Tony Hancock (12 May 1924 – 25 June 1968)

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Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of Tony Hancock’s death. This has generated a crop of newspaper and magazine articles, some – unsurprisingly – focussing on his sad demise.

The essential beats of the story should be familiar to most – the way his decision to gradually divest himself of all his comedy associates (first Kenneth Williams, then Sid James and finally Galton and Simpson) sparked a slow but inevitable decline. Spike Milligan’s famous quote (“he shut the door on all the people he knew, and then he shut the door on himself”) seemingly provides the final word.

And yet … this has always seemed to be not quite the whole picture. For one thing, it’s hard to argue against Hancock’s assertion that his comic character needed to grow and change. Sir Peter Hall (speaking in the Heroes of Comedy programme on Hancock) labelled the Lad as a product of the fifties (comparing him to Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim). If so, then carrying this persona unchanged throughout the next decade simply wouldn’t have worked.

The assumption seems to be that Galton and Simpson could just have continued churning out comedy classic after comedy classic for Hancock, but how many more stories were there left to tell? Possibly a move into a regular film career would have been best. It’s well known that Hancock grew to dislike and fear the pressure of the television studio environment – not least due to the problem of having to learn so many lines. Whilst The Government Inspector (bafflingly, still not available on DVD) suggests that – like Max Wall – he could have pursued a dramatic career.

It’s all what ifs of course, but the notion that if only Tony had stuck with the old team everything would have been fine does seem a little flawed. For those who want to dig into the story deeper, there are a number of books available (some much more lurid than others). John Fisher’s biography is by far the best – an unashamed fan and admirer, he nevertheless didn’t shy away from the darker moments. But he also made the observation (which few others have) that Hancock’s life, post Galton & Simpson, wasn’t all downhill. During the later years there were still high spots to be cherished.

But even when the details of Hancock’s final years have been picked apart for the umpteenth time, we still have most of his best work available to enjoy. And this should always be Tony’s enduring legacy.

For any newcomers, a few suggestions to get started.

The Blood Donor/The Radio Ham

These two television episodes, from his final BBC series, were later re-recorded for an LP release and it’s these audio re-recordings (released and re-released numerous times over the years) which are my preferred versions. Slightly tighter and better performed than the television originals (plus The Radio Ham has a little extra value – “If I’d had me key I wouldn’t have knocked on the door, would I?”) they’re an excellent introduction to the world of Tony Hancock.

The Last Bus Home

One of the later radio HHH‘s with the core team of Tony, Sid and Bill, this is simply a joy. Like Sunday Afternoon At Home, it makes a virtue out of the fact that very little happens (they wait for the bus, they can’t get on the bus, they have to walk home). But there’s still so much to enjoy – especially Tony and Sid’s punch-up (“at least I know where I stand”). The way that Sid dissolves into giggles after Bill announces that the bus is finally coming is a lovely unscripted moment.

The Missing Page

An obvious television HHH choice, but that’s because it’s very, very good. Tony and Sid work beautifully together and if the plot doesn’t quite hold water, with so many wonderful lines (not to mention Tony’s beautifully performed library mime act) I’m not complaining.

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Juliet Bravo – Family Unit

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John Murphy (Rio Fanning) is a regular at Hartley police station. A widower with a young family of four, his fondness for a drink coupled with his inability to hold it means that he’s often to be found overnight in the cells. When he attacks his teenage daughter Maeve (Rebekah Blair), social services – in the form of Tom – are brought into the picture. It quickly becomes obvious that Jean and Tom view Murphy’s case very differently ….

Family Unit opens with a tracking shot showing a sizeable chunk of Hartley. Although it’s set up to establish a specific plot point (Jean notices smoke coming from the chimney of a house that should be empty) it helps to once again remind us of the sort of environment Hartley is.

The stuttering relationship between Jean and Joe is teased out a little more during the opening few minutes. Although they’ve been on a fairly even keel since the third episode, there does seem to be slightly more bite to their conversations here. Was this script originally planned to air earlier in the run?

