Saturday, 7 December 2013

The Mad Death

Genre: Drama
Channel: BBC1
Transmission: 16/07/1983 - 30/07/1983

Curious British Telly stumbled home the other night after several hours involving much curry and much alcohol. Fumbling about in the darkness of the kitchen, we saw our lovable West Highland Terrier asleep in her basket. Staggering over to her, we preceded to stroke, hug and make ridiculous noises at her before we bumbled off to bed. Luckily, she's a genial girl and took it all on her furry chin. Not all dogs are this accommodating, though, and we'll be taking a look at some of the more highly strung canines in The Mad Death.

Beloved sparring partners of the English, the French, kick start The Mad Death when Bibi (Marianne Lawrence) can't bear to be separated from her cat, so smuggles it into the UK. In her fur coat. They were simpler times of course, so we'd rather not think about where you'd have to conceal a cat these days. Anyway, unbeknownst to the sappy Bibi, her little siamese is infected with rabies after a scrap with a rabid fox. After being run over, the cat is promptly devoured by a fox who becomes infected with the virus. It's not til the Americans get involved, however, that things really start happening. Tom Siegler (Ed Bishop) foolishly takes the poorly fox home where he thinks he can keep it as a pet.

Whilst whipping up a gin and tonic, Siegler cuts his finger and provides the perfect entry point for some fox saliva. Tom is soon in hospital hallucinating and knocking glasses of water everywhere. Next thing you know, he's stone cold dead. The government get involved and call in veterinary genius Michael Hilliard (Richard Heffer) to contain the spread of the virus. At Hilliard's side is the rather beautiful Anne Maitland (Barbara Kellerman) who lives with her jealous partner Johnny Dalry (Richard Morant). The final element of series revolves around the troubled mental state of quintessential 'crazy old cat lady', Miss Stonecroft (Brenda Bruce).

The Mad Death was produced by BBC Scotland and adapted from the Nigel Slater book of the same name. The series consisted of three 55 minute episodes which were transmitted on BBC1 during July 1983. The keen eyes of director Robert Young were behind the camera whilst Sean Hignett adapted Nigel Slater's novel for the small screen. Numerous Scottish locations were utilised for the action, most notably the East Kilbride Shopping Centre - packed full of now defunct shops such as John Menzies and Saxone. Only two repeats of The Mad Death followed, one in 1985 on the BBC and the final one in 1994 on UK Gold. An edited VHS release was available at some point in the mid 80s, but is now very scarce and very expensive.

We can't remember where we first heard about The Mad Death, but comments such as "The Threads of the rabies world" and "the most bleak television show ever" caught our attention. We love depressing ourselves and vintage TV is fantastic for exploring that particular state of mind. The 70s/80s forever saw the British public being whipped up into a paranoid frenzy over nuclear war, disease and Neil Kinnock. The televisual depiction of these events never failed to pull any punches. They were bleak, gritty pieces and featured little comic relief - these days, production companies seem obliged to chuck in James Corden or David Walliams.

The Mad Death isn't the easiest thing to track down. As mentioned previously, the VHS is very difficult to get hold of and YouTube yields little more than a few clips. Luckily, delve deep enough and you'll find websites specialising in 'rare TV on DVD'. Curious British Telly paid several pounds to a shadowy figure and, a few days later, received our DVD.

Exploiting humanity's fear of disease coupled with their love of furry little animals provides themes difficult to ignore. It's a compelling plot and one that would have acted as an education on rabies for many. These days, you could head online and be reading all about rabies within minutes. However, The Mad Death aired in the pre-internet age, so there would have been little information available. That's not to say the serial bombards viewers with facts. The science side of things is, if anything, kept to a minimum. The British public's tender brains could have handled a few more facts and would have dealt them a respectful nod.

The vague 'love triangle' subplot is perhaps the weakest part of the serial. The romance between Hilliard and Maitland is fleetingly explored, but it's difficult to invest any care in it. When it does come to fruition, we were more interested in getting back to the rabies side of things. Dalry's jealousy of Hilliard seems to escalate quickly and his response seems a bit drastic. After using Hilliard for a spot of '"target practise", all bitterness between the pair evaporates as they go to rescue Maitland. There's no real closure to this particular thread and we found it disappointing.

One area of The Mad Death that has had a few critical voices raised is the middle class bias of the piece. All the heroes are middle class professionals whereas the working class - such as the family featured in the shopping centre - are labelled as bumbling idiots. We find it a difficult area to criticise as a rabies outbreak would be dealt with by doctors, vets and scientists rather than builders and electricians. We're not saying there isn't room for a chilling rabies table about a builder and electrician stranded on a remote building site with an infected beagle, but The Mad Death is not the place for this.

Miss Stonecroft's role has also come in for some criticism. The character is described as painful viewing and over the top. On the contrary, Curious British Telly thought her role in the serial captured the obsessive love that owners shower on their pets. A rabies outbreak would absolutely devastate a nation of pet owners and Miss Stonecroft highlights the emotional effect of this. The scenes set in her house have a creepy, claustrophobic feel which ratchet up the tension.

