My notes on the BBC rabies serial The Mad Death, out now from Simply Media.The three-part BBC miniseries, scripted by Sean Hignett (from a novel by Nigel Slater) and directed by the underrated Robert Young (Vampire Circus), arrives in A welcome, if no-frills DVD release from Simply Media. A rabies outbreak in Scotland begins with a French flibbertigibbet (Marianne Lawrence) smuggling her ailing siamese cat through Glasgow airport zipped into a secret pouch in her fur coat. The approach is somewhere between the sober, factual scarifying docudramas the BBC has done about nuclear attack (The War Game, Threads) and other catastrophes (Smallpox 2002, A Dirty War) and the blood-and-thunder melodrama of such well-remembered UK-TV s-f/horror hybrids as Quatermass, Survivors, Doom Watch, Doctor Who and The Day of the Triffids. Presumably Slater and/or Hignett researched measures likely to be put in place in the event of an actual rabies outbreak (a scientific advisor gets a credit), but The Mad Death is entertainingly more concerned with delirious exaggeration of certain tendencies of British television and the national character to create scenes of horror and panic as the crisis is exacerbated by irresponsible, adulterous uppercrust characters who assume the regulations don’t apply to them and manic animal-lovers who persistently thwart sensible measures.
Combat-jacketed vet Michael Hilliard (Richard Heffer, who had memorably guest-starred in Survivors) is dragooned by a cigar-puffing Minister (Jimmy Logan) to take charge in the crisis. He makes himself unpopular with the letter-writing public by having all pets inside the infected area impounded and chained. In a strange scene, he lectures creepily silent drinkers (presumably if they spoke the actors would be paid more, but they’re eerier without dialogue) who let their ferrets run about on the table in a pub, and is pinned down as an old lady shoves ferret at his face. Hilliard also shoots dead a valuable horse owned by aristo Johnny Dalry (Richard Morant), who resents his romantic and professional overtures to Anne Maitland (Barbara Kellerman, fresh from Quatermass), who is also on the rabies-fighting team. Episode One concentrates on the first fatality, an American businessman (Ed Bishop, of UFO) who unwisely brings home a stricken fox (in an early stage of the disease animals are docile and approachable) and gets bitten. Young stages vividly weird hallucinations in the hospital, ranging from whirlpools in water-jugs to drowning in bed to an erotic reverie (gold-painted belly-buttons are a thing, apparently) with wife and mistress and nurses.
Some time is spent on forensic science and disease vectors, as the connection between the various infected folks is sleuthed out, but this is more interested in effective, well-staged suspense situations: a rabid dog stalking an evacuated shopping mall (with a nuisance ‘joe public’ family stupidly lingering after the panic button has been pushed), Anne locked in a dark room with rabid cats by insane animal-lover Miss Stonecroft (Brenda Bruce) who has freed all the doggies in the pound (a similar, if not quite as demented character appears in the Doom Watch rabies episode ‘The Inquest’). The budget stretches to a helicopter for the Episode Three extermination sequences, with the army and volunteers moving in to shoot strays (images here echo George Romero’s Living Dead films). Hilliard is told he’ll have ‘more power than Hitler’ inside the disaster zone, but can’t get even his most reasonable orders obeyed. Considering this was made when Margaret Thatcher was in power and the apparatus of the state was turned out against anyone who complained about anything, this woolly streak rings false, especially when set against the summary-execution-by-traffic-warden business of the near-contemporary Threads. After mad cow disease and foot and mouth, which both involved piles of burning cattle corpses and extreme restrictions on the movements of people and animals, the supposedly draconian measures taken by the authorities here seem fairly mild: pets are initially penned rather than executed out of hand, there’s no talk of farmers who want compensation for their sacrificed livestock (a dodgy greyhound breeder tries to get an old crock put down so he can fiddle an insurance claim).
It has some entertaining ‘1983’ elements, though given the circumstances the hideous fashion for tucking jeans inside clumping boots probably makes sense. The climax, with the two armed alpha males clashing in the woods while Miss Stonecroft goes full-on gothic harridan and tries to train captured Anne by ‘putting her in the naughty box’, delivers the sort of nerve-stretching suspense British genre TV was so good at when it didn’t have to rush through everything in 42 minutes. The episodes all end with unnerving freeze-frames – the third stretching to the ‘it’s not over yet’ ending seen on 98% of all post-1968 terror-by-mad-animal movie or TV show.