Jean sends Joe out to look at the house, but doesn’t tell him why. When he radios in to query, she then suggests he walks across the street – once he does so, he spies the smoke and the penny drops. During their dialogue, Joe is the model of stolid efficiency, but there’s something about the way he pauses every so often which borders on the insolent.

Hiding in the house is a bruised and battered Maeve. Whilst Joe escorts her to the hospital, the character of Murphy is developed. It’s striking that Jean and Tom see very different sides of his character. Resident in the cells, Murphy views Jean with extreme disfavour (wondering how such a terrible woman could have snared a lovely man like Tom).

But when Tom later runs him down, he’s contrite and tearful as he explains the reason for the attack (he came home to find Maeve playing records in her bedroom with a Pakistani boy and snapped). Murphy’s racial hatred is never far from the surface – later he confides to a drinking buddy that he’s going to track the boy down and “descend on him, mangle him and give him a biblical pasting”. The irony that Murphy – as an Irishman – would also be viewed as an outsider by many isn’t overtly commentated upon, but the inference seems to be there.

We do later see Maeve’s friend (he receives a few punches from an incensed Murphy before she intervenes). But since he never speaks he serves no other purpose than to illustrate Murphy’s simmering anger. Maeve herself is similarly never really developed as a character in her own right – she exists purely to bring her father to both the police and the social sevices’ attention.

If Jean’s job sees her interact with Murphy once he’s broken the law, then Tom’s working from the opposite end. This explains why they’re on very different sides – Tom doesn’t want to see the family unit broken up and the children placed into care, whilst Jean isn’t prepared to let a potentially unstable father continue to live with them. Both, of course, are right in their own way, and this conflict helps to generate the main drama of the episode.

A little extra spice is added by the fact that Jean is concerned about the possibility that her confrontation with Tom, once it becomes public knowledge during the court hearing, might have a negative impact on her career. She worries that an enterprising newspaper reporter could spin it into an embarrassing story, thereby damaging her reputation at Headquarters. This isn’t something which shows Jean in a very good light, although as the script was written by series creator Ian Kennedy-Martin it’s not possible to argue that it’s the work of a writer unfamiliar with the series or characters. Clearly this is a side of Jean’s character that Kennedy-Martin was keen to touch upon.

Just a couple of episodes after another female office was attached to Hartley, Sergeant Margaret Cullinane (Maggie Ollerenshaw) turns up for a short transfer. She’s a very different proposition from the naïve WPC Hannah Maynard though. Experienced, confident and plain speaking, she wastes no time in telling Jean that she’s keen to take her job! Jean responds with icy politeness. Unlike Hannah in Expectations, Margaret is a fairly peripheral character, although the pair do have a brief late-night conversation in Jean’s office (this is after she’s had yet another run-in with Tom and is feeling somewhat emotionally bruised).

George Parrish might continue to play second fiddle to Joe Beck, but Noel Collins is gifted a lovely scene in which he harangues the ever-hapless Roland (Mark Drewery). Roland’s complaint that he doesn’t think it’s fair he has to make the teas and coffees for everybody (it’s not what he joined the force for, he says) is viewed with a definite lack of compassion by George. The scene is capped by George sending a severely ticked Roland out to the shops to buy some biscuits!

The court hearing is an uncomfortable experience for both Jean and Tom. Tom especially, who finds himself as the sole Social Services representative. Jean continues to paint Murphy in the worst possible light – acidly commentating, after his appearance in the witness stand, that he’s “a better actor than Laurence Olivier”.

After making an impassioned plea that he’ll never drink again or hit Maeve, it’s easy to see her point though (especially when a jubilant Murphy invites Tom to join him for a victory drink). In addition to this, the way Murphy brusquely instructs Maeve to take the other children home suggests that his contrite statements in court will prove to be worthless. Jean and Tom both witness this scene, with the inference being that Jean was in the right all along, although a more philosophical Tom is of the opinion that there were no winners, only losers.