The acting on display is a mixed bag. Richard Heffer - one of our favourites from Survivors - is in great form as the man charged with sorting out the crisis. He's a charismatic actor with a swashbuckling look. You just know he's capable of changing a horseshoe, bowling a googly and downing a pint of ale. British through and through and perfect for the role. Barbara Kellerman had a long career in acting, but we found her vision of Anne Maitland unspectacular. It's not a completely wooden performance - the scenes in Miss Stonecroft's house are good value for money - but she fails to match Richard Heffer in the lead role. Richard Morant, too, never seems to really get beneath the skin of the suspicious Dalry. The character calls out for more caddishness, but he's played with too much of a stiff upper lip which stunts the character's emotive output.

Ed Bishop brings some American glamour to the table and his confident, chatty persona is a joyful contrast to the more reserved English acting on show. It's a shame he departs fairly early on, but we couldn't have an American saving Britain, now could we?! Another highlight is Brenda Bruce as Miss Stonecroft. You can see the vengeful madness in the whites of her eyes and it's a terrifying perfomance based on the edge of insanity. The rest of the supporting cast provide middling performances which fail to linger in the mind.

We feel that the bleakness of The Mad Death has been mythologised over the years. It's certainly no Threads, a show which leaves us feeling moribund. Nonetheless, there's some disturbing action in the serial which lays down some strong synapses in your emotional memory. The opening titles are particularly haunting featuring shots of animals disturbed by a rippling effect. This is partnered by a haunting rendition of 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' which sent chills down our spines.

The fox attack on Siegler is a tension filled affair which leaves the pulse racing. Many people criticise the fox puppet, but luckily the camera doesn't linger on it too long. Alarming hallucinations are one of the rabies symptoms and poor Siegler is left 'drowning' in his hospital bed at one point. It's a strong scene which reminds us of the fragile nature of our health. One scene, which is rather graphic, sees a farmer forced to shoot his beloved sheepdog. This is a particularly upsetting scene which emphasises the emotional cost in halting the virus. Finally, Miss Stonecroft takes The Mad Death into horror territory with her psychotic solution concerning Maitland. They're dark scenes which threaten to jeopardise the containment program.

Overall we enjoyed The Mad Death very much. It's got a dark and sometimes shocking plot which is driven by some powerful performances. The emotional impact of certain scenes is enough to ensure you won't forget the serial any time soon. Sure, there are some dud performances on show and it needs more emphasis on the love triangle, but these are minor quibbles. The full three episodes can be hard going at times due to the lack of action, but we've found that the edited VHS version keeps a brisker pace. The picture quality of available copies isn't horrific, but it could be better. Therefore, we feel The Mad Death is a real candidate for an official DVD release. Or, at the very least, a BBC4 showing. It's a serial that we will definitely revisit in the future and recommend you seek out a copy. In the mean time, don't worry about coming home stinking of Jack Daniels and Dhansak. It's unlikely you'll have a rabid dog waiting for you.


Radio Times

A rich French lady, soppy about her cat, smuggles it into Scotland when she's invited there for an extended holiday. But the cat had previously tangled with a fox. And the fox is the great European carrier of that dreaded disease, rabies. Such is the ominous situation of The Mad Death, loosely based by Sean Hignett on a novel by Nigel Slater. When Sean wrote the script he was aware of the need to provide entertainment in the form of a thriller and to inform the public, which takes disease less seriously than it should. In realising this story on film there is more than just a touch of Hitchcockian horror in the way cuddly domestic animals are transformed by the demon seed into beasts touched by evil but the film-makers have gone to great lengths to ensure accuracy and naturalism. Both medical and veterinary advisors were at hand throughout the filming and in the research stage of scripting the writer had the full co-operation of the Ministry of Agriculture. Naturally there are many scenes involving what appear to be diseased and berserk animals, all filmed under strict vetinary supervision and with all animals under the control of their owners at all times. Working on this project for several months had had a lasting effect on Sean Hignett. He avoids stray dogs like the plague.


  1. It turned up on BBC iPlayer recently, so there is hope.
    The opening titles and closing credits scared the absolute crap out of me as a nine year old and they still have the power to give me the jitters. To put the production into some perspective, the Sun caused a few raised hackles with their serialization of a paperback horror called Day of the Mad Dogs back in the late seventies, which they publicized with a none-too-subtle television advertising campaign that caused many tiny tots nightmares. This was the beginning of a morbid fascination with rabies that spanned the era, arguably culminating in the Mad Death - though the public information film, where a sweet old lady tries to smuggle a Siamese past a beady-eyed customs officer (Ben Aris of Hi-De-Hi! fame) - intercut with genuinely horrible documentary footage of a genuine rabies victim convulsing, accompanied by nerve-jangling synthesizer screeches, continued to air well into the nineties.
    The Mad Death's good stuff, it really is. Call it inept, call it scaremongering, but it's a product of its time, like Threads. It's got the slow build up, death-on-toast set pieces and the ambiguous finale of all those early James Herbert shockers, and that's good enough for me.

  2. You can now purchase The Mad Death from BBC's online store for download, either in three parts, or as the TV movie version (I assume that's what the standalone version is, anyway).

  3. Simply media releasing on DVD 07-05-2018