up in similar accident-and-misunderstanding-based farcical situations.

I imagine that Clockwise is less well known than it deserves because it is so very British. The humour — largely based around issues of punctuality, politeness, and social custom — is particularly British, as are the countryside settings and the finale set at a public school conference. And, in the first instance, everything goes so spectacularly wrong thanks to our wonderful language’s multiple meanings for the word “right”. From this point Cleese & co escalate the hopelessness of the situation beautifully (and very much in keeping with McKee’s ideas of good structure), gradually crafting more absurd events and dragging in more and more characters, most of whom come together in that finale. This final section perhaps goes on too long, with a rather inconclusive ending, and it lays on the anti-public school gags with a trowel — though that suits me just fine.

Some have argued that Clockwise is more like a series of sketches than a cohesive whole, but all the independent scenes are connected by a common goal, meaning very few (if any) feel genuinely out of place or inelegantly shoved in. The calm pauses between the comic scenes also allow it to remain hilariously funny so consistently — an all-out assault of comedy, no matter how good, can become rather wearing. Again, this ebb-and-flow is something the filmmakers may well have picked up from McKee.

While you could probably use Clockwise as a mini masterclass in applying some of Robert McKee’s structural principles, that’s thankfully not the be-all of it. Very funny once it gets going, this is one that fans of Fawlty Towers will likely especially enjoy — and, really, who with a sense of humour isn’t a Fawlty Towers fan?

4 out of 5

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