No Need to Panic…

Chris Orton on The Mad Death and “infection” drama on British television

First published April 2006

In this age of SARS and H5NI bird flu it is all too easy to forget that not so long ago another virulent disease was the one to be feared for any island nation: rabies. Prior to the construction of the Channel Tunnel rail link and the relatively recent advent of pet passports, the movement of domestic critters to and from Britain was strictly controlled through the quarantine system. Fortress Britain was reasonably safe from any threat of animal infection.

In 1983, as public information films strafed across the TV screens, urgently warning us “if you’re bitten, scratched or even licked by any animal abroad, take no chances”, a three-part BBC Scotland production, The Mad Death, investigated rabies as a dramatic theme. Adapted by writer Sean Hignett from the novel of the same name by Nigel Slater, the series covered the chilling possibility of the disease being introduced to Britain via a smuggled pet.

Hignett was well placed to script a series concentrating on an outbreak, having earlier scripted episodes of the rural soap Emmerdale Farm, and worked for BBC Scotland previously on The Omega Factor.

The opening titles hint at what is to come through the juxtaposition of the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful and imagery of snarling foxes. The story begins innocently enough with shots of countryside just outside Paris. A rabid fox attacks a domestic cat, a pet that is later foolishly spirited into Britain by a woman who deems it not important enough to put through quarantine. Before long the disease is transmitted to humans, with the first victim being unfortunate businessman Tom Siegal (Ed Bishop) who takes pity on an apparently injured fox. He is soon admitted to hospital. The doctors are at first puzzled by his condition and struggle to make a diagnosis. Tom’s symptoms include a tingling hand, blurred vision, hallucinations and the one thing that gives a massive clue: a morbid dread of water (from which an alternative name for rabies, hydrophobia, comes). Bishop plays the scenes of the condemned man very well, and it is a little alarming to witness his character foaming at the mouth and to see the swiftness of his decline.

The government moves quickly to place an expert as the head of the task force charged with bringing the outbreak under control, and more importantly to some, appoint a press officer to carefully manage the flow of information to the public. Michael Hilliard (Richard Heffer) is the vet brought in to take charge and he quickly stamps his authority on the situation; having had first-hand knowledge and experience of rabies from a spell working across the Channel, he knows no time can be spent in discussion groups pondering what to do. As the disease is spreading at such a rate, action must be taken immediately. Hilliard’s methods appear drastic: pets are round up and vaccinated whether their owners consent or not, packs of wild dogs are hunted across the Scottish countryside from a helicopter vantage point and he even orders the horse of his love-rival, Johnny Dalry (Richard Morant) to be shot “just in case”.

Hilliard is not prepared to take any chances. After 62 impounded dogs are deliberately released from incarceration by somebody out to stop him, the army is called upon to help in great numbers, and he issues the diktat that, “all animals [are] to be shot on sight.” Members of private shooting clubs are even recruited to take part in the cull such is the fear of people being infected, and very soon the hunters are “running around the countryside popping off poodles”. Before long letters of complaint from Britain’s multitude of animal lovers arrive, with Hilliard personally a target for some of the venom.

Notwithstanding the physical effect of rabies on humans, many of the other scenes in The Mad Death are distinctly unpleasant. For the main part, the most unsettling images are shown only briefly. For instance, we see a fox in the process of devouring a cat, a young girl bitten on the face by a rabid Alsatian and a family Collie being shot in the head by his owner, a gamekeeper. In the latter case, the animal’s master has to summon it to him in order to shoot it, knowing it might not have rabies, but that it’s too dangerous to let it live.

More unpleasantness comes when a solider driving an army truck is viciously set upon by a pack of the dogs. Director Robert Young always keeps the blood to a minimum, but where it is used it is made to work effectively. Much less successful are the puppet foxes. Like the blood, they’re deployed sparingly and while they aren’t quite Basil Brush, their ersatz nature is difficult for Young to mask. Better is the use of live animals. A huge pack of dogs are used in an attempt to portray the wildness and savagery that ensues following the initial infection. A common criticism surrounding the use of canines in early episodes of the Terry Nation’s 1970s post-apocalyptic drama Survivors was that the supposedly “wild” ones looked more like cuddly family pets than dangerous threats, but that isn’t the case with The Mad Death. Despite being fully trained, the “rabid” dogs (and Alsatians in particular) come across very well. In fact, the use of Alsatians as the most vicious breed drew a stern letter of complaint to the Radio Times from an owner, aggrieved by the negative way they had been portrayed. The scene in which a family are cornered in a shopping centre car park by one works particularly well, and it is only due to Hilliard and his rifle that they are saved.

