It may have been one of Britain’s best-selling cars of the 1960s and ’70s, but John Cleese’s characters of Basil Fawlty and Brian Stimpson in Clockwise were far from fans of the BMC 1100/1300 range.
ANDREW ROBERTS looks at Cleese’s 1986 attempted murder of a Morris.
FOR a vehicle which has a fair claim to being one of the finest small cars in the world, the AD016 range has a very limited presence as a cinematic icon. While its smaller stablemate adorned many a ‘Swinging London’ epic in either Se7en or Mini Minor, Mini Cooper or Mini Moke form, the BMC 1100’s contribution to Sixties British cinema seems to have been limited to the Morris-badged model owned by Dirk Bogarde in 1965’s Darling.
However, aside from that, and the Mk 2 Morris 1100 apparently time-warped into the mid-Sixties setting of Quadrophenia, the ADO16’s main legacy to cinema was in the form of the Public Information Film. Even today, Britons of a certain age associate the 1100/1300 series with blindfolded drivers overtaking at speed in the fog at a T-junction while simultaneously consuming a bottle of scotch, ignoring zigzag lines, frying chips at the wheel, reversing into a pylon and mixing radial and crossply tyres – all without giving the correct hand signals.
Judging by these 30-second epics, Seventies Britain was clearly a dangerous place, where a toy Austin 1300 driven by a stuffed rabbit could knock down even delinquent rodent Willy Weasel of the Tufty Club fame. This was memorably parodied by the Monty Python team in its Killer Cars sketch, where London was under attack from cannibalistic MG 1300s. Fortunately, Tiddles, the giant mutant Siamese cat, saved the day but the Python association with the ADO16 continued on the small screen with a 1966 Austin 1100 Countryman in a certain 1975 episode of Fawlty Towers entitled Gourmet Night.
After that BMC 1100/1300 fans could only glimpse their car of choice in the guise of a London Met Panda Car decorating programmes as varied as The Good Life and The Sweeney but ten years after John Cleese thrashed his Morris 1100 he starred in Clockwise. This minor gem of a British comedy film was apparently written by Michael Frayn and directed by Christopher Morahan but, as this is the only road movie in cinema history to star a blue 1970 Morris 1100 Mk 2 Super (heater and windscreen washers as standard), the telepathic influence on the project of a teenaged Keith Adams, future CCW News Editor and Mr Austin Rover himself, seems quite obvious.
Clockwise concerns one Brian Stimpson (John Cleese of course), the authoritative and ultra- punctual headmaster of a suburban comprehensive who has been invited to give a speech to The Headmasters’ Conference in Norwich. Naturally, the whole world seems to conspire to make Brian late, when a misunderstanding (“Right!” “Left?” “Right!”) at the station means that he misses his train, having managed to leave his copy of the speech on a train headed for Plymouth. Now desperate to reach the conference on time, he tries to contact the long suffering Mrs. Stimpson, but she has volunteered to ferry old ladies in her Mk 5 Ford Cortina and in a pre-mobile phone Britain is uncontactable.
However, Brian then finds an apparent lifeline in the form of sixth form student Laura Wisely (Sharon Maiden) at the wheel of the parental Morris 1100 Mk 2 Super. As Laura is on a free period – “Free periods are for study,” reminds Brian in the manner common to all headmasters – surely she could give him a lift to Norwich? From then on, chaos will most undoubtedly reign, with Laura unwillingly admitting to have “almost passed” her driving test whereupon Brian takes the wheel and promptly hits in Mk 2 Ford Granada police car, prompting him to pull the nearside front wing off. Meanwhile Laura’s mother is concerned that her daughter has been kidnapped and her father is concerned with the loss of his Morris. This is further proof of Keith Adams’ influence in the screenplay, together with the flustered Mrs Wisely’s remark that she doesn’t know whether to report a lost Austin or Morris 1100 to the local police.
|Thin end of the wedge…|
Having already missed his train for Norwich, Brian Stimpson commandeers the ADO16-driving Laura Wisely to drive him there. However, when you’re travelling low-profile and the mobile ‘phone is yet to be invented, it pays to remember to pay for your tankful of Shell… The scruffy Princess tells you this is an Eighties film of the highest order.