What might happen to Murphy’s family in the future is left dangling, but from Jean’s point of view this case has damaged her relationship with Tom. “I can’t count on you 100 percent in the future, count on your 100 percent support”. Tom considers this to be a good thing though, the fact that they both have principles and are prepared to stand by them.

Rio Fanning gives a good performance, but it’s really the Jean/Tom dynamic which is the main focus of another decent series one episode.

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Juliet Bravo – Expectations

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Hannah Maynard (Rosalind Wilson) is a green young WPC, temporarily seconded to Hartley. She’s keen, very keen, but quickly learns that there’s a wide gulf between theory and practice ….

Expectations, like a number of other episodes, juggles several plotlines. The slightly testy relationship between Tom and Jean is teased out in the opening few minutes. At present he’s got an even heavier workload than she has (Tom tells her that he’ll need to work this weekend). His desire to make a success of his new career in Social Services is clear, but so is the feeling that everything’s starting to slip away from him.

His office is a glimpse into the long vanished, pre computer age. Apart from whispered conversations and ringing phones, the only sound is the gentle click clack of manual typewriters. With no computers available to store or collate data, it means that everything has to be written down – hence why everybody is drowning in reams of paperwork.

There are several examples of this – a message from Jean on Tom’s desk (reminding him about their lunch date) becomes buried under a bunch of files whilst his fumbling with more files during a case conference draws expressions of disapproval from some of the others present.

Tom’s current case concerns Laura Cartwright (Jean Rimmer) and her husband Jack. He’s confined to a wheelchair, but this doesn’t prevent him from lashing out viciously at her. Laura later tells Tom that she allows Jack to hit her for the simple reason that if he didn’t attack her then he might do something to himself. A bleak moment with no closure, it’s another of those well-mounted kitchen sink drama scenes that the series excelled at.

It’s interesting that despite this being a major plot point, it isn’t a police matter (they aren’t involved at all) and indeed the travails of Laura and Jack are somewhat secondary to the examination of Tom’s working practices. His desire to prove himself has led him to take on more and more cases (since he believed that refusing any would be a signal that he wasn’t up to the job).

With Tom’s colleague, the ever patient Jennie Randall (Wendy Allnutt), also present, Laura directs a diatribe at poor Tom – describing how his visits are perfunctory at best and useless at worst. She may be being a little hard on him, but for a man who’s always prided himself on his ability to work with people (and joined the Social Services in order to make a difference) it’s something of a hammer blow.

Whilst this is going on, Jean welcomes WPC Maynard to the team. She clearly heroine worships Jean – confirmed by the fact that she requested a secondment to Hartley precisely because she wanted to serve under an officer whom she admired. Jean isn’t especially delighted to hear this and gently tries to explain to Hannah that the job is the important thing, not personalities. It’s left unspoken, but there’s the inference that it’s rare to ever be in a position to pick your superiors (we’ve seen how the likes of Superintendent Lake are – at best – rather condescending towards Jean). Rosalind Wilson is excellent as the keen as mustard Hannah, who manages to exasperate the phlegmatic Roland with her attention to detail.

Youth culture isn’t something that the series has tackled so far, but today we see two punky teenagers – Mo (Clare Toeman) and Laura (Sarah Sugarman) – which proves that Hartley does have its share of disaffected adolescents. They mooch around the perimeters of the plot for a while – trying the doors of locked cars on a grimy housing estate, running through a bleak concrete shopping centre – before they come face to face with Hannah.

Left to her own devices by Roland for thirty minutes, it’s plain that she’s no match for Mo and Laura. The pair, apprehended for shoplifting, are marched to the manager’s office – but when he has to leave, Hannah is left alone with them, which is where the trouble starts. The manager locks them in – a strange move since it means that once the punky pair turn on her, Hannah has nowhere to run.

