Cast: Richard Heffer, Barbara Kellerman, and Ed Bishop
Director: Robert Young
180 minutes (12) 1983
Simply Media DVD Region 2
[Released 7th May]
Review by J.C. Hartley
A long, long, time ago in front of a television set faraway, I saw a film in which one of the characters contracted rabies. He was held fast by a couple of guys while a third, possibly the hero, performed some tests. This involved bashing two bits of metal together to make a loud noise, while the poor unfortunate howled in pain. Then the hero poured out a jug of water in front of the man’s face and he behaved as if terrified. I was watching the film with my elder sister and she must have known about hydrophobia because I can remember her explaining this to me. After a little bit of googling and I’ve decided the film must have been Rage (1966), starring Glenn Ford, and, given the rules for the release of films for TV broadcast in those days, I must have seen it around 1970. Apparently, you can survive rabies if inoculated within six days, although the virus is generally considered 100% fatal, so Ford’s character might have survived. I had most of my early education from movies in those days.
I was always a dog lover up until I started working for Royal Mail. I was bitten by a dog at the end of my first week delivering solo. Even that experience didn’t put me off, that took another year or so. My all-time worst experience was on a housing estate, being harried by a pack of dogs some of which were no bigger than the average carpet slipper. I crossed the road to where the dog warden sat in his van, to ask if he wanted to get involved. “There’s nowt we can do lad,” he said. The following week on another housing estate I was stalked every day by a huge Boxer dog, the sound of claws on a pavement is particularly unnerving to postmen. These dogs were obviously just let out for the day to roam around. Finally, I was cornered by two Alsatian puppies, puppies but well-grown. By this time, I had completely lost my nerve. I yelled at them to “Fuck off!” and happily they did, thereby triggering the instant re-growth of my cojones, and I was never scared of dogs again. This story is designed to show why I could watch the slaughter of canines in The Mad Death with equanimity. I always felt that postmen should be issued with handguns, but they don’t call it going postal for nothing.
The Mad Death was filmed by BBC Scotland in 1981, and broadcast in 1983, did the renewed talk about the Channel Tunnel make it topical? The opening credit sequence with soupy visuals, a child-like voice intoning ‘All things bright and beautiful’, and wavery images of foxes, reminded me of the opening of the BBC’s later excellent adaptation of John Masefield’s The Box Of Delights in 1984.
Michu, a Siamese cat, is attacked by a fox in France. The female owner smuggles her cat into Britain. At a party, the cat has a fight with the householder’s Collie, scratching it on the nose, before running off where it is run over by an arriving guest’s car. A fox then consumes the road-kill, and so it begins. There’s a nice circular narrative to this short, three-episode series, the opening scenes are a little bit confusing, introducing characters seemingly at random, but things soon settle down. A middle-aged woman, Miss Stonecroft (Brenda Bruce), lets her dogs out of her van to run about on a shore. A young girl teases one of the dogs with a stick and receives a nip for her pains, but fortunately Dr Ann Maitland (Barbara Kellerman) is on hand to administer first-aid. It becomes clear that she knows the child’s father, Michael Hilliard (Richard Heffer), whether they have arranged to meet here is unclear. Both parties have partners, although Hilliard is obviously estranged from his daughters’ mother, and it becomes clear that they have at some point had a relationship with each other. Hilliard, a leading veterinary officer presumably with the Ministry of Agriculture, is due to take up a post with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in Brussels, however coming events will see that this appointment will be delayed.
Businessman Tom Siegler is juggling a wife, a mistress, and another possible girlfriend in the person of his secretary. Stopping his car to make a call from a rural phone-box he discovers a fox, quite placid and seemingly tame, he puts it in his car and takes it home to his wife. Siegler is played by the late great Ed Bishop, one of British television’s busy go-to American actors, whom I first encountered as Commander Straker in Gerry Anderson’s UFO (1970-3), although he had minor roles in a couple of Bond movies, and as the lunar shuttle pilot in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Siegler cuts his finger slicing a lemon for gin and tonics for himself and his wife, then infects the wound when petting the fox. The following morning, the rabid fox is in a state of rage and Siegler is forced to scare it away by driving his car at it. He visits his mistress Jane (Debbi Blythe) and bites her lip when kissing her. The following day he is unwell, and after crashing his car and suffering a concussion he is admitted to hospital. Experiencing frightening hallucinations involving drowning and erotic imagery he is kept in for observation. When his condition deteriorates, a West Indian nurse with experience of rabies recognises the symptoms. Dr Maitland is called in, but Siegler dies.