Mirror, signal, manoeuvre, and… bang! Sadly, Brian Stimpson proves that having a driving licence isn’t always the best way to incident-free motoring.
|Long arm of the law…|
Life was simpler back in the Eighties, and the Austin Maestro seemed the perfect transport for the bobby on his rural patch. I guess he wasn’t supposed to hurry anywhere, as the car’s later inability to catch the Morris 1100 demonstrated…
|Little and large|
Trapped by a combination of cows and a Leyland milk tanker, the obvious thing to do is to is go, ‘left… into the field.’ Ample progress is made because, ‘we don’t need a track, it’s grass…’That’s all well and good, until…
|Bad to worse…|
…the Morris gets stuck in the mud, and Stimpson tries to extract it by a) pushing it for all he’s worth, b) kicking it in the rear door, and c) giving up to find a tractor. Sadly, instead of a tractor, he finds a… monastery.
|Not left, right…|
Telling a traffic cop the way to go is never a wise move. One slip and it could have been an SD1 vs Sunbeam Lotus scenario…
Back in the Morris itself, Laura is now worried about the reaction of her father to a now dilapidated car – another Adams touch here – but the oblivious Brian sees a row of red K6 telephone boxes. In true British fashion all of Mr Stimpson’s attempts to telephone the conference are thwarted by a useless operator and the refusal of the Pay-On-Answer kiosks to accept any 10 pence pieces. This scene – filmed at Much Wenlock in Shropshire, for those who are interested – encapsulates the dilemma for anyone who cares about British heritage.
Anyone who is old enough to remember mid-Eighties rural England will also remember that the charming red K6 telephone boxes were also prone to breaking down and making strange bleeping and clunking noises at the worst possible moment – rather like BMC 1100s, but that’s another matter. Witnessing the scene is a rather fierce old lady who believes the 45-year-old Brian to be a juvenile delinquent – “He’s showing off his muscles to his girlfriend!” as he wrenches the receiver from the wall in a blind fury – but the old battle axe’s daughter Pat (Penelope Wilton) turns out to be an old college girlfriend of Brian home from Australia. Surely she could drive the Morris to Norwich, even if it does have a missing front wing…
There then follows one of Cleese’s finest hours as, ignoring the fact that Pat is being driven into a state of increasing hysteria by Brian’s back seat driving – the old “Right!” “Left?” “Right!” routine once more – he insists she can cut through a field, as indicated on his Ordnance Survey map. In one of the great lines of cinematic history, almost on a par with “Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!” and “Celebrity Wrestling will be another winner for ITV.”
Brian announces, “We don’t need a track. It’s grass!” Clearly Mr Stimpson has read the famous 1968 BL ‘The Cars That Grip The Roads’ advertising campaign for its front-wheel-drive models but, in his growing insanity, Brian has failed to grasp the essential difference between FWD and 4WD. Inevitably the 1100 becomes becalmed in mud and after several futile attempts to push the car free, Brian seeks help from Ivan the Tractor, the sort of bearded farming oaf who makes you realise why a weekend break in the English countryside might be a bad idea after all. After five minutes of cross-purpose dialogue, Brian takes his leave thus:
Ivan the Tractor: Hey, guess what
I’m sitting on?”
Brian: “A bomb, I hope.”
Ivan the Tractor:
“All right then. You go that way
and I’ll go this way, and I’ll bet
you this jam tart that I’ll find
a tractor first.”
Little vignettes such as these encapsulate a whole world of rural misery more than a decade before The League of Gentlemen, and Tony Haygarth plays a wonderful oaf but the whole tone of the scene is set by Brian striding confidently back towards a gibbering Pat sat behind the wheel of a near-wrecked Morris 1100 Mk 2 Super. But Brian is undaunted, albeit heading towards complete insanity. He may be stuck in the middle of nowhere with a stranded (and borrowed) Morris and two ladies, one of whom is throwing a fit while the other is a student whom, unbeknownst to Brian, is having an affair with art master Stephen Moore, and he may also be covered in mud, but Brian Stimpson BA (Hons) will still show the Headmasters’ Conference the value of comprehensive schools.
After a brief sojourn in a monastery and a moment of introspection when Brian loses his wristwatch – “Now I’ve even lost the time” – the increasingly daring Laura takes the initiative by flagging down a Porsche 911 Targa driven by Sidney Livingstone’s wide boy. As an intelligent A-level student Laura obviously realises that such a fine car needs to be rescued from a driver who wears such a hideous suit (and with white socks and grey loafers too). Unfortunately, Sidney is twice Brian’s weight and about a head shorter, which makes a suit fitting a trifle difficult. Still, Brian is now en route to the Headmasters’ Conference and the fact that he is being tailed by his wife’s Ford Cortina (which also contains several confused old ladies), a fleet of Rover SD1 police cars, a Mk 1 Ford Transit Camper driven by Stephen Moore plus Mr and Mrs Wisely on a motorcycle is completely irrelevant.
The final scene is one of the highlights of Stimpson’s career as, clad in an ill-fitting and visibly disintegrating suit, he dismisses traffic police, CID and the other parties who have made his journey such a trial with the brand of headmasterly sarcasm that only John Cleese could produce. At the film’s climax, Brian has finally lost the fawning attitude he once had towards the Headmasters’ Conference and although he persists in misdirecting the driver of the police Rover SD1 taking him into custody – “Left!” “Right?” “Left!” – he is in no doubt that his speech has been an utter triumph.
