TV Cream

TV: M is for...

Mad Death, The

These days we’re treated to a new plague panic every six months, but in that blessed era that we’re forced to refer to, rather clumsily, as The LateSeventiesToTheEarlyEighties, there was just the one disease that met all your tabloid shit-stirring needs: Rabies! It was a perfect combination of two longstanding British obsessions: our furry friends, of course, who, please Lord no, could turn against us at any moment in the grip of Hydrophobic mania; and that perennial bugbear, the nefarious Common Market, from whence any incursion of canine dementia to our cosy little island was bound to originate. The spectre of four-legged doom loomed large, a two-headed likeness of Edward Heath and Barbara Woodhouse, with a side-order of those faceless nutters who were planning the Channel Tunnel. The mad fools! Don’t they realise what they’re doing?

And so it was that BBC Scotland dusted off a pulp paperback tale of the UK being swamped by foam flecked mutts, bolted on some spurious ‘public service’ factsheetery, stocked up on replica firearms and taxidermists’ castoffs, and hit the most picturesque filming locations the country had to offer (oh, and East Kilbride shopping centre) for a three-part thriller packed with rural fido-busting intrigue. The titles set both the bleak scene and the trite tone, as a spooked-up rendition of All Things Bright and Beautiful steadily fell out of tune to the menacing accompaniment of wobbly floating fox heads. Brr. It’s time for the squeamish, and indeed lovers of subtle drama, to go to bed.

The plot is as inexorable as it is corny. A pampered puss is smuggled into Scotland after losing a continental smackdown with a fox. That can’t be good. Soon enough the indigenous wildlife are affected, one of them taken in by bow-tied businessman ED BISHOP, who makes the fatal error of petting a stricken fox after suffering that most middle class of injuries, a cut finger while slicing lemons for the gin and tonic. Then, after a car-bound altercation with a puppet fox that no amount of rapid-fire editing can save, the hallucinating Bishop crashes into a combine harvester and ends up in intensive care, where he has a series of feverish water-based nightmares to a Yamaha DX7 soundtrack that sounds more hopelessly dated with every chord, before mercifully carking it.

But it doesn’t stop there, as, post-infection, the randy Ed had nibbled a chunk out of his secretary in the passionate throes of the first episode’s obligatory “something for the dads” saucy interlude. The virus is spreading, and it’s up to the singularly bland male and female scientific leads (helped and hindered by the ace PAUL BROOKE as a meddling government busybody) to help the army and a rag-bag of tooled-up volunteers to resist the inexorable march of the dribblesome pooch. The ensuing woodland cull of ketchup-filled papier mache hounds isn’t made any easier by a confused young girl on the loose, and BRENDA BRUCE as a sweet old animal loving dear who turns out to be off her rocker in a frankly most unhelpful way.

The serious intent behind the programme is clear enough (a phalanx of medical advisors were called in to give the script their twopenn’orth), and its mixture of sinister goings-on in a malevolent, terror-concealing countryside with bouts of impressionistically shot dog-on-human action (oh, do stop it, Aggers) are effective in a very “of their time and place” way, a sort of cross between a Public Information Film and an early James Herbert novel. But in between those bits, ponderous scene upon ponderous scene of men chatting expositorially on telephones builds up into a wall of boredom, and, as ever with this sort of “nationwide” drama, it’s impossible to give two hoots about any of the hazily sketched victims of the bitch-borne plague, though Bruce’s dotty turn is at least intentionally funny. But even the best production couldn’t have got over the bitty, characterless nature of this sort of story, to which a telly adaptation does absolutely no favours. It’s probably a mercy, then, that the disease panic genre began and ended here, meaning the follow up likes of The Herpes Factor and Day of the Dropsy spread no further than a commissioning editor’s in-tray.



  1. Lee James Turnock

    May 1, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    Still absolutely horrifying. Really. Especially for animal lovers. Chances of this being repeated – slim to zilch, I’d say. Directed by Robert Young, who went onto calmer (and unfunny) waters with Eric Idle’s ‘Splitting Heirs’.

  2. Glenn A

    July 18, 2010 at 9:15 pm

    A great series but a shame clips of it are so hard to come by on You Tube. You ought to follow up this feature with another BBC1 Scotland treat, The Nightmare Man, from 1981 about the Isle of Skye being terrorised by a werewolf figure who has links to the Soviet Union.