Hilliard is presented as a typical maverick with little time for authority. The government want him to take a lead role coordinating the response to the rabies outbreak as he has prior experience from working abroad. He initially refuses as he is eager to take up his new post, but the Minister Bill Stanton (Jimmy Logan) uses emotional blackmail to persuade him to stay, a second victim after Siegler is a young girl the same age as one of Hilliard’s daughters. The story then unfolds with the procedures brought in to control the outbreak, and some of the reactions from the animal-loving British public, as their domestic pets are forced to wear leashes and muzzles or are impounded and quarantined. Hilliard is provided with a press officer to oversee public relations, and he reads Hilliard the hate-mail that the vet is receiving. The press officer, Bob Nichol, is played by Paul Brooke, who memorably shed tears over Jabba the Hut’s Rancor beast after it was despatched by Luke Skywalker in The Return Of The Jedi (1983). Hilliard and Ann resume their affair fuelling the suspicions of Ann’s partner, the aristocratic Johnny Dalry (Richard Morant). Ann is ready to leave Dalry but she is reconciled with him when Hilliard orders a horse that Dalry has bought for her to be shot rather than quarantined.
It is discovered that reclusive Miss Stonecroft, reappearing after her early scene, collects stray dogs and provides a home for cats in her castle. As the place is inadequately secure the dogs are taken into quarantine. Miss Stonecroft subsequently visits the pound with a set of bolt-cutters and releases some 60 dogs, some of them infected with the virus, into the wild. This is the cue for a major operation involving the army, and police sharp-shooters, who scour the area of countryside where the pack of dogs have fled. Dr Maitland visits Miss Stonecroft but the disturbed woman traps her and imprisons her in a room with her ‘naughty’ cats, despite Ann suffering from ailurophobia.
Meanwhile, Hilliard, hunting for some dogs which have slipped through the army and police cordon, finds himself stalked by Dalry, as Ann has not returned home. Dalry assumed she was with Halliard, but the pair realise she must be at Miss Stonecroft’s castle. When Miss Stonecroft releases her rabid cat into the room where she has imprisoned Ann, the Doctor manages to capture the cat in her jacket, and when Miss Stonecroft opens the door to investigate the noise, Ann hurls the cat at her, whereupon it claws her face. Ann flees and is reunited with Halliard and Dalry. They enter the castle where Miss Stonecroft attempts to shield one of her rabid dogs which has returned home. The dog leaps at his mistress, and she falls from a landing and is killed, Hilliard shoots the dog.
Stanton sees Hilliard off at the airport to take up his new post. Stanton is glad that the crisis is over but Hilliard warns him that the incubation period of the virus means that there could be more cases. The woman whose actions precipitated the outbreak is seen preparing to return to France, being reassured by her male friend that her cat Michu might still turn up. Outside, Hilliard sees two children teasing a collie dog which is leaning out of the window of a parked car, the dog is snarling, it has a scratch down the side of its nose.
It’s interesting that these old TV series are being released. This one has hardly aged apart from some of the extraordinary outfits sported by Barbara Kellerman. It’s worth noting that, as with Doomwatch (1970-2), the central female character is portrayed as a strong and independent professional, and not just as eye-candy or a ‘screamer’. Kellerman was Clare Kapp in Quatermass (1979), and a memorable White Witch in BBC’s The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe (1988). This series obviously had a decent budget, there is a lot of location filming and the third episode featuring a literal army of extras and a helicopter must have cost a bit. Apart from a slight descent into melodrama at the end, with Miss Stonecroft reaping the retribution of her actions, the drama remains taut and gripping throughout. Would the great British public react so illogically now in the face of advice from ‘so-called experts’, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.