❉ If you are naturally afraid of the water, or of dogs, or losing your beloved pet, this is not a serial for you.
The recent heatwave which struck parts of Britain in April brought back to me the words of a wise philosopher who once observed that only mad dogs and Englishmen come out in the midday sun. The makers of BBC1’s 1983 shock-horror serial The Mad Death were based in Scotland, who are said not to have much sun. BBC Scotland put their cast – who were sourced from around the British isles – to suffer madness for their art. One of the famous symptoms of rabies is an absolute terror of water, and we see this demonstrated in a hydrophobically disorientating manner. The victim feels as if he is drowning in a dry room. Very Doctor Who. If you are naturally afraid of the water, or of dogs, or losing your beloved pet, this is not a serial for you. For everyone else, it is a pleasing slice of high standard television drama, the kind of which you expected as a given back then, which ever channel.
The Mad Death was based on a novel by Nigel Slater, and made an impact during its three week run in 1983. Entirely shot on film, presumably all on location, it features a wide scope of location and was a sign of things to come, moving away from the traditional theatre-based productions which barely ventured out of the television studio (I’m looking at you The Cleopatras, also in 1983).
The Mad Death featured in any respectable list of sci-fi/drama video collectors operating during the early 1990s. It was usually lower down the list, nestling besides such wants as science fiction/end of the world type offerings the BBC had been recently presenting – Day of the Triffids (1981), Threads (1984) or The Nightmare Man, (1981). Thanks to video recorders becoming more popular, recordings of these productions, including The Mad Death were much easier to track down than, say, a watchable copy of 1977 Survivors, where rabies featured in one of its more memorable episodes. That 1977 episode was called Mad Dog.
There comes a time in any review of The Mad Death where one has to make obligatory references to either Mad Dog or the worthy but downright dull episode of Doomwatch (1971) which dealt with rabies. Whereas the former featured veteran actor Morris Perry transform from wise sage to foam spitting animal, running around the snowy peaks of Derbyshire like a modern style zombie, Doomwatch featured an inquest into why a little girl should die from the disease. Was it something that looked like rabies, cooked up in a laboratory….? No, it was boring old rabies. Rabies would have made for an interesting episode of All Creatures Great and Small, where the worst thing that ever happened was the occasional outbreak of foot and mouth, or Tricky-Woo’s flop bot. The words to the hymn are whispered by a child during the memorable title sequence of The Mad Death, a rippling reflection of a fox.
Rabies is a particularly frightening disease since it is the closest you will get into transforming into a monster without first killing a werewolf, or at least, that is how television drama likes to present it. The Mad Death shows the horrible reality and graphically. That you die in a horrible manner is hammered home to us kids from an early age and helps reinforce the idea how safe we are as an island people because this nasty disease is FOREIGN! Worse, they have it in France. Well, says it all, naturally. Rabies was one reason put forward why we should not join the European Common Market. One Conservative MP (naturally) said in 1971: ‘I’m serious,’ he claimed amidst the laughter. Europe would force us to remove our quarantine laws and we would be knee deep in foam speckled beasts. The same was predicted for the Channel Tunnel before it was opened in the 1990s.
France appears to be where the infection in the serial begins. A house bound cat is infected by a fox, and is smuggled past customs and into the countryside where it meets the locals, infects a fox, who in turn infects our first victim. Rabies has a long incubation period before it noticeably affects you, slowly and terribly. We are spared no detail. The make-up department must have had some vivid dreams in the course of their research.
The Mad Death is quite instructive in how an outbreak would be handled. Our dogs would be mussled for a start, not allowed contact with strays, nor wander freely. Poisoned bait would be left for infected – or any wild animals which may transmit the disease. Ironically, fox hunters would not be allowed to chase the little blighters across the countryside as their dogs may well end up slightly mad themselves. A cull within an infected zone is inevitable and is handled here quite bluntly with help from the army.
The Mad Death is not just about detection and prevention of a rabies outbreak, but this human thing, our relationship with our pets and animals in general. Sometimes that can lead to irrational acts, especially if we prefer our friends to be four legged rather than the two our species possess. The quarantine laws have frequently been regarded as cruel. We do not want to lock up our beloved Tricky Woos for six months in a cage just to make sure it isn’t a licking time bomb.
Naturally, that love can be put to the test when a pet turns on our second favourite preoccupation, little children. Beware. An example is seen in the story. Acts of kindness towards sick animals goes rewarded with bites and death, infected foxes are temporarily docile and approachable. All good fun. Until you end up in an oxygen tent with pipes coming out of your throat, pale-faced and froth lipped.
The cast features familiar faces from the time, including Richard Heffer, Barbara Kellerman, Ed Bishop and Brenda Bruce. That it is made by BBC Scotland does lend it a nice change of air – the scenery in the hunts in the last episode are in the misty mountains. Watch it, but just keep your dog outside of your room. Just to be on the safe side. That froth you see… It might just have started shaving…
❉ The Mad Death (DVD) is released on DVD by Simply Media on 7th May 2018. Run Time: 3 hours. Discs: 1. Click here to pre-order! Apply the discount code CULT10 at checkout to get 10% off.