One great aspect of Clockwise is the immaculate cast, from the increasingly frazzled public school headmasters played by Geoffrey Palmer and Nicholas Le Prevost to Geoffrey Hutchings as Mr Wisely and Joan Hickson as one of Mrs Stimpson’s confused old ladies. Further down the cast list lurks future hostess of appalling TV programmes Nadia Sawalha under the nom-de-plume Nadia Kostakis and British horror film legend Sheila Keith as Pat’s mother but special honours must go to the diminutive Ann Way as another of the confused old ladies – “They keep wanting to go to the loo,” moans Mr. Palmer.
She had famously appeared opposite John Cleese in Fawlty Towers – Gourmet Night as Mrs Hall, a guest nearly poisoned by the red mullet, but in Clockwise she endsthe film by blithely singing a cappella to a beguiled, if very confused, public school headmaster. She may have absolutely no idea of where she is, but Ms Way is one of the only characters in the film who actually enjoys herself.
The filming of Clockwise took place in 1985 over a wide variety of locations from Birmingham University, Grimsby and the East Ridings to King Edward’s School in Edgbaston for the Headmasters’ Conference. Coincidentally, one of this school’s distinguished old boys was Raymond Huntley, another tall, thin, mustachioed actor who specialised in alternately manic and crawling authority figures. Nit-pickers might like to note that the headrests in Mr Stimpson’s Cortina disappear then reappear between shots as she is leaving the railway station but more jarring is the unfortunate dubbing of Sharon Maiden in some prints. Apparently, the US distributors thought that her regional accent was too strong for North American audiences but at least Ms Maiden is in good company here – Michael Caine had to re-voice much of Alfie for the same reason.
Cleese has recently remarked that, when Clockwise was released in 1986, the only territories where it was commercially successful were Sweden and England, the former because of a national obsession with punctuality and the latter because of Cleese’s television fame. Prior to Clockwise, Cleese’s non-Python film parts (ie as an actor rather than a writer-performer) tended to be supporting roles on both sides of the Atlantic and Clockwise was his first real starring vehicle for the cinema. As for comparisons between Basil Fawlty and Brian Stimpson, both had genuine antecedents – Fawlty was (infamously) based on Donald Sinclair, a retired naval officer and possibly the world’s worst hotelier, whilst Stimpson is alleged to have been based upon the character of the head of Cleese’s daughter’s school – and both have that sense of lower-middle class rage and class envy that John Cleese depicts so well.
Both characters are also obsessive but, whilst Basil was a manic depressive perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Brian does have some sense of insight – “It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope” – and he even might be rather good at his job, with Cleese’s performance and Frayn’s script inferring that the character’s pride in his school is quite genuine. Stimpson’s main problem, which applies to nearly every other character in the film, is that no-one listens. His slogan may be, “The first step to knowing who we are is knowing where we are and when we are,” but he never begins to apply this to himself.
It was the comparative failure of Clockwise in North America that caused Cleese to aim his next solo project, A Fish Called Wanda, towards the US, which is a possible reason why it now seems to date rather more badly than the earlier film. Morahan’s direction captures an instantly recognisable middle England of the mid-Eighties, with Austin Maestro panda cars, bleak A-road service stations, grumpy British Rail porters, suburban villas and Mk 5 Ford Cortinas filled with confused old ladies. A Fish Called Wanda may have contained a star turn from Kevin Kline but its mid-Atlantic aspirations now appear to be almost on a par with the ‘Driving on the wrong side of the road’ ITC dramas of the Sixties.
Today, the surprisingly un-knighted John Cleese now resembles the respectable solicitor he might well have become, especially as the new Q in the 007 films, while Alison Steadman is one of our finest actresses, Stephen Moore will always be remembered for Marvin the Paranoid Android in the TV version of The Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy and John Barton’s grumpy ticket collector became Jim Branning on EastEnders, with no apparent sign of ageing in the intervening 14 years.
Clockwise is televised on a regular basis and, in the past two decades, has acquired a dedicated following. It is not a cult film on the lines of Withnail & I, as its fans seem to warm to the sort of film narrative where Cleese, as with Peter Sellers before him, seems to thrive – the insanities of middle England existence, where downfall could be due to a seemingly innocuous Morris 1100 Super Mk 2. Of course, had Laura been driving an Austin Allegro the running time of Clockwise would have been a good deal less as it would have probably broken down before leaving the driveway.
Especially if Keith Adams had had his way…
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
The Morris 1100 was sacrificed in the noble cause of British comedy.
WATCH IT NOW