We also see a group of potentially rabid cats, when Dr Anne Maitland is held hostage by the unhinged animal lover Miss Stonecroft (Brenda Bruce). Stonecroft is so upset at the thought of her pets being taken away from her and caged up that she refuses to have anything to do with the officials who are attempting to help her. She comes to believe Anne is herself a cat and keeps her locked up, feeding her on just milk. Happily she is ultimately rescued when Hilliard and Dalry set aside their differences to mount a rescue attempt. Miss Stonecroft herself meets as unpleasant end when she is attacked by her own pets and falls to her death from a balcony.

The Scottish scenery is shown off nicely over the three parts, with much of the action taking place away from the city centres. However, The Mad Death feels very middle class in its approach – most of the principal characters are rather well-to-do and speak with posh accents, while the nominal villain of the piece, Dalry, is the all tweed and flat cap lord of the manor.

Despite the outbreak being ultimately brought under control, the closing image the viewer is left with is that of the skull of a dog with a fierce bark being played over it. There is no doubt, the threat could return.

Although the most explicit and involved, The Mad Death wasn’t the first BBC drama to touch upon the possibility of a rabies outbreak.

In 1977, a third season episode of Survivors, entitled “Mad Dog” by Don Shaw, deals the already decimated population a further catastrophe when rabies us contracted by some of those who had survived “the death”. One of the regular characters in the series, Charles Vaughn, witnesses the development of the illness in a man he meets and, ultimately, his violent death. Because of his contact with a rabies victim, Charles ends up hunted across the countryside like a fox by other worried survivors.

Series producer Terence Dudley seemed to be touching upon his own work on the earlier Doomwatch when commissioning Shaw’s script. The 1971 run of the “science fact” show (which Dudley also produced) had included an episode written by Robert Holmes, which covered very similar ground. “The Inquest” dealt with the death of a schoolgirl from rabies and the subsequent action taken to deal with the unusual situation by the authorities.

Rabies aside, Survivors is quite probably the single most significant and best-remembered example of the “infection” sub-genre on television. For three years a motley band of people did their best to carve out an existence amongst the ravaged remains of British society. The virus responsible for decimating the population of the world to such a devastating extent remained unspecified throughout the course of the series, with only the opening titles giving any kind of clue as to its origin. An oriental scientist working in a lab is seen dropping a flask that contains the lethal substance, with it quickly being spread across the globe through international travel.

Although not specifically acknowledged as the virus seen in the title sequence, another third season episode covered an outbreak of smallpox – one that ultimately resulted in the death of one of the show’s regular characters, Greg Preston. Preston was played by Ian McCulloch, and it was he himself who penned the episode. The symptoms of smallpox are shown only briefly, and not in any great detail, but a doctor Greg meets during the episode gives a clear enough description of what will happen to a victim should they be unfortunate enough to catch the disease. Greg is unable to return to his family as a result and in a subsequent episode we learn he eventually succumbed to the virus.

Nearly three decades later, it was bio-terrorism that came to the fore in the minds of commissioning editors, following the attacks on the USA on 11 September 2001 and the subsequent anthrax-in-mail scares.

Channel 4′s Gas Attack was a one-off film that ran in the True Stories strand. Opening with images of dead pigs, it goes on to tell of the release of anthrax in Glasgow by a white supremacist group bent on stirring up racial tension. Aiming to pin the blame on the recent influx of asylum seekers from Kurdish Iraq, the “White Power” organisation demand all black, Jewish and Muslim people be expelled from Britain. Anthrax is referred to as “the poor man’s atomic bomb”, and we are made all too aware that just about anybody could cook up the disease using a home chemistry set. The early symptoms appear similar to those of a heavy flu, but as more and more people fall ill, the suspicion then turns to viral pneumonitis or tuberculosis.

The viewer is shown just how unprepared the authorities are for such an eventuality and chaos breaks out at the hospital at the centre of the story, as well as across the country at large.

