The great thing about trawling through old British telly is there’s always something new to discover. Some long forgotten programme you’ve been completely unware of. The not so great thing about trawling through old British telly is there’s often a reason these programmes have been long forgotten.
So when Simply Media announced the latest batch of programmes that they’d wrestled from BBC Worldwide because they’re too busy ballsing up Doctor Who calendars to release archive BBC TV, my eyes lit up on the description of The Mad Death as “one of the most bleak and disturbing drama series ever attempted.”
A three part drama depicting a rabies outbreak in the UK (well, a bit of Scotland)? That does sound pretty grim. It’ll probably be like Threads with fewer laughs, or at least without the bonus comedy value of that pissing woman gif. A story that turns the British public’s love of animals into a threat to its very survival. This should indeed be gripping, bleak and terrifying.
Broadcast the summer of 1983, The Mad Death is based on a book by Nigel Slater (I’m assuming not *that* Nigel Slater. Surely you can’t eat rabid animals?) and directed by Robert Young, who cut his teeth on Vampire Circus (1972) and via a lot of 80s telly would go on to helm such films as Splitting Heirs (1993) and Fierce Creatures (1994).
We begin in that graveyard of British ambition, the French countryside. A woman (Marianne Lawrence) is off to the UK in the morning and plans to ignore quarantine rules and smuggle her cat in with her because she’s awful. The cat slips out for a bit and gets attacked by a rabid fox. A tough gig this, shooting both a real fox and a real cat, but lots of close angles and cutaways do a decent enough job. Nevertheless the take home from this appears to be that France is literally crawling with infected animals.
This drama was made in part to capitalise on the high profile of rabies in the UK during the 1980s. A public information campaign had highlighted the dangers of importing dogs and cats. But British hysteria concerning rabies has its origins in various outbreaks in northern industrial England against the backdrop of the growth of pet ownership during the nineteenth century. In Britain today anxieties over the ownership of pit-bull terriers and the attitudes to fox hunters show that class conflict underpins much of this concern. As rabies was eliminated in the UK any subsequent revival would suggest it would be brought in from ‘overseas’, and this fear was one of the objections to the building of the channel tunnel. The early 80s were also a time that AIDS was first entering public consciousness, and rabies provided an additional excuse to let misunderstanding fuel prejudice and paranoia. In short: everything bad that happens is the fault of the French.
We’re introduced to all the main characters fairly early on, rugged vet and research scientist Michael Hilliard (Richard Heffer), attractive public health official Anne Maitland (Barbara Kellerman, not long out of Euston Film’s Quatermass), her posh twat of a boyfriend Johnny Dalry (Richard Morant) and animal loving eccentric Miss Stonecroft (Brenda Bruce). But the bulk of the first episode concentrates on the first human victim, Tom Siegler (Ed ‘UFO’ Bishop). Tom’s an American businessman living in Scotland and appears to be a hard drinking womanising arsehole who nevertheless encounters a sick fox and decides to take it home with him.
Now like Ed I’m not expecting that any sick animal I encounter has rabies but who in their right mind picks a wild fox up, sticks it in their car and takes it home with them? Particularly when it’s clearly not well. Slick Scotland based American businessmen apparently. This caught me unawares. I was expecting some crudely drawn animal rights activists to unwittingly unleash the disease, in the way that in Thatcher’s Britain so much activism is shown to be self-destructive and that you need a strong state machine to save people from themselves. And it’s to The Mad Death’s credit that it doesn’t really go in that direction, there’s Bruce’s mad cat lady but it’s not quite the same thing.
There are two memorable sequences in the first episode. One, Sigeler under siege in his car from the rabid fox where unfortunately the choice of prop suggests he’s being harassed by a deranged puppeteer.
By contrast, the second sequence, the hallucinatory, hydrophobic nightmares as he lies dying in hospital are rather intense.
The rest of the story concerns the efforts to contain the outbreak, but again we run into problems of tone. The laboratory scenes are wisely subordinated in favour of dramatic set pieces – and the deserted shopping centre and countryside shootings suggest Robert Young was influenced by Romero’s zombie films – but if you’re expecting something akin to Terry Nation’s Survivors, Threads or Day of the Triffids you’re going to be a little disappointed.
A lot of this has to do with scale, you don’t really get a sense of how many people are affected and the measures put in place (muzzling dogs, keeping them on leads when they go outside) don’t seem all that harsh. Even if people flout the rules, they’re told their pets will be impounded rather than destroyed. It’s not exactly being shot by a traffic warden. Also aren’t there livestock in the infected area?
Instead we get a rather dull love triangle between Hillard, Maitland and Daltry which results in a horse getting gratuitously shot and it’s about then you decide that you probably hate all three lead characters equally. Paul Brooke’s affable Bob Nicol is introduced seemingly so we have at least one character that the viewer doesn’t despise but he doesn’t really have enough to do.
The climax goes for full on gothic horror with crazy animal lover Stonecroft locking Maitland in a cold, dank room with a load of cats. It’s atmospherically shot even if the cats don’t seem particularly threatening. Yet it drags the production still further away from the brutal reality of a contemporary drama into somewhere a little more fantastical. Still, Brenda Bruce pitches her performance well, threatening yet never unbelievable.
There are several excellent set pieces and some decent camera work but The Mad Death is an uneven piece that doesn’t always seem sure of the story it’s trying to tell. I came at it expecting grim and gripping bleakness and instead got posh people and puppets being cross with each other, which makes this all rather a wasted opportunity.