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By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 25, 1986


Christopher Morahan
John Cleese;
Penelope Wilton;
Alison Steadman;
Stephen Moore;
Sharon Maiden;
Joan Hickson
Parental guidance suggested

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In the delicious comedy "Clockwise," Brian Stimpson (John Cleese), the headmaster of a British high school, is punctual to a fault -- he's so compulsive about time, in fact, that he pauses for a moment of pleasure when the "9:00" on his office clock clicks into place and the school bell rings on the dot.

That afternoon, Stimpson has the most important appointment of his life -- a speech to a group of headmasters from "posh" schools like Eton and Harrow, who have only reluctantly accepted him into their fold -- and inevitably, the running gag of "Clockwise" is that the entire world conspires to make him late. What might have been a peaceful train ride to Norwich becomes a merry chase across the countryside, as Stimpson is chauffeured by Laura (Sharon Maiden), one of his students, and cops, monks, angry headmasters, angrier parents, an old flame, a dull farmer, a jealous teacher and a quartet of dotty old ladies all try to get a piece of him.

The pleasures of "Clockwise" stem not simply from gags, but from the kind of strong story construction that's almost disappeared from comedy. From the outset, screenwriter-playwright Michael Frayn ("Noises Off") is careful to establish his characters, not just comically, but emotionally. The competition with the posh schools, for example, has you rooting for Stimpson all the while you're laughing at him.

And throughout, Frayn links his running gag to a theme. Stimpson might sound silly when he portentously advises one of his teachers "The first step to knowing who we are is knowing where we are and when we are," but he also has a point. As the rest of "Clockwise" hilariously illustrates, the characteristically British attention to punctilio is a thin wall shored against chaos.

That theme powers many of the jokes in "Clockwise," and Cleese plays it to the hilt, as the most horrendous circumstances never dampen his confidence in his own rationality, never crack his stiff upper lip or disrupt his military bearing. But what's particularly nice about "Clockwise" is the way Frayn meticulously introduces his comic devices, and then orchestrates them to a crescendo in which Cleese, looking like a race-track tout in white shoes and a stolen double-breasted suit (with the sleeve taped on), finally addresses all his harassers and belittles and bullies them as if they were schoolboys entrusted to his care.

"Clockwise" is far from perfect -- it has long sleepy stretches and some pretty obvious farce situations. But at its best, here is a comedy unusual in its layered complexity, in the way Frayn has worked everything out. "Gonna take a bit o' sortin' out, this one," says one of the pursuing bobbies. The joke, of course, is in the understatement. And rarely has the "sortin' out" been so much fun.

"Clockwise" is rated PG and contains some profanity and sexual themes.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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