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.