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Film / Clockwise

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Clockwise is a 1986 British road comedy film written by Michael Frayn (Noises Off), directed by Christopher Morahan, and starring John Cleese.

Brian Stimpson (Cleese), a school headmaster obsessed with organization and punctuality, sets out for Norwich to give an important speech at the annual Headmasters' Conference but runs into all sorts of complications after missing his train and then losing the text of his speech. Along the way he encounters Laura (Sharon Maiden), one of his pupils, and Pat (Penelope Wilton), a former girlfriend, both of whom get involved in his mad journey.

Contains examples of:

  • Accidental Kidnapping: Played with. When the police arrive just after Brian has vandalised the phone box, Brian realises that Laura does not have a driving licence, and Laura refuses to let him drive; so on the spur of the moment, he asks Pat to drive them away. Pat's horrified mother believes that Brian has kidnapped her, and sends the police to follow them, and Pat is made to drive herself further and further away from home to try to escape the police.
  • Accidental Passenger: Having narrowly averted becoming an accidental passenger himself when he boards the wrong train, Brian realises that he has left his printed speech behind on the train he had boarded, and tries in vain to chase after it.
  • And Another Thing...: In pursuit of his wife Gwenda, Brian dashes home and finds his son Paul there, in his pyjamas. After frantically asking where Gwenda is, he rushes outside; then goes back in to ask Paul (in a sterner tone) why he is not at school.
  • Bait-and-Switch Comment: It's 5pm, and Mr Stimpson has not yet arrived at the conference in Norwich.
    Headmaster: Um, Gentlemen? Gentlemen, if I might have your attention for one moment... Thank you. And now the time is... exactly five o'clock, and I'm afraid I have some bad news for you. Our chairman, Mr Stimpson... (Brian loudly opens the doors to the hall and enters, all attendees turn to look at him) … is here.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: Although this film predates widespread CCTV indoors or outdoors, the opening scene gives the impression that the headmaster is all-seeing, with Brian's office giving him panoramic views of the school, where he spies on pupils with binoculars, and gives them orders using a loudspeaker.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Brian succeeds in making it to the conference on time and giving his speech… at the cost of utterly destroying his life. Could also qualify as a Downer Ending (since Brian completely failed to learn any lesson from it all) or even a happy ending (since Brian fully deserves the fate he receives by then) depending on how you look at it.
  • Book Ends: First word Brian says in the film? "Right." Last words? "Right - no, left!"
  • The Bore: An old lady Mrs Trellis talks non-stop about sherry glasses, regardless of whether or not anybody is listening.
    Mrs Trellis: She goes on and on about those glasses, and never stops. Of course, I don't say a word, I'm not much of a talker.
  • Brick Joke:
    • Brian says to his wife "Did Paul get off to school on time?". Later, Brian discovers his son Paul at home with a hangover.
    • Three times, a policeman looks into a car to speak to the driver, who drives off without even noticing the police officer: Mr Wisely on his motorbike, Gwenda Stimpson, and Pat.
      Mrs Wisely: (not seeing the policeman) What are you waiting for?
  • Catchphrase:
    • "9:20". Said by Brian to any misbehaving pupil.
    • "This is a historic moment". Brian often rehearses his forthcoming speech in his head, always beginning with this phrase.
    • "You haven't got a free, you've got a study period."
    • "In the whole of history". Brian on being the first chairman of the Headmasters' Conference who is headmaster of The Good Old British Comp.
  • Clocks of Control: The main character Brian Stimpson embodies this trope, being obsessed with punctuality, running his school (named Thomas Thompion, after a famous clockmaker) to a precise schedule.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Mrs Way, another old lady, who is happily in a world of her own, in spite of the chaos around her, saying repeatedly "how lovely!". At the end, she is happily singing "This is my lovely day", while a crowd surges around her (see "escalating chase" below).
    Headmaster: Oh dear. Lost again, are we?
