‘Having a Wild Weekend’ (1965): No one can tolerate reality; escapism is the only alternative

Your typical Elvis musical stripped of all the on-camera performances, the bikinis, the laughs (except when Guy and Nan start sniping at each other)…and then heavily medicated for severe depression.

By Paul Mavis

In my Blu-ray upgrade mission, I was surprised to see that Warner Bros.’ Archive Collection hadn’t gotten around to putting the 1965 U.K. drama from United Artists, Having a Wild Weekend, onto Blu. Known over the pond as Catch Us If You Can, Having a Wild Weekend didn’t make movie stars of the Dave Clark Five, but it also wasn’t just another A Hard Day’s Night cash-in, either. Serious critics back then recognized this as an intriguing first work from former documentarian John Boorman: a cynical, downbeat, rewarding drama from the “nicer, cleaner” Beatles.

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London, right at the apex of the “swinging Sixties.” At the converted cathedral headquarters of Action Enterprises Limited, television and film stuntmen Steve (Dave Clark), Lenny (Lenny Davidson), Rick (Rick Huxley), Mike (Mike Smith), and Denis (Denis West Payton), wake up to the blasting sounds of their massive pipe organ alarm clock, and set off for a TV advert shoot at the famed Smithfield Meat Market. Already at the Market is Steve’s current girlfriend, model Dinah (Barbara Ferris), the face of the half-million pound national “Meat For ‘Go!'” ad campaign.

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Disgusted with his playacting job, Dave can’t wait to leave for Spain, where he and the boys will teach scuba diving to tourists. Dinah has her own means of escape from her publicity-fueled fame: she’s going to buy an island off the coast of Devon. Thumbing her nose at her responsibilities, she suggests Steve steal the production company’s Jag and take the day off with her. This lark soon turns into a weekend cross-country trek to Devon, with Steve delivering Dinah to her island…and Dinah’s “mentor,” powerful advertising executive Leon Zissell (David de Keyser), playing up this phony “kidnapping” into a solid-gold publicity stunt.

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I’m no expert on either the DC5 or certainly The Beatles (I must be the only person in America who’d rather listen to Gerry and the Pacemakers than the “Fab Four”), but I do know that for a brief moment in 1964-1965, it was thought that The Dave Clark Five, with their catchy, chart-topping hits and squeaky clean image, might give the increasingly smartassed Liverpuddlians a run for their money. Rock ‘n’ roll movies certainly weren’t invented by The Beatles, but the phenomenal commercial and critical success of 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night made it imperative for opportunistic movie producers to latch onto another “British Invasion” band―any band―and try and replicate the formula.

RELATED | More 1960s film reviews

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No doubt when Having a Wild Weekend was released, right at the height of the DC5‘s fame in the U.S., the main thrust of the promotion and very probably the perception of the average ticket buyer, was that this was indeed an effort to launch the DC5 as a cinematic alternative to The Beatles. 54 years later, if Having a Wild Weekend is discussed in critical terms (outside of the band’s still loyal following), the DC5‘s participation in it now seems beside the point―almost any band could have been featured. It’s director John Boorman’s debut, along with noted playwright Peter Nichols’ script, that probably garners any serious critical interest in the movie today (that’s not knocking the great music, or the band’s easy manner in front of the camera: they’re terrific).

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Certainly, Nichols (A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Privates on Parade) and Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance) don’t shy away from giving Having a Wild Weekend a surface resemblance to A Hard Day’s Night. The soundtrack is often spilling over with bouncy DC5 tunes, while regularly-scheduled whacky, disconnected, disjointed “happenings” occur, such as the opening titles sequence, where the boys act their most Beatles-like in their funhouse cathedral abode, bouncing on trampolines, swinging on ropes, and running around outside before piling into their funny little motorcar, the infectious title tune, Catch Us If You Can all the while blaring. Sounds fun, right?

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And it is…but that’s about the last time you could call Having a Wild Weekend just “simple fun.” While most rock ‘n’ roll exploitation programmers consciously try and present an upbeat, positive experience for the young fans who can’t afford to see them in concert―a maximum number of songs (including straight performances by the bands), with lots of laughs and girls―Having a Wild Weekend clearly has other things on its mind.

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From the opening shot, director Boorman telegraphs his intention to subvert the rock ‘n’ roll musical genre: the first thing we see is an arrow sign marked “Thrills” on the wall…pointing to a sleeping band member. And while we do get that Beatlesesque opening sequence, Boorman and Nichols eliminate the possibility of any squealing DC5 fans plunking down their nickels to see their dreamboats in musical action by having the boys be stuntmen―critically, stuntmen who don’t moonlight as musicians. At no time do they break into song on-camera, a la any of the innumerable Elvis Presley vehicles of that time. So many of those Presley movies had an exotic locale as backdrop (usually via second unit work and obviously phony studio mock-ups, like Fun in Acapulco), but even though Having a Wild Weekend is set in what was acknowledged as the epicenter of world pop culture in 1965―London―Boorman refuses to give us a fun-filled travelogue of “swinging London.”

