Who here loves British films? The low budgets, the dry comedy and locations that we all know and love? Clockwise, released in 1986, is one of those perfect little films that encapsulates 1980s Britain – evoking the sights, sounds and smells of a pre-mobile ‘phone era that feels utterly remote from today. And yet, it’s not really that long ago. For car spotters, this one is a joy – it’s basically a road movie, after all – packed with new and old cars, and starring a blue Morris 1100.
It’s July 1985, and punctilious headteacher Brian Stimpson (played by John Cleese) is running to catch his long-suffering wife (played by Alison Steadman) after missing his train due to a hilarious mix-up in communications. The car park is probably seen for about 20 seconds in the film, but it’s a lovely snapshot of what commuters were using to get to the once-grand Hull Paragon Station. The railway station depicted in the film is complete with a sprawling old-style WH Smith’s newsagent, passport photo booth, ornate ticket office, a substantial weigh-yourself machine and grumpy platform staff. Wonderful…
As for the cars in the image above, we’ll go from left to right. At the extreme left is a Ford Orion, something we can’t quite see enough of next to that, then a Ford Escort Mk2 Mexico, a flat-fronted Saab 900 Turbo on Inca alloys. Beyond that, there are a few others, which are too obscured to be sure, but among them looks to be a Vauxhall Astra Mk1 and Honda Civic Mk1. Crossing over, from front to rear, there’s another Ford Escort Mk2, an Austin Mini Van, a Fiat 126, a Ford Fiesta Mk1 and a Mini 1000. It’s a rag-bag collection that’s joined in the car park (in other shots) by a Datsun 180B, an MGB GT V8 and a Reliant Robin. Hardly stellar stuff, but perfectly lovely to see on the screen today.
So, tell us about the film
Clockwise concerns one Brian Stimpson 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 at the station means that he misses his train. Now desperate to reach the conference on time, he fails to contact his wife, who is ferrying old ladies in her Ford Cortina 80. Needless to say, it doesn’t go to plan and so he picks up an accidental lift from sixth form student Laura Wisely (Sharon Maiden, above) in her father’s blue Morris 1100. The day unravels comprehensively from that point on, resulting in ‘taking and driving and kidnapping’ along the way. It’s an old-school British film farce.
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 Alison Steadman and Penelope Wilton, via 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 star 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.
Where was Clockwise filmed?
The locations bear no real resemblance to those depicted in the film. Although the direction of the film’s plot is supposed to take place from somewhere around Birmingham to Norwich via Northampton, the locations are far more widely dispersed. They included Menzies High School in West Bromwich, Birmingham University, Hull railway station, Grimsby and the East Ridings to King Edward’s School in Edgbaston for the Headmasters’ Conference. The charming village where Stimpson ends up kidnapping his former university friend Pat (played by Penelope Wilton) was Much Wenlock in Shropshire.
Clockwise is televised on a regular basis and has acquired a dedicated following, including many of AROnline‘s readers, thanks to the starring Morris 1100. 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.
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Thanks to Andrew Roberts, whose 2005 Classic Car Weekly ‘The Car’s the Star’ piece this is based upon.