Gas Attack was shown not long after the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain and people were still wary about any airborne disease. Despite a series of anonymous e-mail warnings, the powers that be fail to take any action until it is too late, and then what steps they to take consists largely of keeping the press away from the story. The terrorist responsible for the release of the anthrax is never caught.

Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon was the major programme that came out of this period, and aimed to tell the story of the “greatest act of mass murder in history.” Set in the near future, looking back at 2002, the programme was semi-improvised and shot in a documentary style, interspersed with a dramatised story is footage of real smallpox victims. Much of the tale was influenced by a breakout of the disease that occurred in Yugoslavia as recently as 1972, and from the testimony of survivors of a British outbreak a decade earlier.

Harking back to the premise of Survivors, in Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon, the virus is shown to spread rapidly and through international air routes, having been first unleashed in New York by an unidentified terrorist who deliberately infected himself. The finger of blame is pointed firmly at the Middle East at first, but no identification or motive for the act is ever established. Much is made of the fact two samples of smallpox were kept following the eradication of the disease in the 1970s, and it is established here that the strain of the virus originated from the Russian sample. The fear among the international community is that an ex-Soviet scientist sold some of the virus to whoever would pay the most.

From an initial single death, we are taken on a journey that almost leads to the complete collapse of society. Panic quickly sets in across New York, and later spreads to the rest of the world. As the virus multiplies, so does the civil dissonance, with nations grinding to a halt. Transport is restricted as drivers refuse to drive, which in turn leads to food and fuel shortages. Hospitals become ever more stretched, as they have to deal with victims of the virus as well as carry out their usual work. Vaccines have to be rationed which results in further civil unrest. Curfews are imposed and armed troops are brought in to patrol the streets. Secondary diseases break out and mass graves are required to contain the still-infectious corpses. The programme ultimately tells the viewer that as a result of one man’s actions there have been 60 million deaths worldwide.

Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon aims for ultra realism, and this is furthered by the use of real experts in the film and the inclusion of news reports featuring real BBC, Sky and NBCs newscasters. Even the American politician Reverend Al Sharpton appears in a small cameo role. At times it is difficult to distinguish the actors from the real professionals. The programme does not shy from mentioning the devastating effects of smallpox, with symptoms including blackened skin, open wounds and bleeding eyes.

Public reaction to the drama indicated a lot of people had been alarmed by what they had seen, with many saying that it had been too close to reality for their liking and wondering if we were prepared for such an outbreak.

Dirty War was one of the dramas concerning terrorism that sprang up around the time of the third anniversary of the attacks of 11 September 2001. Two years in the making, the programme was apparently delayed due to UK government nervousness over the subject matter. Writer-director Daniel Percival, who’d written Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon, this time turned his hand to the idea of a “dirty bomb” being exploded by militant Islamists in the heart of London. They plan that their bomb will spread deadly radioactive material across the city, as well as cause toxic gases to be released as a result. We witness the militants as they preparing and then carrying out the attack, and the subsequent reaction of the government and emergency services.

The drama served to highlight how woefully inadequate the present security and emergency planning services currently are, and the authorities are shown as unable to fully cope with the aftermath of the explosion. Similar in tone to the dramas The War Game and Threads, Dirty War aimed to have a comparable effect on the public consciousness in the age of the terrorist. However, despite being very well-made and having had the co-operation of experts involved in the production, it fails to match the sheer terror and bleak devastation of those productions.

Aside from agricultural and hospital-based series such as All Creatures Great and Small, Emmerdale Farm and Casualty, many other television series have used “infection” as a driving aspect of storylines.

Bergerac featured an episode entitled “Deadly Virus” in which a group of animal rights activists release monkeys that are possibly infected with Marburg virus, a contagious haemorrhagic virus, similar to Ebola that caused death to both animals and humans. Angered at them being used in scientific research, the activists take matters into their own hands and free them from captivity. It is up to Jim Bergerac and his colleagues in the Bureau des Estrangers to hunt down and destroy the creatures before anybody comes into contact with them. Unfortunately one of the activists, Kevin, was bitten by a monkey during the break-out. He is the boyfriend of Bergerac’s daughter Kim, and ultimately pays the price for his involvement, passing away in hospital.

Police marksmen are drafted in to find the animals, with the first two being killed following their encounter with a tourist (played by a pre-Derek Wilton Peter Baldwin). The remaining pair come within a hair’s breadth of infecting Jim after he discovers them hiding in a petrol station.

