The Mad Death



Andrew Screen explores the BBC’s chilling rabies outbreak serial, 1983’s The Mad Death…​

You’re waiting in a doctor’s surgery with your mum and you cast your eyes over the posters on the walls in an attempt to stave off boredom. One of the posters catches your eye. The poster screams “Don’t Smuggle Death” and shows a black and white illustration of a young girl, in a summer dress and carrying a doll, cowering from a large black dog. With a gaping maw exposing its fangs the animal is evidently about to savage the child. Another poster depicts a human skull, the black, empty eye sockets staring directly at the viewer, as it declares “Rabies is a killer – smuggling pets could bring rabies into Britain”.

After you’ve seen the doctor, and collected the prescription for the sore throat that has given you an unexpected few days off school, you flick on the telly. The first thing you see is a Public Information Film, though this one is not about road safety or warning you about playing on the railway track. It features a middle-aged lady at an airport evidently having flown back into the country. As she makes her way through the building to customs there are snatches of horrendous imagery – a figure thrashing on a bed. The woman is stopped by a customs officer and as he starts to check her luggage the tones of actor Clive Swift can be heard. He informs you that the outcome of a sentimental impulse can result in a sentence of death as a small kitten is revealed to be in the woman’s handbag. It could be death “in a manner that’s beyond description,” he says as the image cuts to a small child twitching on a bed and staring blankly ahead. The advert ends with Swift informing the viewer that “Rabies Means Death” and an image of the skull poster you saw early in the doctor’s surgery.

If you lived in Britain during the 1970s and 1980s you would have often been exposed to public information films and publicity campaigns like the examples above. Rabies was a constant threat to the nation and there was a fear of the disease reaching out from the continent to infect the indigenous wildlife and pets of animal lovers in the UK. Rabies is a viral infection that impacts the nervous system and is passed on to humans from animals via contact with their saliva. Rabies is also known as hydrophobia because of the symptom which can occur where the infected have difficulty swallowing and are unable to drink any water. The disease usually has an incubation period of between two and eight weeks and can manifest in one of two forms. The “furious” version develops fast and the infected display extreme restlessness and hyperactivity and death occurs within days due to respiratory failure. The “paralytic” version is less common and develops less rapidly. The muscles become paralysed and the infected slip into a coma before death.

There have been no cases of rabies infecting a human in the UK since 1902, though four people have died in the UK after being bitten by dogs when holidaying abroad. Rabies was eliminated from the UK during the middle of the 19th Century, though the disease was still prevalent in Europe and further afield up until the 1990s. The disease has now also been largely eliminated from mainland Europe and most deaths now occur in India, Asia and Africa. The information films warned you of the potential threat to human life, but they never detailed what would happen in the event of an infection breaking out on British soil and this is where The Mad Death enters the picture.

Writer Nigel Slater’s novel, The Mad Death, was adapted by Sean Hignett as a three-part series for BBC Scotland first broadcast in 1983 having originally been shot in 1981. The book and series both see the disease being introduced to the UK through an infected cat being smuggled into the country from France. The cat is run over and killed by a car and later a fox eats the carcass which passes on the deadly disease. The fox is later found at the side of the road by an American businessman, played Ed Bishop (UFO’s Commander Ed Straker), who thinks the animal is docile. In fact, the animal has started to suffer the first stage of lethargy that the disease causes. He takes it home with him where it becomes more aggressive and infects him with the disease before it disappears into the Scottish countryside to infect other animals.

the mad death

Bishop spends the second episode succumbing to a very, very unpleasant death complete with wild hallucinations. Bishop confirmed the authenticity of the effects of the disease shown in the series in an interview during transmission of the series. “There was very careful research. They (the BBC) got hold of some documentary films of an American kid who died from rabies in the Thirties, and some of dying Filipinos. They were really horrific deaths and the whole thing was orchestrated very carefully for the series.” His death eschews other film and TV depictions of rabies sufferers which showed it akin to transforming into a rampaging, frothing beast. Here was the reality – a horrible, painful death which reinforced the true horror of the disease.