    Mrs Way: (happily): Quite, quite lost.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Brian happens to meet his former girlfriend, who just happens to be visiting England from Australia.
  • Crowd Song: At the end of his speech, Brian declares to the seated headmasters "Hymn 122, He who would valiant be", as he did in the school assembly at the beginning. After a long and awkward pause, one headmaster starts singing, joined demurely by the others.
  • Dangerously Loaded Cargo: Used as a throwaway gag at the very end. After Brian says "Right!", and a police officer takes this to mean "turn right", Brian then yells "no, LEFT, LEFT, LEFT!" An open-backed lorry does so violently, shedding its load.
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • One of the unnamed headmasters, played by Geoffrey Palmer, who has been given the task of shepherding Brian Stimpson's many followers and chasers away from the meeting.
      Headmaster: Stimpson supporters' club: in here!
    • Brian's ex-girlfriend Pat has a moment of this, which causes Laura to smirk.
      Pat: And now they've made you headmaster. It's like letting a shark in charge of a swimming pool.
  • Detrimental Determination: After a point, Brian's frenzied determination to get to the conference at the exact time planned does more to delay him than anything else.
  • Disaster Dominoes: The whole plot. Brian Stimpson is a Schedule Fanatic who lives a hyper-rigid lifestyle of pure order and timeliness… so much so that the one time he makes a simple mistake that would delay him, it sets off a chain reaction of disasters that destroy his life thanks to the panic it induces in Stimpson.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: John Cleese giving a bad-tempered thrashing to a piece of uncooperative machinery.
  • Dramatic Choir Number: When things are seeming more and more hopeless for Pat and Brian, and their car is driving through a field, there is a sudden burst of choral music.
  • Easily-Overheard Conversation: At the headmasters' conference, the headmasters of the posh schools are mingling and chatting, revealing snippets of how posh those schools are.
    "I'm taking the classical sixth to Jamaica."
    "We're hoping the new solarium will give our sixth form a bit more appeal at the top end of the market."
  • Escalating Chase:
    • Brian is going to a conference where he's to give a speech. Through the usual assortment of misadventures that happen in these kinds of movies, he ends up with quite a number of people chasing him. Being a comedy, they all manage to arrive at his destination before he does.
      Headmaster: Can I help you?
      Mrs Stimpson: I'm looking for Mr Stimpson.
      Headmaster: Oh, we're all looking for Mr Stimpson.
    • Just after Brian has given his speech and made his exit from the hall, there is a massive rush, with suited headmasters climbing over each other to get to the windows, to watch what happens to Brian when he leaves the building.
  • Everyone Has Standards:
    • When Brian finds out Laura does not have a driving licence, he demands to drive the car himself, saying "let's get one thing straight, at any rate". However, immediately afterwards, he crashes into a police car, and thereafter Laura takes the wheel again.
    • In the above crash, Brian accidentally breaks the wing off the car, and casually tosses it into a ditch. Laura yells "NO! That's part of our car." They then tie the wing of the car to the roof.
  • Eye Take: Pat's mother has two of these from her window: once when Pat and Brian kiss, and again when Pat goes off in the car with Brian and Laura.
  • Failing a Taxi: Brian twice tries to hail a taxi without success. The second time, he falls over the bonnet of Laura's car, as she comes out of her driveway: he then demands a lift from her.
  • Funny Background Event: After visiting Mrs Wisely, Mrs Stimpson discovers that Mrs Wheel is missing from her car, and yells "where's the other one?". Mrs Wheel is wandering off in the background behind her.
  • The Good Old British Comp: Brian regularly mentions that despite being headmaster of a British Comprehensive school, he is made the chairman of the Headmasters' Conference.
  • Hope Is Scary: The endlessly beleaguered Brian expresses this sentiment at one point: "It's not the despair, Laura. I can stand the despair, it's the hope!"
  • Interrupted Bath: After falling over in mud, Brian has a bath at the monastery, during which he sings "He Who Would Valiant Be", while a monk smiles outside. He is interrupted by Laura desperately calling for him.