The sight of a dishevelled Hannah, “pig” written across her forehead, slowly walking through the store (with an amazed Jean looking on) is a memorable one. Hannah’s reason for not cleaning herself up first – she wanted to public to see the dishevelled, other side of police work – is given short shrift by Jean. She considers this to be a highly melodramatic way of proving a point.

If the title of the episode could easily relate to Hannah’s experience, then equally it fits Tom’s nightmare of a day. The episode ends as it began, in the bedroom, although this time Tom is in a reflective mood. “I was incompetent and irresponsible” he tells Jean. His long suppressed resentment of her more successful career also bubbles to the surface but as they settle down for the night, there’s the sense that they’ve turned a corner and more positive times lie ahead.

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Juliet Bravo – Coming Back

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Having served a ten year sentence for armed robbery, Mick Grainger (Ron Bain) is heading home. He has a wife, Judy (Rachel Davies), waiting for him, but his reintegration into society isn’t straightforward. Especially since some people, such as Joe Beck, aren’t prepared to forgive or forget ….

There’s not a great deal of film in one, but what we do have is used very effectively. The episode opens with a panning shot, moving from a group of industrial chimneys to a bleak block of flats which are carved unappealingly out of concrete. The eerie silence is a signifier that it’s early in the morning and as the camera closes into one specific flat, we see that Chris Evans (Kevin Whately) is preparing to take his leave of Judy.

It’s plain that they’re in a relationship – which is a complicating factor since her husband is due home any day. The fact that Evans is a constable at Hartley nick adds another layer of complexity to the problem.

An early screen credit for Kevin Whately, his role in the story isn’t terribly large (although it’s an important one – especially the closing scene). Many series tended to feature one-off characters, like Evans, who have clearly been around for some time but were never actually seen by the viewers either before or after their single appearance. This always feels less than satisfactory and since Evans is a fairly peripheral character for most of the story there seemed to be little value in making him a policeman. Given that he hardly interacts with any of the regulars during the bulk of the story – apart from one scene where he asks Jean for a transfer – he could have worked anywhere.

One of the striking things about Coming Back is that it’s not afraid to use silence. Mick’s eventual return home to Judy is a halting affair – punctuated by awkward gaps in their conversation. As we progress through the episode, various people have their say about him – Judy’s employer Mr Lawrenson (Bernard Gallagher) considers Mick to be a dangerous man whilst Joe Beck can’t forgive him for attacking one of his best friends on the force (Mick’s assault meant that the officer was forced to retire due to ill health).

And yet Mick now hardly seems to pose a threat to anyone. True, he’s capable of getting drunk and riled, but his health issues (a major operation in prison has hit him hard) seems to have curtailed his previous wild spirit. Of course, we have no way of knowing just what sort of a character he really was before this current prison spell. Joe fills Jean in with Mick’s career highlights – but given Joe’s obvious bias it’s possibly not surprising that he delights in painting as black a picture as possible.

Crime is not central to Coming Back. Joe might be convinced that Mick is already planning another job, but that’s not the case. In fact, the only crime occurs in the last minute or so (and doesn’t concern Mick). Instead we have a character based drama which just as easily could have been a Play for Today or an Armchair Theatre. Ron Bain and Rachel Davies make for an intriguing pair – the dynamic between their two characters shifts somewhat during the course of the fifty minutes – and they’re the ones who really drive the episode along.

The Hartley regulars have no interaction at all with either Mick or Judy – only Mr Lawrenson bridges the gap (a nice performance by Bernard Gallagher as a rather pompous and self-important type). There’s some decent character building moments at Hartley nick though – we see Jean relaxing with the others in the kitchen, mock annoyed at George because he had the temerity to call her a Liberal! George also has a lovely line after he turns his nose up at the news that a new wine bar’s opened in town. He sorrowfully shakes his head and declares that Hartley’s becoming more like Morecambe every day ….

The aforementioned wine bar is where Jean and Tom head off for lunch, although it’s something of a stormy meal. Their argument – mainly about whether they should take Jean’s (unseen) mother on holiday with them – continues when they get home. So far Tom’s been a rather placid character, so it’s not a bad thing to see a bit more spark from him.

