Although giving up on Fawlty Towers at its height was a masterful move from John Cleese that assured its stance as a culturally relevant comedic force, for the remainder of his career, he would chase characters that felt similar to Basil Fawlty. His best shot at that is Clockwise, the Christopher Morahan-directed piece that Cleese cites as his favourite project to work on. That is all well and good, but the tale of a time freak who dictates his life to the clock has limited potential. How much can truly be done with a stuck-up headmaster in over his head after his clock strikes the time a tad later than usual? Quite a lot, thanks to the hard work put in by the stellar collaboration of Cleese and Morahan.
There is a sharpness within Clockwise that plays into the strengths of Cleese’s shtick. It is a styling that rarely works, despite the hard work and dedication of the lumbering leading lad. Where his dedication falls short is in that of emotion. Brian Stimpson (Cleese) is a cold and calculated individual; one whose life works around the clock. He stamps through a speech, dispelling disgruntled staff and dictating to those few students who dare break his rules. He sees himself as the autocrat of the school, summoning teachers and pupils alike. Stimpson does not ask them to rise when he enters the assembly hall, they know to do so through generations of instilling the fear and values of the clock. Clockwise does well to keep its eye on the clock, a persevering attempt at adapting time to the humour surrounding Cleese and company.
Speaking of company, Clockwise makes the rounds of British stalwarts and engages with them extremely well. Alison Steadman and Penelope Wilton make for ample supporting characters and bring a balance of normalcy to the eccentricities so frequently presented by Cleese. Where much of the comedy relies on Cleese and his inability to interpret the mood of those around him. His wife, Gwenda (Steadman) is long-suffering and has her own responsibilities, but none are to the concern of Brian. That is the leading antagonism, his uncaring state of being, but it is also the greatest asset. What a tool it is, what a tool he is. A simple form of comedy, but one that leaves a thoroughly nice foundation for the comedy to leap from, which it does often and with general grace. It is the missed chances that are, most of all, helping the crossed-wire comedy.
His ignorance toward others and his complete lack of understanding leads him to the most violently wild of days. Had it not been a simplistic comedy from 1980s Britain, there’d be a message within Clockwise. But he is ignorant of the real issues he faces also. He misplaces his bag, his speech and, eventually, his mind. Only Cleese could perform that with such farcical enlightenment, and it is the core strength of Clockwise. There are only so many times, though, that an off-kilter schedule can offer up a guffaw or great laugh. Clockwise runs rather thin on that front, but has plenty of sketch-worthy antics stitched together as its leading man falls apart.