Conflict arises between Jim and both his boss Barney Crozier and his ex-father-in-law Charlie Hungerford over how to deal with the situation. He believes the public should be warned of the danger that they face, while Crozier is worried about spreading panic. Charlie, inevitably appears to be more concerned about the damage to the island’s tourism industry.

The episode sends out a strong moral message about people recognising the potential consequences of their actions. The animal rights activists, and particularly Jill, are so set on their task that they do not pause to consider the ramifications of what they intend to do. The life of everybody on the island is put at risk, as Jim says, “to prove a point”.

In 1997 the less than impressive ITV series Bliss featured a story, “All Fall Down”, in which there was an outbreak of pneumonic plague, while the same year also brought the one-off BBC drama Breakout, featuring Neil Dudgeon and Samantha Bond as a pair of scientists investigating strange deaths.

Genetically-modified crops were a political hot potato for a time in the late 1990s, and in 2002 the BBC two-part series Field of Gold appeared. This saw Phil Davies and Anna Friel as two journalists investigating a series of mysterious deaths at a country hospital. The fatalities are revealed to be down to an outbreak of the superbug VRSA, which was unknowingly transferred to a genetically-modified crop in development through contaminated hospital waste.

Placed firmly at the more fanciful end of the storytelling spectrum are a number of episodes on continuing series that have covered the idea of infection. The Avengers episode “Silent Dust” concerns itself with a new agricultural fertilizer, promoted as a wonder product, that ends up infecting and killing everything living that it comes into contact with. The brains behind the product had threatened to release it across the country unless his demands were met.

Similarly, The New Avengers featured an episode by Brian Clemens entitled “The Midas Touch”, in which a human engineered to carry a whole host of diseases is put up for sale to the highest bidder. Midas, who himself is immune, has been deliberately infected with pneumonia, smallpox, typhus, typhoid, malaria, black fever and beri beri. His victims “die of everything” simply through having any form of contact with him. In a shockingly effective demonstration of his capabilities Midas poisons a bowl of punch at a party by putting his hands into it and every person that subsequently drinks it dies almost instantly. The anti-royalist winner of the auction for Midas is from an unnamed nation and plans to use his new acquisition to assassinate a princess in his homeland but is ultimately foiled by Steed and Co.

The hand of Clemens can also be felt in scripts for CI5: The New Professionals and Bugs. In the CI5 episode, “Samurai Wind”, vengeful ex-spook Jason Dane (Patrick Mower) intends to unleash 100 tonnes of the nerve gas hydrogen cyanide on Tokyo unless he is paid a ransom of £1 billion. Dane is motivated purely by his jealousy of CI5 boss Harry Malone, and his is not an ideological or political crime. A first season episode of Bugs, “Manna from Heaven”, deals with a new wonder food – named unappetisingly Phodex – made from an algae which its creator fails to tell anybody is toxic if it is exposed to ultraviolet light. Naturally, Phodex is exposed by a blackmailer and people who have consumed it begin to fall ill. Memory loss and the failure of motor functions are the first symptoms, but ultimately death will occur.

Scotland was yet again the focus for a disaster in the disappointing 1998 series Invasion: Earth from the pen of Jed Mercurio. In it ,a sub-plot features a deadly alien disease being spread in water, poisoning the inhabitants of the town of Kirkhaven and paving the way for an extraterrestrial takeover.

Of course, that grand old favourite of telefantasy, Doctor Who, also dabbled with the theme of humans being infected with unpleasant diseases. Most notable amongst its multitude of adventures are the stories “Doctor Who and the Silurians”, “The Visitation” and “Terminus”. While the latter plumps for a fictional disease, the other two explore the possibility of real viruses being released on earth. “Doctor Who and the Silurians” looks at an (unnamed) virus being engineered and released by the original inhabitants of the planet in an attempt to regain their home from the humans, while “The Visitation” takes us back to the Middle Ages, where the fifth Doctor finds the Black Death was in fact unleashed by the alien Terileptils.

Not to be outdone, Blake’s 7 also touched on the theme with the germ warfare plot of the season two episode “Killer”.

In today’s political climate, with the ever-present threat of terrorism and the tinkering of scientists, it is more than likely television will see more dramas of this type in years to come. It can only be hoped, however, that the medium never has to make a factual series covering the ground the fictional programmes have already staked out.