The disease takes hold rapidly and it is soon passed onto humans. The authorities act swiftly and appoint an expert, the vet Michael Hilliard (played by Richard Heffer), as part of a team tasked to bring the outbreak under control and he soon makes his presence felt. Hilliard is well versed in dealing with the disease having encountered it whilst working abroad and understands the need to deal swiftly with the issue. To the animal-loving British public, his methods seem extreme. Pets are vaccinated whether their owners want them to be or not, stray dogs are hunted and shot. At one point an elderly woman, Miss Stonecroft (Brenda Bruce), releases over sixty dogs from isolation only for the army to be called in to cull them. Just as the character of Hilliard provokes a reaction from the public within the storyline the series itself provoked a storm of protest from the viewing public with letters of complaint sent to the BBC and the Radio Times. 

The Radio Times printed the following letters (Issue dated 20-26 August 1983) following transmission of The Mad Death:

“I would like to congratulate the BBC for the serial The Mad Death (16-30 July BBC1), which I found to be totally compelling and terrifyingly realistic. Perhaps those who complain about our quarantine restriction will now be better informed as to what all the fuss is about, and some that might have been tempted to break them may now think again. I wonder whether the government would consider purchasing the film to show to future offenders as part of their sentence?” 

– Martyn Samphier, Poole, Dorset

“Congratulations on the showing of The Mad Death – I am convinced that most people simply do not know the facts about rabies of the possible ghastly consequences of smuggling animals into the country from abroad. My only criticism was that the old lady (played brilliantly by Brenda Bruce) was over-dramatised and hence lost credulity. Otherwise, it was a serial which brought out fully the very real horrors of the situation – and what a brilliant ending! I rescued a cat who smuggled himself into this country in a crate of aircraft spares from New York. The quarantine period was hard on him and sad for me, but he came through in good shape and has settled well. I wonder whether misguided sentimentality on the part of animal owners makes them wish to avoid the six months’ separation from their pets? Maybe The Mad Death will make them realise that it is not just government red tape but a real necessity for the good of animals and people together.” 

– (Mrs) Avril Norton, Kendal, Cumbria

“I am writing to express my bewilderment at the recent drama The Mad Death. I had always imagined rabies to be a dread disease and wondered whether some scenes might be though too harrowing to be screened. The opening credits reinforced this notion, as did the special effects for the death of the first unfortunate human victim. It was a pity that his high standard could not be maintained in the final two episodes. Instead, the drama degenerated into a rural Britain ‘spaghetti western’, with a gun-toting sheriff (the vet) blasting away at everything that moved on the scientifically researched assumption that if it had four legs it was bad. Meanwhile, the girl (highly-qualified doctor) went wandering off on her own into Indian territory, armed only with a hypodermic with which to inoculate silly old women. Surprise, surprise! The girl gets captured by the Indians, and narrowly escaping a fate worse than death rushes out into the arms of the sheriff. It was just as well her husband was there too, or the sheriff might have got the girl and we have had the obligatory sunset scene in the last reel. I don’t believe that this sort of junk is going to educate people about the dangers of illegally imported animals. On the other hand, if this is supposed to be the way that Figures in Authority carry on when dealing with a crisis, I hope for all our sakes that there never is a rabies outbreak in this country.”

– P.J. Finn, Cockpole Green, Berkshire

“Why was a German Shepherd Dog used as a rabid dog? The breed has a bad enough name as it is, and people that know nothing of it will have something more to complain about. Whenever a vicious dog is needed in a programme a German Shepherd is nearly always used; to me, who have had three of the breed, it seems most unfair.” 

– (Mrs) Jean Shipman, Northampton

Both the Ministry of Agriculture and senior vets were consulted on the approach that would be taken in the event of a rabies outbreak in the UK. Richard Heffer pointed out the authenticity of the events depicted in the programme “We had to double-check everything. It was such an alien world for everybody. But there is a national policy on rabies and that had to be followed scrupulously. In the first episode, I have to give students a lecture and I say: “During a rabies outbreak the procedures laid down must be adhered to absolutely. It’s the only time red tape pays off in my book,” and we had to follow those procedures too.” 

