One of the things about being British is that you sort of have to watch all the main films produced in this country. We used to have a thriving film industry; it almost died; somehow survived; had a bit of a revival; had a few thin years; sometimes has a boom year etc. But on the whole its output of “proper” films over my adult lifetime is not so large that it is impossible to see all of it, or most of the main ones. So a “professional Brit” like me has to keep up.
Particularly in the 1980s, when I was growing up, there weren’t a lot so when a British film did come out it got a lot of publicity. It was a news event even if it wasn’t a moment in cultural history. I remember that there was huge hype about Absolute Beginners (“with David Bowie!”) even though film critics said the film was an over-ambitious mish-mash. Chariots of Fire was a triumph, Educating Rita is overrated, My Beautiful Launderette was a haphazard mess, Brazil is a masterpiece.
There was one film I deliberately avoided: Clockwise. I used to suffer terribly from anxiety and had a perfect horror of the sort of films where everything goes wrong. I knew that Clockwise was one such and knew very well that there was no happy end. If I had seen it 30 years ago, it would have appalled me.
Instead, I have just watched it now as a (slightly) more serene adult and I can say it’s a “gentle British classic”. Not “classic” as in “must see” but as in “having many of the characteristics of British films”.
It’s the story of a punctuality-obsessed headmaster trying (and failing) to get to the most important meeting of his life. The clock is ticking but it just gets progressively worse.
There are the staples of great comedy: misunderstandings, mishaps and unlikely coincidences. Someone has to do a speech wholly inappropriately dressed. And someone’s whole character unravels in the process.
There’s classic English scenery: (cars racing through) beautiful villages and lush countryside.
There’s physical comedy: John Cleese (he of Monty Python) kicks his stalled car in frustration but falls backwards into the mud, then pauses to retrieve one shoe, then the other from the mud. Brilliantly.
There’s a townie-country confrontation. This includes a visual joke: they are having a conversation over a hedge and the townie doesn’t realise the countryman is sitting on a tractor, which is exactly what he needs...
There are a couple of great actors: Alison Steadman (my favourite actress, sadly underused) and Penelope Wilton (who you may know from Downton Abbey).
And it’s an (accidentally) perfect period piece. It has the haircuts, the cars, the broken phone boxes of the mid-1980s. It even has the same hymn we were made to sing at school, and the teachers constantly remind students that a lesson slot when they have no lesson is “a study period... not a free period” – exactly as I remember.
It’s not an edgy masterpiece. I might even call it a bit “vanilla” (because most people will like it but few will love it). But it’s certainly a true British film.