  • Ironic Echo Cut: When the headmasters at the conference are wondering why Brian has not turned up, one of them says "I hope he's not lying in some ditch". The very next scene shows him lying in a ditch, while Laura attempts to flag down passing cars.
  • Late for School: A pupil, Clint, is seen wandering late into school, as he has done every day.
    Brian: Where do you think you're going, Clint, the Guinness Book of Records? Every day this term so far, isn't it, Clint?
  • Laser-Guided Karma: The ending. Brian ruins his life and gets carted off to prison, and it's all his own damned fault for being an overbearing, controlling, punctuality-obsessed Jerkass who can't accept simple human mistakes or random chance and talks down to everyone he meets.
  • Lawful Stupid: Brian's Fatal Flaw. His obsession with always being punctual and on time no matter what is so powerful that he'd go on the insane adventure he embarks on to reach the conference on schedule then simply call ahead to say he's running late or reschedule. In fact, he's so obsessed that he doesn't particularly care if he has to burn his life down in order to stay on schedule.
  • Leit Motif: There are various themes heard for different scenes: Mrs Stimpson and her old ladies, rousing choral music during Pat's desperation, the monastery scenes, a slow theme for the despair of Brian left beside the road, exciting music for the Porsche car.
  • Likes Older Men: Laura's boyfriend is Mr Jolly, a teacher at the school; then when she runs into Brian the headmaster, she promptly dumps Mr Jolly by telephone, and believes that Brian is now her boyfriend.
    Laura: Do you know what's worrying me? It's that I always seem to get involved with older men.
  • Littering Is No Big Deal: After Brian has accidentally pulled the wing completely off Laura's car, he casually tosses it into a ditch. Laura calls him out on it: not because of littering, but because it is part of her car. They continue the journey with the wing tied to the car roof.
  • Missed the Bus: Brian Stimpson's ordered world unwinds as a series of unfortunate circumstances delay him en route. He mistakenly boards the wrong train, missing his connection for Norwich, owing to a lingering habit of saying "right" as emphasis in situations where it would be mistaken for a direction; then, in his desperation to board the departing correct train, he leaves the text of his speech behind on the wrong one, and is finally left at the railway station by his wife, who thinks he departed on the train.
  • Not What It Looks Like:
    • Pat's mother makes a string of assumptions when she sees Brian and Laura. When Brian dashes into one telephone box after another, she assumes that Brian is vandalising them (well before he actually does), and calls the police. When Laura indicates an empty phone box, Brian lifts his arm, and Pat's mother says "he's showing off his muscles, and she's egging him on". Finally, when Pat heads off in the car with Brian and Laura, Pat's mother assumes they have kidnapped her.
    • When pursuing Pat who is driving, Laura runs after her on foot, followed shortly by Brian, who is puffing and panting, and dressed in a monk's "ecclesiastical vestment": this shocks an old lady walking in the opposite direction.
  • Percussive Therapy: Brian Stimpson has several moments on the worst day of his life:
    • He smashes a payphone to pieces, after a whole line of them have failed to work.
    • He kicks a car which is stuck in mud, causing him to fall flat on his face in the mud, ruining his suit.
    • When he leaves the hall after giving his speech, he slams the doors open louder than anyone else has done.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Brian's habit of saying "right!" for emphasis ends up causing him a great deal of trouble for this reason.
  • Poor Man's Porn: At the very beginning, Brian apprehends a group of boys who are looking at some pictures. They then drop the pictures, briefly revealing they are of naked women.
  • The Pratfall: Brian gets a car stuck in the mud, and when he gets out, furious, he kicks it, slips, and ends up sitting in the mud himself.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: The ending. Brian's obsessive determination to always be on schedule does get him to the conference in time so he ostensibly wins… even if he completely destroys his life in every conceivable way to do it.
  • Road Trip Plot: The film is all about Brian's journey from London to Norwich.
  • Running Gag:
    • The Disaster Dominoes of Brian constantly saying "right".