Those who enjoy the rough and tumble, cops and robbers, aspect of police series won’t find much of interest here (this one couldn’t be further removed from The Sweeney). But as a piece of kitchen sink drama, Coming Back stands up very well.

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Juliet Bravo – The Runner

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Johnny Duffield (Julian Briercliffe) is a nine year old tearaway who’s been in and out of trouble ever since he was six. Currently in care, he delights in absconding and sleeping rough. He comes to Jean’s attention after stealing an invalid car – she’s determined to get him back on the straight and narrow, but he proves to be a tough nut to crack ….

Regarded with weary resignation by Joe and George, Johnny immediately piques Jean’s interest. She finds it impossible to believe that the system is incapable of keeping him under control, but it quickly becomes clear that there are no easy answers. Jean’s husband, Tom (David Hargreaves), has recently taken up a job at social services and this provides the plot with a little dollop of friction. Jean and Tom could be said to be on different sides, although it turns out that they want the same thing (although Tom’s colleagues aren’t averse to using him in order to neuter Jean’s sting!)

This was Julian Briercliffe’s sole acting credit. He certainly makes an impression as the bold, but vulnerable Johnny. We’re told that Johnny’s constructed a wall between himself and the rest of the world – with his mother dead and a father (played by John Rees) who’s been unable to control him, his immediate horizons seem rather bleak.

Mr Duffield might be initially presented as an unsympathetic type, but his character is given some dashes of light and shade as the episode progresses. Due to his busted legs, he’s forced to take in any work he can get – at present he’s button carding (“women’s work” he bitterly tells Jean). When he later confesses that Johnny never loved him, it’s possible to wonder whether he’s telling the truth or if he’s simply hardened his heart to save himself from further pain.

The title suggests one of the main features of the episode. Police walls can’t hold Johnny, as he’s apt to make a dash for freedom at the drop of hat. The first time it happens – outfoxing Joe at Hartley nick – is somewhat embarrassing for all concerned. And the sight of Joe and George (puffing down the high street after him) is a little embarrassing too. Jean’s obviously not too pleased, but when he absconds later, she’s the one who was closest to him. This is something that Joe can’t help but mention ….

If the story has a slight weakness then it’s the fact that mid-way through Johnny suddenly gains a friend from nowhere. In plot terms this makes perfect sense – as it allows Johnny to unburden himself (talking about his mother and his future plans) – but it can’t help but feel a little clunky.

This slight niggle apart, we see some nice performances throughout the episode. David Ashton plays Mr MacRae, the social worker at Johnny’s care home. Like everybody else he’s concerned about him – but he’s also confident that if anybody can fend for themselves out on the moors, then it’s this boy. It’s not really an uncaring attitude, since MacRae has attempted – and failed – to get through to him. A few years later Ashton would be a regular in Brass, playing Doctor MacDuff.

Another familiar face making an appearance is Robert Vahey (later to be the long suffering Bill Sayers from Howards’ Way). Vahey is Tom Collinson, a local reporter who’s convinced that Hartley is the location of a major IRA arms dump. His obsession has nothing at all to do with the main story, but his regular appearances help to sprinkle the episode with a dash of comic relief.

Martin Matthews is very solid as Jim Naylor. Naylor, along with his wife Cynthia (Eileen Helsby), is interested in fostering Johnny. His wayward streak doesn’t bother them and Naylor, as a former orphan, knows better than most how Johnny’s mind works. It’s interesting that he seems to be the first person to get through to the boy – this is despite the fact that everybody else (both the police and social workers) have been equally as patient. Fair to say that this is a story which isn’t criticising the system (Johnny is shown to be something of an anomaly). Since everybody’s done their best to help him, the finger of blame isn’t pointed at any specific person or organisation.

It’s maybe just a little pat that Johnny lands on his feet with a warm and loving couple who are so keen to look after him. But although we end on an optimistic note, there’s still the possibility that things might not work out in the future ….

