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The Mad Death on DVD

Wednesday, 09 May 2018 10:30

The Mad Death - out now on DVD from Simply MediaNever has the hymn “All things bright and beautiful” been given such a morbid undercurrent as in the 1983 three part mini-series The Mad Death. It is used as the title music, and the way it is sung, by a young voice which is quite frail, it immediately brings visions of classic horror.  The series took two years from its 1981 production to be screened by the BBC, and for those with any fondness for dogs and cats, or foxes, it is not comfortable viewing.

Brought to us on DVD by Simply Media, BBC Scotland produced the serial, based on the book by Nigel Slater. Its trio of 50 minute episodes chronicles the quick contagion of rabies in the UK. A French aristocratic woman smuggles a Siamese cat into Scotland, hidden in a large inside pocket in her smart coat (probably a stretch on plausibility, but we’ll go with it). It had previously been in a set-to outside prior to the trip, which meant it was infected, and effectively a ticking time bomb.

Tom Siegler is our central character in the first episode. Played by Ed Bishop (Straker from UFO), his decision to bring home what he believes is docile fox he finds next to his car on the roadside is not only bizarre but plain dumb. He has already been established as a philanderer, with a secretary keen to be another name in his little black book, and that’s alongside a mistress who’s willing, and a wife who suspects little.

The three episodes are quite schizophrenic, very much differing in tone. The first is keen to show the actual effects of rabies on an individual, noting the hallucinogenic effects in very disturbing nightmares revolving around fear of water (drowning is a recurring motif) and distrust of others.

The two headline characters of the serial are also introduced in the first instalment. The cynical and often burned Michael Hilliard is played by Richard Heffer – he’s had enough of officialdom in the UK and is off to Europe. However, with his background as a vet, he is toted as the only available expert who has had experience of a rabies outbreak. His demeanour means he is hard-nosed enough not to be swayed by irrational and demented public opinion, of which there’s plenty.

Actor Heffer got his big break in 1969 with the BBC production of Anthony Trollope’s novel The Way We Live Now, which starred mother and daughter Rachel Gurney and Sharon Gurney, as well as Colin Blakely and Angharad Rees. He starred in Colditz as Captain Tim Downing, was in the final eries 22 of Dixon of Dock Green as DS Alan Bruton in 1976, featured regularly in Enemy at the Door as Peter Porteous, and starred in Airline as Peter Witney. He was also in two episodes of Survivors as Jimmy Garland.

Following The Mad Death, he played Charles Cartwright in Don’t Wait Up, Eric Hewson in The Black Tower, Colonel Yarmouth in The Castle of Adventure, and Dicky Padgett in Specials.

Dr Anne Maitland, who is around in The Mad Death for her medical knowledge, is played by the cult icon Barbara Kellerman. She’d been in a similarly toned cataclysmic tale in The Quatermass Conclusion in 1979, and before that, in 1977, in the first series of another Cult TV classic, 1990, as Delly Lomas. Other roles of not to the cult crowd were in Space: 1999 (“Dragon’s Domain”), Special Branch (“Rendezvous”), The Professionals (“Runner”), and Hammer House of Horror (“Growing Pains”). She is probably best-known to the wider public as The White Witch in the 1988 adaption of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Big screen roles include “The Sea Wolves” and

In the second episode, look out for some excellent scenes in a shopping centre featuring Kellerman. Her characters Maitland’s driving skills in a Land Rover will have some of you punching the air with approval. This episode concentrates on what has to be done to tackle the threat of rabid animals, and the media being less than helpful in getting the message across as to why it is a necessity.

Miss Stonecroft (Brenda Bruce) is appalled at the way their pets are being treated, and is as mad as a box of frogs. She will become an integral part of the final episode, where the human aspects of the story take centre stage. Actress Bruce had been a big screen actress since the 1940s, appearing in such films as “While The Sun Shines”, “The Final Test”, and “Peeping Tom”. She played Tilda in the Sylvester McCoy Doctor Who story “Paradise Towers”, matriarch Bea in Connie, and had guest roles in the likes of Softly Softly, Budgie, Owen MD, Armchair Thriller, Bergerac, Jeeves and Wooster, Lovejoy, and The Return of the Antelope.

Anne’s man Johnny Dalry, played by Richard Morant, is another animal lunatic, and is so multi-faceted that you’re never sure which side he is actually on. He’s a snooty member of the elite, and does not initially understand the magnitude of the situation, leading him into face-offs with Hilliard due to his refusal to tow the line with his dogs and horses – muzzles, keeping them indoors and so forth just won’t be happening on his watch.

Morant you might recognise from the original 1970s Poldark, where he played Dwight Enys, and perhaps series 2 of Captain Zep, Space Detective, where he starred as the title character, having taken over the role from Paul Greenwood. The Connie connection continues, as he was Jamieson in that series, alongside Brenda Bruce.