    • The various characters who are pursuing each other frequently pass very close to each other, usually without realising.
    • Brian frequently looks at his watch, even during an impassioned hug with Pat.
    • Mr Jolly rarely finishes his sentences.
      Mrs Stimpson: What are you doing here?
      Mr Jolly: Oh, I'm just... I'm merely... I'll fetch you a cup of...
  • Schedule Fanatic: Brian is a strictly punctual headmaster who holds everyone else to his own exacting standards. The whole plot of the movie is how a misunderstanding leads to him missing his train to an important event and how his life slowly unravels as he tries desperately to get there on time. In the end he arrives exactly on time but with his life utterly ruined. Brian was chronically late and disorganized when he was younger, so his insane devotion to punctuality is likely overcompensation.
  • Seriously Scruffy: The teacher Mr Jolly sits among the suited headmasters, and stands out by being scruffily dressed, but the headmasters think he is one of them.
    Headmaster: Extraordinary appointments some governors make these days; or is that the state sector?
  • Shout-Out: "I saw this film on television once: there was this bloke and this girl, and they went around everywhere in this car, robbing these banks and things."
  • Skipping School: Laura is skipping school, saying "I've got a free", when Brian meets her.
  • Streaking: A streaker is seen (from afar) running from one school building to another, distracting Brian Stimpson in a meeting with Mr Jolly.
  • Suddenly Speaking: Brian has a conversation with a monk, who only nods or shakes his head, and is startled when the monk does speak.
    Brian: (After a long one-sided conversation) I'd be happy to enter a monastery and never speak again.
    Monk: We speak. (Brian looks up sharply)
    Brian: I'm sorry, I just assumed...
    (Monk smiles and shakes his head)
  • Surprise Car Crash: Having berated Laura for driving without a licence, Brian Stimpson takes the wheel himself; he immediately crashes into a police car which had reversed to just in front of where they were parked. In a case of Obscured Special Effects, the crash is heard, but the actual crash is not seen.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: Every law Brian broke in the course of the film bites him back in the end...
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: When Brian tries to find out who Laura's boyfriend (Mr Jolly) is.
    Brian: It's not one of the staff, is it?... It's not Mr Slidewell?... Mr Fellowdew?... It's not Mr Jolly?
    Laura: No! I wasn't anywhere near him.
  • Tear-Apart Tug-of-War: When Brian and Laura steal the Porsche driver's suit, the driver tries to pull it out of Brian's grasp, tearing the sleeve off.
  • The Voiceless: Mr Wisely never speaks, even though his wife constantly refers to his alleged mad rages, which are never seen.
    Mrs Wisely (gesturing to her silent husband): He's going mad on one of his attacks.
  • White-Collar Crime:
    • Both Brian and Mrs Stimpson accidentally drive off after refuelling cars, without paying. Brian realises soon after, but lies to the police about it; Laura nods reluctantly.
    • When Brian and Laura are without a car, and Brian is dressed only in a monk's habit, Laura flags down a passing car; she tricks the driver into undressing, before stealing his clothes, and the car. She is also delighted to discover a wallet full of cash.
      Laura: Oh look, hundreds and hundreds! We could do anything. We could get Chinese takeaways.
  • Wiper Start: Pat starts the wipers when she is trying to find reverse gear.
  • You Do Not Have to Say Anything: At the end, an unseen officer rattles through the charges against Brian, before ending with this phrase.
    Arresting officer: You are charged with the theft of a silver Porsche sports coupé. Furthermore, there are various charges relating to the theft of certain items of gents' clothing, including an ecclesiastical vestment, and a wallet containing approximately one thousand and two hundred and thirty pounds in cash. Do you wish to say anything? You're not obliged to say anything unless you wish to do so, but anything you say will be taken down in writing and may be used as evidence.
  • Your Other Left: Happens countless times, and is one of the reasons Cleese's character gets lost all the time. ("So I take the train on the left?" "Right!") The other reason is sheer pigheadedness.