Beware The Savage Jaw: ‘The Mad Death’

❉ Chris Orton looks back on the BBC drama about a rabies epidemic in Britain.

Above: UK Gold trailer.

In 1983, the idea of rabies arriving in Britain was investigated in the three-part BBC Scotland production, The Mad Death. Rather like the ever-present threat of nuclear Armageddon, rabies was once a huge concern in our island, with gruesome posters warning against the disease a familiar sight in the waiting rooms of surgeries in and other public buildings, along with the ubiquitous ‘Never Say Yes to a Cigarette’ anti-smoking posters, featuring Superman and his nemesis Nick O’ Teen.

Scripted by writer Sean Hignett from Nigel Slater’s novel of the same name, The Mad Death concerned itself with the contagious virus being introduced into the country through a smuggled pet. Hignett was well placed to write a series concentrating on an outbreak of a disease in the countryside, having earlier penned episodes of Emmerdale Farm, and having worked for BBC Scotland previously on The Omega Factor. In addition to providing an entertaining thriller, a driving factor in Hignett’s writing was the desire to educate the public of the dangers of rabies, a disease that people tended to be complacent. The public didn’t realise the range of animals that could be affected, and were even told that even their fluffy family pet could become a savage, foaming-from-the-mouth killer! Rabies was a big deal for the authorities even before we were connected to the continent via the Channel Tunnel, and quarantine was a routine procedure for anyone wishing to bring an animal into the country.

The tale opens in France, with the countryside near Paris providing the starting point for the outbreak. A rabid fox attacks a domestic cat. The feline is soon introduced into Britain by a foolish rich woman who is not prepared to put it through quarantine, and believes herself to be above the law. The disease quickly spreads and it isn’t long before it is transmitted to humans. The authorities have to act swiftly and soon appoint an expert as the head of the team that is set the difficult task of bringing the outbreak under control. Another vital procedure is to recruit a press officer to control what the public is allowed to know about the situation.

An experienced vet, Michael Hilliard, is brought in to take charge and he soon makes his presence felt. He has had first-hand knowledge and experience of rabies from a spell working on the continent and knows that no time can be wasted. Hilliard’s methods in dealing with things appear extreme: pets are rounded up and vaccinated whether their owners want it or not, while packs of wild dogs are hunted across the Scottish countryside from a helicopter vantage point.

Later, after the unhinged animal rights supporter Miss Stonecroft deliberately releases sixty-two dogs from incarceration the army is drafted in even greater numbers to try to deal with the situation. Hilliard issues the order that, “all animals [are] to be shot on sight”, much to the displeasure of the British public. Letters of complaint from this nation of animal lovers soon pour in about the new policy, with Hilliard being a specific target for vilification and abuse.

The token villain of the piece, Dalry, is an all-tweed-and-flat-cap lord of the manor. (Photo: BBC)

As well as scenes showing the effect of rabies on humans, many others in the programme are quite unpleasant. The most unsettling images are shown only briefly though: for instance, at one point we see a fox eating a cat, another time we are shown a young girl being bitten on the face by a German Shepherd, a pet dog which is ultimately shot by its owner. Another example of unpleasantness comes when a soldier driving an army truck is viciously set upon by a pack of the dogs ­­– some of this is pretty gruesome stuff for a show that was shown on Saturday evenings. Less successful, perhaps, is the use of ‘stunt’ foxes in the production. Use of the dummy creatures is kept to a minimum and whilst they aren’t exactly cuddly toys, their fake nature is difficult for director Young to disguise. Television seemed to have something of an Achilles heel when it came to creating realistic fake animals in the early days of special effects.

Use of the live dogs is much better: lots of them are employed in an attempt to portray the wildness and savagery that ensues following the initial infection. Despite being fully trained, the dogs come across as ‘mad’ very well, certainly much more successfully than the ones employed at various points in the similarly post-apocalyptic series Survivors, where in one story we got to see a pack of vicious dogs that looked like they were just ready to go on a nice walk. One scene in which a family is cornered in the car park of a shopping centre by an Alsatian works particularly well, and it is only due to Hilliard arriving with his rifle that they are saved.

Like so much television of the time, The Mad Death feels very middle class – most of the principal characters are well-to-do official types, and there seems to be something of a class bias at work. The token villain of the piece, Dalry, however, is the all-tweed-and-flat-cap lord of the manor in the area of Scotland in which the main part of the series is set, which does make something of a change from having a working-class commoner be the baddie.

Despite being only three episodes in length the series does occasionally feel a slightly leaden with the pace flagging slightly at times. The main characters are all well played, with the lead actor Richard Heffer being particularly good, while Richard Morant does a good job of playing a cad. Heffer is something of a forgotten figure now, but he was a familiar face on British television at this period: he’d been one of the main stars of Colditz, a regular on the latter episodes of Dixon on Dock Green, a lead in Enemy at the Door and had taken the part of Jimmy Garland in Survivors.

A note of praise should also go to Brenda Bruce for her portrayal of an utterly crackers old dear who attempts to resist her pets being taken away, and unwittingly helps to disseminate the disease. Driven by the love of her pets her character goes to the extreme of holding Dr Maitland hostage in her ramshackle home.

Ed Bishop, regularly deployed in British drama as the token American, also does a good turn in the role of the doomed role of businessman Tom Siegler who we see suffering the clearest from the effects of rabies. He is the first person to be infected and we are shown the clear progression of the disease with all of its unpleasant symptoms played out.

Letters of both complaint and praise for the show poured into the Radio Times, with the issue of quarantine being uppermost in the minds of the viewing public, with one correspondent even suggesting that the government buy the series to show to prisoners convicted of smuggling animals! Another writer complained about credibility being lost as the series went on, describing it as ‘a rural Britain spaghetti western’. Someone’s chief concern was the fact that a German Shepherd dog was unfairly maligned as the carrier of the disease.

Above: Trailers and continuity from the June 1985 repeat broadcast.

Following its initial showing the series in the summer of 1983, the series was repeated on BBC1 two years later in June 1985. An edited version was released on VHS in the 1980s, but the show has yet to make an appearance on DVD.

Unfortunately, the show didn’t provide the springboard for further television success for Hignett, as it seems that he only provided a few scripts for Scottish soap Take the High Road afterwards. UK Gold broadcast the programme in its early years of transmission, but for most people this remains something of a forgotten curio. It did became available to buy for the public on the recently defunct BBC Store, but now that opportunity has been denied to anybody wanting to see what all of the fuss was about..


Chris Orton occasionally writes odds and sods, including co-authoring books on Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who for Miwk Publishing. He can be found on Twitter at @chrisorton2011

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