A three part series, broadcast by the BBC in 1983, explores a rabies outbreak in the United Kingdom after a French traveller smuggles a pet cat into the country. As the nation is gripped by The Mad Death, health officials must take extreme measures to curb the outbreak.
Tom Siegler (Ed Bishop) becomes the first human victim, and it’s up to Michael Hilliard (Richard Heffer) to tackle the outbreak, public opinion and press relations, along with the effects of rabies as it hits close to home. As rabies spreads across the countryside thanks to many levels of incompetent behaviour and do-gooders, the risks grow higher and it’s up to Hilliard to bring it under control, at all costs.
There was a period in the late 70s and early 80s where the BBC was producing some truly chilling, yet thought-provoking drama – Threads (1984), The Nightmare Man (1981), The Stone Tape (1972), amongst them – and it’s something that they really could do with revisiting, not just in their vast archive. The Mad Death certainly fits into this period perfectly, never over-the-top in its portrayal and perfectly pitched to keep the viewer engaged throughout.
A bleak portrayal of how easily a virus as virulent as rabies can spread and how poorly people react in times of crisis, The Mad Death doesn’t stoop to the level of sensationalist portrayals of horror, instead choosing to explore these elements through drama, and a slow burning drama at that.
With three hours to tell the story, there’s plenty of time for this to play out from all angles – medical staff, government officials, families, friends and society in general. The Mad Death is a fine exploration of the difficulties faced by experts as they do what’s necessary, whilst people try to live their lives, occasionally acting in selfish, reactionary ways. It’s a portray of how they society can work against itself, even when we’re trying to reach the same goal.
The treatment of animals is coldly portrayed, and with good reason – the control method for rabies is emotionless and brutal, and it’s not much better for the human victims, or those who want to protect themselves and their pets. As the hard-edged Hilliard takes further steps to handle the crisis, it’s a story of us-vs-them, with the “us” being occasionally unwilling to admit that we may be contributing the problem with a blase approach to issues of national health and fractious relationship with authority. Of course, we’re far beyond that now…
Well acted, well directed and a compelling drama, The Mad Death should stand as a cautionary tale to us all and still stands the test of time some 25 years after its initial broadcast.
Dir: Robert Young
Scr: Sean Hignett (based on the book by Nigel Slater)
Starring: Richard Heffer, Barbara Kellerman, Ed Bishop
Country: United Kingdom
Runtime: 180 mins