  3. Sleazy Martinez

    July 21, 2010 at 10:51 pm

    I am an animal lover, but me and my brother found this series incredibly funny, mainly due to how desperately inept it was.

    “Go home, Bob”

  4. ZX Spectrum Games

    July 23, 2010 at 11:54 am

    Well this series terrified me as a kid. I was only ten though.

    I had images of rabid foxes appearing in the back garden and mutant cats eating my eyes before breakfast.

    I’d love to see it again to see just how bad it really is.

  5. Neu 75

    July 25, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    It was probably crap, but is scared the shit out of me when I was a nipper…

  6. johnnyboy

    July 25, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    The fear of Rabies was a huge thing in Blighty back when this was shown, so what would’ve been a bit humdrum by any other standards really did hit the bone in scaring people shitless, me included. Of course, soon after it was shown we all tried to feed our beloved pooches with water foamed up with Fairy Liquid then getting the poor creature to run madly round the house, frightening granny. If I remember right, our labrador developed a taste for the soapy stuff and always afterwards seemed more alert when mum started the washing up.

  7. dom

    July 25, 2010 at 11:20 pm

    Someone at BBC Scotland obviously liked turning promising serials into dire love triangle dramas. The Mad Death & The Nightmare Man, both remembered as chilling tv are in fact nothing of the kind. The “Threads” of rabies, The Mad Death aint.

  8. David Pascoe

    July 26, 2010 at 9:04 pm

    There is, for those who those who are interested, a more serious write-up on The Mad Death at Off the Telly here:

  9. Gareth Evans

    July 28, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    I remember the weird, whispered version of All Things Bright and Beautiful during the opening credits. I’d probably be disappointed if I saw it now, but it did scare the life out of my 11 year old self.

  10. Glenn A

    July 31, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    It was largely filmed on location so won’t have aged as much as some of the studio bound series of the time. Perhaps a re make might be in order.

  11. Steve

    November 13, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    The part I remember most is the scene where the shopping centre is evacuated and a child is left behind. Needless to say a rabid dog is on the loose and homes in on the kid. An army sniper can’t get a clear shot of the dog until just before it reaches the child, and shoots the dog dead. The rest of it may have been cheesy but this bit still makes the hairs on my neck stand on end.

  12. Glenn A

    July 6, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    @ Steve, the shopping centre was in East Kilbride.

  13. Pingback: Item of the Month, August 2012: British rabies posters from the 1970s | Wellcome Library

  14. Fee

    January 19, 2015 at 10:20 pm

    I was assisting the consultant vet and loved watching the scenes being shot when the little girl got injured and subsequently when, yes, the papier mache dog with its head full of explosives and a pound of mince, got shot. It was great witnessing the backstage operation. I also got to see the scenes filmed at Crosshouse hospital when Ed Bishop (got introduced to him – huge thrill for me at the time) was hallucinating, although not the nude ones – that was a closed set. Ah memories, even though, seeing it now, it looks so amatuerish – pity.

  15. Pingback: The Rabid Tactics of 1970s British Public Information Films

  16. Tom Ronson

    March 30, 2022 at 2:13 am

    Released on DVD a couple of years ago. Some genuinely chilling moments and even some decent stabs at surrealism (Ed Bishop’s woozy hydrophobic death), plus a few Dawn of the Dead-style set pieces… sadly surrounded by long stretches of arse-aching tedium. Brenda Bruce is the best thing about it by a very comfortable margin.

  17. George White

    January 10, 2023 at 5:58 pm

    Weirdly, the Nightmare Man wasn’t BBC Scotland, it was BBC London, but shot in Cornwall dolubling for Scotland.

