This is exactly what you get when you mix one of Britain’s finest comedy playwrights with one of Britain’s finest comic actors. Clockwise is pure British farce, some may point to the “Carry On” films but these rarely stray into the arena of pure traditional stage farce. This sort of farce rarely makes it onto the big screen, as it is generally better suited to the stage. However, if anyone is capable of writing a script that could do it I would put my money on the writer of “Noises Off”, Michael Frayn.
The plot is as simple as these things ever are. Mr Stimpson (Cleese) is a headmaster of an average state secondary school. His incredible efficiency and strict time keeping has elevated the school to such a position that he gets invited to chair the exclusive headteachers conference. “This is an historic moment” as this organisation is usually only open to headteachers of private schools. Mr Stimpson has to get to Norwich for the conference and he has the journey meticulously planned out. Unfortunately the first step of the operation goes horribly wrong and rest of the film follows him desperately trying to make up time and get to the conference. Of course the protagonist is presented with one farcical situation after another including car theft, errant phone boxes, irritatingly succinct and monosyllabic farmers and the fact that no one can tell their left from their right!
The emphasis here, as you’ve probably guessed, is time. He never has enough which I am sure is a sensation we are all used to. Whilst the comedy is very British (indeed this performed poorly initially in the U.S.) it is very funny. The set pieces around the phone boxes and the final speech scene are hilarious and are as funny as anything Frayn has written for the stage. The pace is good and like any good farce it never really lets up for a minute. Many people will not see the humour in this film but I was laughing most of the way through it and it has a certain naïve charm about it.
The plot and script are very well crafted although Frayn has a way of making things sound very play-like rather than film-like. This is a difficult concept to explain but many times during the film I felt I was watching a stage production. The set piece in the assembly hall at the beginning and the speech that Stimpson makes towards the end are typical examples, you could transpose those onto the stage and not lose a thing. I love stage comedy and theatre in general so this did not cause me a problem but others may find the dialogue too stylised as a result.
The performances throughout back up this “stagey” look. Cleese is marvellous as the headmaster who slowly but surely loses the control he has over his life. Once he leaves the confines of the school his grip on life, time and reality is shown to be tenuous at best and this is portrayed very well indeed. His sidekick for most of the film, Laura (Sharon Maiden) is unfortunately dubbed as the U.S. studio thought her accent was too strong. This is a real shame as this weakens her character as she always sounds stilted because of the dubbing. Alison Steadman is sadly underused as the put upon wife, Mrs Stimpson. She is funny but never reaches the heights of Abigail’s Party, as there just isn’t enough to work with here. The rest of the cast is a sort of who’s who of British TV comedy… Penelope Wilton (Pat Garden) is here as is Geoffrey Palmer and Stephen Moore to name but three. They all do their job admirably and overall the cast holds the whole thing together well.
The direction however is mostly pedestrian. The static camera reinforces the “stagey” look and this is evident in the assembly hall scene and the final Stimpson speech. Whilst I can appreciate the technique as it makes the whole thing feel like a stage play it doesn’t really suit film and it is disappointing for the most part.
This film is not for everyone who likes Cleese and it is not for everyone who likes Fawlty Towers (although there are elements of that here). This film would suit people who love real stage comedy. Some would argue that you may as well see a play, but it is always interesting to see a crossover and this one is no exception. This film is almost unique in its style and it is damned funny too so there are plenty of reasons to get this.
This film had a moderately successful run in the UK but surprisingly this budget release from Anchor Bay is pretty good given the lack of interest in the U.S. As with all Anchor Bay budget releases the packaging is perfunctory with a simple chapter card insert and static menus revealing 23 chapter stops.
This transfer is not going to win any awards but it is adequate. The film is presented anamorphically at 1.66:1, which is the original aspect ratio. The print used is fairly average. It is quite soft with some noticeable print damage but overall not too shabby. The transfer is merely average with a soft picture and muted colours. Given the films budget and source I would guess that Anchor Bay have done what they can, but a decent remaster wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Anchor Bay budget releases usually only have the original soundtrack and this is no exception. The DD mono track seems very quiet to me but once the volume was turned up it was a pretty good track. There is very little hiss and the dialogue is clean and clear which is essential given the nature of the film.
There are only three extras and two of those are a trailer and biographies. These are the usual disc filler and nothing to write home about.
The main extra is a new 13-minute interview with Cleese specifically about Clockwise. This is a very informative piece covering the reasons behind it, the production process and the reception the film received. The interview is interspersed with clips from the film. I thoroughly enjoyed the interview but it is a shame that this is the only substantial extra we get. Why couldn’t they have interviewed the other cast members? What about an interview with Frayn himself?
I love this film but then again I am a huge fan of contemporary comedy theatre. Others who are expecting a Fawlty Towers clone are likely to be disappointed. The disc from Anchor Bay is merely OK. The picture and sound are adequate given the age and source of the film. The extras are thin but what is there is pretty good. Overall I would recommend it to any fan of the film but others may want to be more wary.