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
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 façade, 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.