the mad death

Heffer was a familiar face on British television in the late 1970s and early 1980s, having notched up appearances as a semi-regular character in Colditz (BBC 1972-74), Survivors (BBC, 1975) and Dixon of Dock Green (BBC 1955-76) and was one of the leads in the Guernsey-set World War Two series Enemy at the Door (ITV 1978-80). A love interest for Hilliard’s character was supplied in the form of the actress Barbara Kellerman who had appeared in Space: 1999 (ITV, 1975-77), the 1979 Thames Quatermass series, The Professionals (ITV, 1977-83) and Hammer House of Horror (ITV, 1980). Perhaps her most famous television role was as The White Witch in the late 1980s BBC adaptations of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (BBC, 1988), Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (BBC, 1989) and The Silver Chair (BBC, 1990). The series was economically directed by Robert Young who went on to direct feature films such as Splitting Heirs (1993, Robert Young), Fierce Creatures (1997, Robert Young/Fred Schepisi) and Captain Jack (1999, Robert Young), as well as directing episodes of Robin of Sherwood (ITV, 1984-86), G.B.H. (Channel 4, 1991), The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (ABC, 1992-93) and the relaunched version of Battlestar Galactica (Sci-Fi 2004-09).

The first episode was placed at number eight in the BBC’s most-watched programmes for the week with 6.3 million viewers tuning in. By pure coincidence, the newspapers possibly gave the series an unexpected boost when they reported Britain’s first case of animal rabies in thirteen years when the disease was confirmed in an Irish Wolfhound which died in quarantine after arriving in the country from the USA. To accompany the episode the Radio Times published a small article offering a synopsis and some production detail:

“A rich French lady, soppy about her cat, smuggles it into Scotland when she’s invited there for an extended holiday. But the cat had previously tangled with a fox. And the fox is the great European carrier of that dreaded disease, rabies. Such is the ominous situation of The Mad Death, loosely based by Sean Hignett on a novel by Nigel Slater. When Sean wrote the script he was aware of the need to provide entertainment in the form of a thriller and to inform the public, which takes disease less seriously than it should. In realising this story on film there is more than just a touch of Hitchcockian horror in the way cuddly domestic animals are transformed by the demon seed into beasts touched by evil but the film-makers have gone to great lengths to ensure accuracy and naturalism. Both medical and veterinary advisors were at hand throughout the filming and in the research stage of scripting, the writer had the full co-operation of the Ministry of Agriculture. Naturally, there are many scenes involving what appear to be diseased and berserk animals, all filmed under strict veterinary supervision and with all animals under the control of their owners at all times. Working on this project for several months had had a lasting effect on Sean Hignett. He avoids stray dogs like the plague.”

The second episode of the series saw the programme climb to the second most-watched BBC programme of the week with 8.2 million viewers, an addition of almost two million on the previous episode’s audience. Ratings dropped slightly to 7.65 million for the third episode and the programme also slipped from second to third place in the top ten most-popular BBC shows of the week.

the mad death

The series as a whole is well-made and gripping with several unpleasant and unsettling sequences including a soldier driving an army truck cornered and savaged by a pack dogs and a family trapped in a shopping centre car park by a rabid Alsatian. The title sequence stays in the mind. It consists of a montage of animal faces distorted by rippling water (perhaps to symbolise the hydrophobia aspect of rabies) as a voice whispers the lyrics to hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful. It is easy to see how it has stayed in the memory of original viewers with these scenes, however, the story is told from a distinctly middle-class point of view with the main characters all well-to-do and well educated which grounds it firmly as a 1980s BBC production. All the actors acquit themselves well within their roles though Brenda Bruce gives a stalwart turn as the utterly crackers old lady who unleashes a pack of potentially rabid dogs.

After the show’s initial transmission it was repeated on BBC 1 during June 1985 and was released in an edited version on VHS in the 1980s. The series was finally released unedited on DVD in May 2018 by Simply Media to shock a new generation of viewers.



[2] Ed Bishop quoted in “If Rabies Here” by Jean Morgan, The Evening Chronicle, 16th July 1983, page 13

[3] Richard Heffer quoted in “If Rabies Here” by Jean Morgan, The Evening Chronicle, 16th July 1983, page 13

[4] Ratings, The Stage and Television Today, 28th July 1983, page 18

[5] “‘Mad Death’ Case”, Liverpool Echo, 22nd July 1983, page 7

[6] Ratings, The Stage and Television Today, 4th August 1983, page 18

[7] Ratings, The Stage and Television Today, 11th August 1983, page 50

[8] The location was East Kilbride Shopping Centre, one of Scotland’s largest indoor shopping centres

Picture of Andrew Screen

Andrew Screen

Writer on things film & TV by night, author of The Book of Beasts, an official guide to the Nigel Kneale series, (coming soon). SEN practitioner by day.

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