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What we do see briefly of London, before the movie hits the road for some rather bleak country settings, is broken up visually into geometric, abstract patterns of modernistic buildings and shifting, painted traffic lines on the streets, contrasted with the surreal jumble of billboards of Ferris and the boys in their meat adverts. Boorman’s and Nichols’ idea of having a “smashing time” in London is showing Ferris yelling at non-plussed pedestrians via bullhorn (with Dave Clark angrily pulling her back down) before they deface and throw paint on her billboards.

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“Fun” things to do in London include a scuba swim in a dark, ugly, ice-cold outdoor swimming pool, and a trip to the grimy-looking Syon House Great Conservatory, where a scraggly-looking orange tree bears one single piece of fruit. Yay. Even Boorman’s “wild” parties have a deliberate “off” tone (arguing couples and young kids inexplicably show up, spoiling any potential fun). Once dour-looking Ferris and Clark get out of the city, the mood turns even more dire, as they pass bombed-out buildings, blasted armored tanks, and various other remnants of post-WWII England in the wintry-looking fields. If this is the “swinging London” and surrounding countryside made to seem so glamorous and fun and perhaps even excitingly dangerous in wonderful pop outings like Smashing Time, Morgan, The Saint and The Avengers…then I’ll take Peoria (Boorman even manages to make the Royal Crescent in Bath look unattractive).

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But then…that’s the whole point of Having a Wild Weekend: breaking illusions. Nichols’ screenplay isn’t hiding its messages; he has his characters speak right to us. Upper class Guy (a brilliant turn by Robin Bailey) lays it right out: no one can tolerate reality. Escapism, in any form, is the only alternative. That celebrated ’60s youth rebellion that all the magazine authors wrote about? It means nothing to the ad execs who want more people to eat meat: they just co-opt the image and use it to sell sausages (Ferris is described as “rootless, classless, kooky, a product of affluence, the typical example of modern youth”).

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Ephemeral states associated with human existence like “energy” are nothing more than interchangeable marketing strategies with meaningless, manufactured states of consumerism like “gracious living” (“We’ve flogged ‘Energy’…we’re moving into ‘Gracious Living,'” says a female exec). de Keyser has no doubt these intangibles can be processed and packaged and sold like corn meal to cows. After all, everyone seems to know Ferris wherever she goes, thanks to the “Meat For ‘Go'” campaign.

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Every set-up or situation in Having a Wild Weekend is illusionary. The meat commercial is shot in a real meat market…which the television people can’t understand because they’re so used to everything being faked (a band member says it’s surreal). Clark and Ferris, dressed as bandits, “escape” from their commercial, as per the script, and then escape for a day-off into London, before they escape to the countryside―”escapes” that aren’t really escapes at all (they’re not running away from any real threat), the final one deliberately transformed into a fake “kidnapping” for publicity purposes, which both Clark and Ferris find out before they reach their destination. The hippies that fascinate Ferris so much don’t want peace and love and understanding with their new visitors; the first thing the sullen, uncommunicative hippies ask Clark and Ferris is, do they have any drugs.

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Wealthy Joyce and Bailey are “happily” married…but are clearly interested in swinging with Clark and Ferris, before Nichols lets them off the hook by giving Bailey some poignancy with his outdated collection of “historical pop culture” (is he granted a reprieve from Nichols’ satire because Bailey’s character sees the truth about escapism and reality?). Even Clark’s image of his boyhood idol, Lodge, is proven to be an illusion; the ex-boys’ club instructor is more concerned with boosting tourism at his tacky ranch, hoping “the Butcher Girl” will help him by appearing there…while forgetting Clark’s name altogether.

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Having a Wild Weekend even turns around at its finale and skewers its supposed protagonist, Ferris, who’s been set up as the 60s audience surrogate we should root for here. Clark is shown to be “saturnine” (as he’s always described) and angry and driven to get out of England to teach scuba in Spain, while Ferris, the dreamer who wants to live on an island and give Gatsby-esque parties before disappearing, is the kind one who wants to enjoy the journey, giving people the benefit of the doubt when Clark says lose them and let’s move on. Even hovering, threatening, yet non-participating de Keyser merits Ferris’ understanding and pity at the end.

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Spoilers With her talk of romantic isolation, empathy, and accepting people as they are, versus Clark’s cold pragmatism, we’re primed for her to reject the final publicity press from de Keyser…but she doesn’t. She goes right back to her mentor, her fame, her plastic attentions, while realist Clark simply says, “Goodbye,” to the press, and to her (maybe all those bars surrounding her in the mise en scene was a clue?). She’s swept away, smiling and laughing with the reporters, while he retreats back over the sand that connects her “island” to the mainland―another illusion―a surprisingly noble figure compared to her compromised sell-out (Boorman shoots Clark’s departure over the blowing sand like some Woodfall version of Lawrence of Arabia—another ironic joke). Cue the bouncy theme song as we contemplate a DC5 “musical” as depressing as Darling.

Now…you tell me: does that sound like Clambake?

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PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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