    BBC Scotland at that time did seem to have a weird output in that they were making shot-on-film serials when these were a rarity at the Beeb. Target and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy commonly being heralded the first of their kind (though there were examples before, usually made by other depts – i.e Natural History for Search for the Nile, Fight against Slavery and the Voyage of Charles Darwin, Clochemerle a comedy serial, and various kids’ dramas shot all on location on film, plus indie productions such as Zero One, the Third Man, RCMP and Fabian back in the Fixenties).
    But it seems Robert McIntosh at BBC Scotland was doing these all-film serials at a time when they were rare at the BBC – Badger by Owllight and The Mad Death were his. When stuff like the Borgias, Nancy Astor, the Cleopatras were done on VT/film mix.
    McIntosh’s run begins with RUnning Blind, an Icelandic copro with Stuart Wilson, syndicated on PBS, and shot all on film, roughly at the same time as
    The Assassination Run and the Treachery Game, though intended as sequels (only for Equity to block their request for lead Heidur Steindortsdottir) were originals by Jack Gerson (who adapted Running Blind, and wrote the Omega Factor for Beeb Scotland), and feel like BBC Scotland trying to do sub-Bond, sub-ITC larks. Shot on film on location in Europe, and I presume in Scotland, they starred Malcolm Stoddard and Mary Tamm, and are desperately trying for the international market, with lots of fauxmericanisms and feel halfway between Euston and ITC, trying to aim for the latter, but feeling closer to the former.
    McIntosh later did the Secret Servant, another BBC Scotland all-film spyshow but with a nascent Charles Dance, and thanks to RKO funding, secured the mighty Dan O’Herlihy, playing a Yank as he want to do in BBC shows in the 70s/80s (being a Hollywood name but also Irish, and living in London/Equity membership).

  18. Glenn Aylett

    January 10, 2023 at 10:23 pm

    Badger By Owl Light has to be one of the weirdest series ever and never seen again since 1982. I can remember something about a terrorist attack in London, a weird, violent organisation called The Church of Christ Pyschopath and someone who had a swastika duvet. It was bizarre and light years ahead of what STV was showing at the time, the tame soap Take The High Road.

  19. George White

    January 11, 2023 at 10:19 am

    The Secret Servant sounds equally deranged – about Dan O’Herlihy as a distinguished nuclear scientist who in WW2 North Africa, he and his wartime chums were forced into cannibalism and ate a shot French boy, while also featuring something about Ireland.

  20. Glenn Aylett

    January 11, 2023 at 2:28 pm

    @ George White, I think television in the early eighties seemed to go for these way out but often highly watchable dramas. I do recall one ITV drama around 1982 set in a rough comprehensive school where the pupils riot against school discipline, the deputy head has a load of chemicals poured over his head, and it ends with a cat eating a lab rat or rabbit. Can’t remember it’s name( I think it was part of the series where Tim Roth played a racist skinhead), but it was radical for the time, particularly ITV. A couple of months later a secondary school near me staged a near riot against the school rules and the police were called.

  21. George White

    January 11, 2023 at 6:00 pm

    Tales Out of School – Birth of a Nation.

  22. George White

    January 11, 2023 at 6:13 pm

    Even big budget drama was weird.
    The Glory Boys (1984) was at the time, ITV’s most expensive drama per minute. Based on a schlocky thriller by Gerald ‘Harry’s Game’ Seymour about a Palestinian terrorist and a less evil IRA man going to Londontogether to kill Rod Steiger’s Israeli nuclear boffin, only miscast Mi5 spook Anthony Perkins can stop them. Full of Eighventies Britain (old school Caramel bars, WH Smith’s) and ludicrous asides (the patently-not Arab Gary Brown as ‘Famy’, at one point disgusing himself as a Pakistani cleaner, despite wearing a turban, and a shock twist ending that the series laughs at)…

  23. Richardpd

    January 11, 2023 at 10:23 pm

    The Old Men at the Zoo sounds like an odd series, adapted by Troy Kennedy Martin from the Angus Wilson novel. It’s about a Nuclear war leading to a Pan European dictatorship where Zoos are used a concentration camps.

    • Glenn Aylett

      January 12, 2023 at 10:05 am

      @ Richardpd, that one was bizarre, but was more than watchable as it had Robert Morley playing some overweight aristocrat in a Rolls Royce.
      Tales Out Of School was strange, particularly Birth Of A Nation, and was like a dystopian Grange Hill. I can remember it being quite unsettling in places, such as when the deputy head has a jar full of chemicals smashed over his head, and the school being set on fire. There seemed to be some sub plot involving a liberal teacher condemning the harsh discipline in the school as well.

  24. George White

    January 12, 2023 at 9:16 am

    It is, in the same realm as Blott on the Landscape down to cartoon titles and being all done on OB VT so it looks like a CBBC comedy.

  25. Richardpd

    January 12, 2023 at 10:28 pm

    Using OB cameras in drama can be hit & miss depending on how the director handles things. Often they shoot things like a news report to make the most of the medium.

  26. George White

    January 13, 2023 at 2:21 pm

    Seeing Olivier on OB in a mockup of JFK airport may be one of the most depressing things.
    Looks like Howards’ Way.

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