He came to prominence in the 1969 production The Elusive Pimpernel as Lord Tony Dewhurst, and was Flashman in the 1971 production of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. You can also see him in episodes of Callan, The Protectors, Owen MD, QED, Bergerac, Pulaski, The Knock, and Peak Practice.

Familiar face Paul Brook plays PR man Bob Nicol, who previously played the likes of disaster-on-legs Henry Beamish in The History Man, Les Toms in The Kit Curran Radio Show and Kit Curran, Hoskins in Blott on The Landscape, and Friar Bellows in The Black Adder. He’s also been seen in Minder (both versions), Metal Mickey, Reilly: Ace of Spies, Bergerac, After Henry, Saracen, Campion, El CID, Lovejoy, Between the Lines, Midsomer Murders, Dalziel and Pascoe, Relic Hunter, Foyle’s War, Hustle, The Bill, and “Sharpe’s Revenge”.

On the big screen he was Bunky in “For Your Eyes Only”, and was uncredited as Malakili the Rancor Keeper in “Return of the Jedi”.

Jimmy Logan plays the ‘man from the ministry’ Bill Stanton, and you might recognise him from Rab C Nesbitt where he played Mr Grogan for half a dozen episodes. He was a talented performer, producer, impresario and director. On the big screen, among many roles he featured in “Carry on Abroad” and “Carry on Girls”.

In terms of Tom Siegler’s harem of women, Valerie Holliman plays Norma, Tom’s wife. She had featured alongside Bob Hoskins in Flickers, and went on to play Clare in London’s Burning. Guest roles included turns in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Owen MD, Spyder’s Web, Follyfoot, Within These Walls, Van der Valk, Whodunnit?, The Professionals, CATS Eyes, Bergerac, Dramarama and Murder City.

Debbi Blythe is Jane Stoddard, Tom’s mistress. She was Sally Beamish in The Kit Curran Radio Show and Kit Curran, can be seen in the Blake’s 7 episode “Moloch” as Poola, was Gareth’s secretary in The Foundation, and was regular on Les Dawson’s The Dawson Watch. Other roles included Moon and Son, The Gentle Touch, Chance in a Million, Just Good Friends, Only Fools and Horses, Call Me Mister, Bergerac, Fiddlers Three, Minder and Waiting for God.

Vivienne Dixon is Tom’s secretary. She featured in a couple of Play for Today editions in 1982, “Eve Sets The Balls of Corruption Rolling” and “Aliens”, and starred in the 1992 TV movie “The Other Side”. She had a guest role alongside a very young David Tennant in Takin’ Over The Asylum in 1994.

Given the series is from the 1980s, and made on 16mm film throughout, quality hounds will be a little disappointed with the sources used. It has excessive grain. I fully appreciate this title is not going to sell enough units for a restoration, however on top of this, about a third of the way through the final episode there’s a moment of picture jump and black screen – possibly due to a fault on the master material, but a little care in ironing this out would have been wise, as in this day and age it does make a viewer twitch with disappointment.

Writer Sean Hignett penned several episodes of Crown Court, a couple of episodes of The Omega Factor, plus segments of Emmerdale, The Standard and High Road.

Director Robert Young helmed big screen outings such as 1972’s Hammer romp “Vampire Circus” with Adrienne Corri and Lynn Frederick, 1976’s “Keep It Up Downstairs” with Jack Wild and Diana Dors, and 1979’s “The World is Full of Married Men” with Anthony Franciosa, Carroll Baker and Georgina Hale. He then moved to television, directing episodes of Hammer House of Horror, Minder, Fairly Secret Army, Robin of Sherwood, Bergerac, The Worst Witch, Jeeves and Wooster, GBH and The Infinite Worlds of HG Wells.

The music is by Philip Sawyer, who also provided the electronic music for the Patsy Kensit vehicle “Twenty One”, and provided songs for “Happily N’Ever After” and “The Great Ghost Rescue”.

Producer Bob McIntosh performed similar duties on The Assassination Run, Square Mile of Murder, The Treachery Game, Badger by Owl-Light, The Odd Job Man, Murder Not Proven?, The Odd Job Man, The Secret Servant, Fell Tiger, and Worlds Beyond.

There are no special features on this release, but there are optional Hard-of-Hearing subtitles available.

All in all, for those who like series like Survivors and Doomwatch, this plays out as somewhere between the two. It’s a reminder that in some cases you simply cannot protect some people from themselves, and that many can never grasp the gravity of a situation. There is plenty of budget on display in this production, and at a total running time of two and a half hours it doesn’t out-stay its welcome. Worth watching with friends, as it will provide plenty of talking points afterwards.

“The Mad Death” is out now from Simply Media. It has a ‘12’ certificate, a running time of 151 minutes approx, and a RRP of £19.99 – order it now at by CLICKING HERE.