Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Clockwise (1985)


Main image of Clockwise (1985)
DirectorChristopher Morahan
Production CompaniesMoment Films
 Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment
ProducerMichael Codron
ScriptMichael Frayn
PhotographyJohn Coquillon

Cast: John Cleese (Brian Simpson); Alison Steadman (Gwenda Stimpson); Sharon Maiden (Laura Wisely); Stephen Moore (Mr. Jolly); Chip Sweeney (Paul Stimpson); Penelope Wilton (Pat Garden)

Show full cast and credits

A comprehensive school head with a mania for punctuality battles against the clock and a series of obstacles to reach a headmasters' conference at which he is due to make his inaugural speech as chairman.

Show full synopsis

John Cleese has developed a line in fussy, fastidious characters placed in exasperating situations, who disguise their frustrations with forced politeness and sardonic comments until finally blowing. The condescendingly haughty Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1975; 1979) was followed by Clockwise (d. Christopher Morahan, 1985), in which Cleese plays Brian Stimpson, a punctilious comprehensive school headmaster.

Stimpson resembles Fawlty in more ways than one. The first comprehensive headmaster to be invited to chair the Headmaster's conference, with his pupils, wife and colleagues he adopts a patronising air of superiority, but with his social 'betters' he becomes a simpering suck-up - reminiscent of Fawlty's greasy social climbing.

Stimpson's obsessive time-keeping hides a dark past of lateness and letdowns. Indeed, his single-mindedness in expressing the virtues of punctuality seems to be as much about convincing himself as anyone else. Statements such as "The first step to knowing who we are is knowing where we are and when we are," have a point. However, he appears oblivious to the person he is addressing and rudely reprimands those who interrupt his rants.

A series of catastrophic events test his resolve to breaking point. The comedy that arises from Stimpson casually smashing a phone box after three have failed him or stiffly kicking the car when it covers him in mud comes from Cleese's forced restraint prior to these events.

Stimpson's snootiness is exposed as a mere fa├žade, a mask he adopts to cover aspects of his character he would prefer to remain hidden. But it is an act he feels he must assume in order to better his social standing, to infiltrate upper-class education from his comprehensive position. Indeed, in the upper echelons of public school life, it is a social camouflage that might serve him well - if only he could sustain it.

His journey is punctuated by a series of much-loved British stereotypes - cockney train porter (Peter Needham); marigold-clad, continually chattering housewife (Pat Keen); grass-chewing farmer (Tony Haygarth); blue-rinsed, dotty old ladies (Joan Hickson); posh, tea-drinking private school headmasters and suburban net curtain-twitching.

Viewed today, these might seem crude representations of Britishness. However, as is the mark of a good comedy, they exaggerate the characters of the time it was made, and force the home audience to laugh at itself. Indeed, it is the supporting cast that accompanies Stimpson's calamitous odyssey that raises Clockwise above lesser Cleese vehicles.

Paul Clarke

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. The all-seeing eye (1:06)
2. The chase begins (3:46)
3. Adapting to circumstances (2:25)
4. Headmasters' assembly (4:07)
Production stills
Cleese, John (1939-)
Fenton, George (1950-)
Lambert, Verity (1935-2007)
Morahan, Christopher (1929-)