To anyone who was not around at the time, it’s hard to describe just how prominent a cultural and political issue the threat of rabies was in Britain in the 1970s and early 1980s. At ports and airports, garish posters barked warnings about the risks of the illegal importation of pets; while lurid Public Information Films spelt out the fatal consequences of a rabies’ bite. In popular culture, a wave of pulp paperbacks imagined the gruesome consequences of a rabies epidemic engulfing the UK.
Government records released in the last few years reveal that, at the time, the authorities assumed that rabies would indeed soon breach the English Channel. Broadcast in 1983, the three-part BBC Scotland drama The Mad Death picked up on the rabies zeitgeist, dramatizing the arrival of the disease in rural Scotland, after a tourist foolishly sneaks their beloved (and infected) pet through customs, after which it becomes ‘patient zero’ in a localised pandemic that affects domestic, farm and wild animals.
Although Ed Bishop is dependably fantastic in the role of a doomed (and none too bright) American businessman, as is Barbara Kellerman, as a motivated and passionate scientist, it is Richard Heffer who owns the series in the role of Michael Hilliard, an irascible and opinionated senior veterinarian who is given carte-blanche to deal with the crisis.
As it tracks the authorities’ response to the spread of rabies, the series combines well-realized action and adventure set-pieces with a recurring, and classically gothic, interlude set in a suitably spooky old country manor. Amidst the stuffed animals and dust, the lady of the house Miss Stonecroft (a fabulously unhinged turn by Brenda Bruce) looks after countless cats and dogs, is oblivious to rabies’ risk and reluctant to limit her charges’ freedom. It’s a great complement to the main storyline.
Amidst the savage canines and rabid delirium, Sean Hignett’s screen adaptation of Nigel Slater’s novel also makes time to focus on some very human dynamics, including the repercussions of Hilliard’s on-off affair with Kellerman’s Anne Maitland, and his conflicts with almost every other authority figure (and quite a few ordinary folk too). Director Robert Young depicts the infected’s descent into a full-blown rabid state with some impressively deranged visuals. But he is in his element with the meticulously planned action sequences, and marshals an impressive array of resources for a finale that has a genuine sense of on-screen scale.
From the musical soundtrack to the on-screen fashions (Kellerman is given some doozy in-the-field outfits) to the tempo of the editing, The Mad Death screams that it is a mini-series from the eighties. But that reflects not how ‘outdated’ it is, but how well the drama reflected the times in which it was made. This series remains gripping, thought-provoking, unsettling and disturbing; an overdue release from the TV archives from an era when the BBC made more shows that deserved those kinds of adjectives. The Mad Death is drama with real bite.
THE MAD DEATH (1983) / CERTIFICATE: 12 / DIRECTOR: ROBERT YOUNG / SCREENPLAY: SEAN HIGNETT / STARRING: RICHARD HEFFER, BARBARA KELLERMAN, RICHARD MORANT, ED BISHOP, BRENDA BRUCE / RELEASE DATE: MAY 7TH