The Mad Death
BBC 1983
Episode 1
TX : 16th July 1983

Cast : Tom Siegler (Ed Bishop); Norma Siegler (Valerie Holliman); Andrew Dowie (Tom Watson); Ward sister (Mary Ann Reid); Resident (Martin Black); Registrar (David Ashton); Staff Nurse (Fiona Knowles); West Indian nurse (Eva Louise); African doctor (Olu Jacobs); Fergus (Jack McKenzie); Bibi (Marianne Lawrence); Siegler's secretary (Vivienne Dixon); Chief Superintendent (Walter Carr); George (David Anderson); Party guests (Ian Halliburton, Janice Browning); Susan Hilliard (Kelsey Quayle); Simon Hilliard (Brian Kilmartin).

Publicity :
A rich French lady, soppy about her cat, smuggles it into Scotland when she's invited there for an extended holiday. But the cat had previously tangled with a fox. And the fox is the great European carrier of that dreaded disease, rabies. Such is the ominous situation of The Mad Death, loosely based by Sean Hignett on a novel by Nigel Slater. When Sean wrote the script he was aware of the need to provide entertainment in the form of a thriller and to inform the public, which takes disease less seriously than it should. In realising this story on film there is more than just a touch of Hitchcockian horror in the way cuddly domestic animals are transformed by the demon seed into beasts touched by evil but the film-makers have gone to great lengths to ensure accuracy and naturalism. Both medical and veterinary advisors were at hand throughout the filming and in the research stage of scripting the writer had the full co-operation of the Ministry of Agriculture. Naturally there are many scenes involving what appear to be diseased and berserk animals, all filmed under strict vetinary supervision and with all animals under the control of their owners at all times. Working on this project for several months had had a lasting effect on Sean Hignett. He avoids stray dogs like the plague. (Radio Times article).

Synopsis : When a pet cat, affected by rabies is smuggled into Britain, the spread of the disease among the animal population goes undetected - until the first human falls victim to the terrible Mad Death.

Notes : Richard Heffer was a familiar face on British television in the late 1970s and early 1980s, having notched up appearances as a semi-regular character in Colditz, Survivors and Dixon of Dock Green. He was one of the leads in the Guernsey-set World War Two series Enemy at the Door, and later appeared in the first season of the sit-com Don't Wait Up.

· American actor Ed Bishop appeared in countless British television series right up until his death in 2005, but was probably best known for his role as Ed Straker in U.F.O. and for appearing in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

· Barbara Kellerman had appeared in Space: 1999, the 1979 Thames Quatermass series, The Professionals and Hammer House of Horror, but her most famous television role was as The White Witch in the late 1980's BBC adaptations of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair.

· Richard Morant would appear as children's television hero Captain Zep in its second season.

· Brenda Bruce's acting career began in 1938, and she continued in the business in a variety of roles until just before her death in 1996.

· Writer Sean Hignett had earlier worked on The Borderers, Crown Court, Emmerdale Farm and The Omega Factor.

· Director Robert Young went on to direct feature films such as Splitting Heirs, Fierce Creatures and Captain Jack, as well as directing episodes of Robin of Sherwood, G.B.H., The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and the relaunched version of Battlestar Galactica.

Episode 2
TX : 23rd July 1983

Cast : Gamekeeper (Bob Docherty); Greyhound trainer (Jackie Farrell); Vet at kennels (Bill Dennistoun); Vet at dog pound (John Shedden); Police sergeant at dog pound (Michael Elder); Police sergeant at stables (Paul Kermack); Vet at Home Farm (Bruce McKenzie); Hospital registrar (Finlay Welsh); Police Superintendent (Arthur Boland); Police sergeant at shopping centre (Martin Muchan); Billy (Jamie Rutherford); Billy's father (James Kennedy); First TV reporter (Margo Croan); Second TV reporter (Sheila Duffy); Switchboard operator (Dorothy Paul).

Synopsis : Hilliard moves quickly to contain the rabies outbreak inside the Infected Area while Anne desperately attempts to trace the source of the virus in order to save others the agonising death she has seen one of the victims suffer. Then another case is reported outside the Infected Area.

Episode 3
TX : 30th July 1983

Cast : Colonel (Alec Heggie); Gamekeeper (Bob Docherty); Fergus (Jack McKenzie); Bibi (Marianne Lawrence); Army sergeant (Peter Finlay).

Synopsis : A deliberate act of sabotage jeopardises the containment of the rabies outbreak. Hilliard's life is threatened as he attempts to control the new danger, and Anne's human concern leads her into terrifying danger.

The Radio Times printed the following letters (Issue dated 20-26 August 1983) following transmission of The Mad Death:

"I would like to congratulate the BBC for the serial The Mad Death (16-30 July BBC1), which I found to be totally compelling and terrifyingly realistic. Perhaps those who complain about our quarantine restriction will now be better informed as to what all the fuss is about, and some that might have been tempted to break them may now think again. I wonder whether the government would consider purchasing the film to show to future offenders as part of their sentence?" Martyn Samphier, Poole, Dorset

"Congratulations on the showing of The Mad Death - I am convinced that most people simply do not know the facts about rabies of the possible ghastly consequences of smuggling animals into the country from abroad. My only criticism was that the old lady (played brilliantly by Brenda Bruce) was over-dramatised and hence lost credulity. Otherwise it was a serial which brought out fully the very real horrors of the situation - and what a brilliant ending! I rescued a cat who smuggled himself into this country in a crate of aircraft spares from New York. The quarantine period was hard on him and sad for me, but he came through in good shape and has settled well. I wonder whether misguided sentimentality on the part of animal owners makes them wish to avoid the six months' separation from their pets? Maybe The Mad Death will make them realise that it is not just government red tape but a real necessity for the good of animals and people together."
(Mrs) Avril Norton, Kendal, Cumbria

"I am writing to express my bewilderment at the recent drama The Mad Death. I had always imagined rabies to be a dread disease, and wondered whether some scenes might be though too harrowing to be screened. The opening credits reinforced this notion, as did the special effects for the death of the first unfortunate human victim. It was pity that his high standard could not be maintained in the final two episodes. Instead, the drama degenerated into a rural Britain 'spaghetti western', with a gun-toting sheriff (the vet) blasting away at everything that moved on the scientifically researched assumption that if it had four legs it was bad. Meanwhile the girl (highly-qualified doctor) went wandering off on her own into Indian territory, armed only with a hypodermic with which to inoculate silly old women. Surprise, surprise! The girl gets captured by the Indians, and narrowly escaping a fate worse than death rushes out into the arms of the sheriff. It was just as well her husband was there too, or the sheriff might have got the girl and we have had the obligatory sunset scene in the last reel. I don't believe that this sort of junk is going to educate people about the dangers of illegally imported animals. On the other hand, if this is supposed to be the way that Figures in Authority carry on when dealing with a crisis, I hope for all our sakes that there never is a rabies outbreak in this country." P.J. Finn, Cockpole Green, Berkshire

"Why was a German Shepherd Dog used as a rabid dog? The breed has a bad enough name as it is, and people that know nothing f it will have something more to complain about. Whenever a vicious dog is needed in a programme a German Shepherd is nearly always used; to me, who have had three of the breed, it seems most unfair." (Mrs) Jean Shipman, Northampton

Portrayed By
Michael Hilliard
Richard Heffer
Dr Ann Maitland
Barbara Kellerman
Johnny Dalry
Richard Morant
Jane Stoddard
Debbi Blythe
Miss Stonecroft
Brenda Bruce
Bill Stanton
Jimmy Logan
Bob Nichol
Paul Brooke
James Galbraith
Leon Sinden

The series was written by Sean Hignett based on the novel by Nigel Slater, directed by Robert Young and produced by Bob McIntosh. The series was designed by Bob Smart and the music was composed by Philip Sawyer.

In 1983, the idea of rabies arriving in Britain was investigated in the three-part BBC Scotland production, The Mad Death. Scripted by writer Sean Hignett from Nigel Slater's novel of the same name, The Mad Death concerned itself with the contagious rabies virus being introduced into the country through a smuggled pet. Hignett was well placed to script a series concentrating on an outbreak of a disease in the countryside, having earlier scripted episodes of Emmerdale Farm, and having worked for BBC Scotland previously on The Omega Factor.

The tale opens in France, with the countryside near Paris providing the starting point for the outbreak. A rabid fox attacks a domestic cat that is soon introduced into Britain by a foolish woman who is not prepared to put it through quarantine. The disease quickly spreads and it is not long until it is transmitted to humans. The authorities have to act swiftly and appoint an expert as the head of the team that is set the task of bringing the outbreak under control, as well as recruiting a press officer to control what the public is able to know about the situation. An experiences 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 round 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 Miss Stonecroft deliberately releases sixty-two dogs from incarceration, the army is called in 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 soon pour in about the new policy, with Hilliard being a specific target for abuse.

Other than from the effect of rabies on humans, many of the scenes in The Mad Death are quite unpleasant. The most unsettling images are shown only briefly though: for instance, we see a fox eating a cat, a young girl being bitten on the face by an Alsatian and a pet dog being shot by its owner. Another example of unpleasantness comes when a solider driving an army truck is viciously set upon by a pack of the dogs. Less successful is the use of 'stunt' foxes in the production. The dummy foxes are used sparingly and while they aren't exactly cuddly toys, their fake nature is difficult for director Young to disguise. Much better is the use of the live dogs: lots are used in an attempt to portray the wildness and savagery that ensues following the initial infection. Despite being fully trained, the dogs come across very well.

The scene in which a family are cornered in the car park of a shopping centre by an Alsatian works particularly well, and it is only due to Hilliard and his rifle that they are saved. The Mad Death feels very middle class though - most of the principal characters are well-to-do official types, and the token villain of the piece, Dalry, is the all tweed and flat cap lord of the manor of the area of Scotland in which the main part of the series is set. At three episodes the series does occasionally feel a slightly leaden, with the pace flagging a little 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. 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, by holding Dr Maitland hostage in her ramshackle home.

Following its initial showing the series was repeated on BBC1 from 14-28 June 1985, and while it was released in an edited version on VHS in the 1980s, it has yet to make an appearance on DVD. UK Gold broadcast the show in its early years of transmission, but for most people The Mad Death remains something of a forgotten show.

Text © Chris Orton, 2006.
Special thanks to Ian Beard for providing the Radio Times material.