Not a story that has too many surprises, but the major location shoot (we see plenty of Hartley and the surrounding moors) keeps the interest ticking along.

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Juliet Bravo – Trouble at T’Mill

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Issy Smethurst (John Barrett) is an elderly, set in his ways, lollipop man. Many passing motorists catch his ire, but none more so than Ted Galway (Alan Lake). Galway, a flashy self made man, represents everything that Issy despises. And when Galway buys the factory where Issy works part time (tending the engines) it only serves to deepen their feud ….

The character conflict between Galway and Issy is at the heart of the episode. Issy stands for tradition and continuity – although the engines he so lovingly tends (when he’s not harassing passing motorists) are contained within an eerily quiet factory. Once it was a thriving hub of activity, but now it stands idle. The current owner explains that it’s simply not cost effective to keep it running. When a smaller plant space, with newer equipment, can turn out more textiles at a cheaper cost and with far less manpower, the economic argument for its closure is strong.

The facts don’t concern Issy though. For him, it represents a lifetime of toil (he recalls how he first arrived at the factory, as a seventeen year old). To see those engines broken up – which seems likely after Galway (via proxy) buys the place – is heart-breaking for him.

Ted Galway is Issy’s complete opposite. Having disappeared to London for a few years, he returned as a self made man of considerable means. Now he owns the flashiest house in the neighbourhood (complete with a swimming pool and a snooker room), runs with the local hunt and numbers several high-ranking police officers – such as DCI Logan – amongst his friends.

Logan gently suggests to Jean that Issy needs to be warned against bothering Galway in the future. That Logan’s never even considered the possibility that Galway might be crooked seems barely credible (Logan seems to have swallowed Galway’s story that he made his fortune in a London casino hook line and sinker). Issy might be motivated (in part) by spite, but he’s plainly right when he claims that Galway’s crooked.

Although it might be expected that Issy would be the audience identification figure, there’s also something about Galway which incites a certain sympathy. This is no doubt down to Alan Lake, who manages to make Galway a curiously vulnerable figure.

There’s something ever so slightly pathetic about Galway’s delight in the trappings of his success. From his Rolls Royce (complete with an eight track cartridge system!) to the fact that he now hob nobs with all the local worthies, he leads a comfortable and law-abiding existence. So the arrival of Walter Hancock (Antony Carrick) who’s come up from the smoke is an unwelcome one – since Hancock forces him back into a life of crime.

Galway would like nothing more than to be left alone, but he owes some powerful people some favours, so has no alternative but to get involved in a furs robbery. Which happens to be observed by Issy – who by this point is keeping Galway under constant surveillance!

There are some fascinating incidental details in this story – one which stood out for me is Jean’s assertion that Hancock may very well be a criminal since he has tattooed arms. Today, tattoos are commonplace, but rewind nearly forty years and it’s plain that they were far less socially acceptable. The way we observe how Galway has moved upwards (he likes to indulge in dinner parties with jugged hare, after dinner mints and cigars) is another lovely touch.

Trouble At T’Mill possibly doesn’t show Hartley’s police force at their finest, since it’s Issy who does all the work for them. This is something that annoys Joe immensely – if Issy was a nuisance before, imagine what he’s going to be like now he’s been proved right ….

John Barrett’s a little shaky on his lines from time to time, but considering that he’s got the largest role in the episode that’s possibly not too surprising. Issy’s gifted several nice monologues and shares some decent two-handed scenes with Jean. Knowing about Alan Lake’s untimely death, it can’t help but make his later television appearances (such as this one) seem very bittersweet. Ted Galway is a fine creation – with Lake deftly shading in the nuances of his fluctuating character very well.

Lake would go on to appear in another two Juliet Bravo episodes playing different characters as would Christine Hargreaves who in this one plays Galway’s wife, Vera. You might have expected that Galway would have found himself a young, trophy wife, but not so – Vera is middle-aged and running a little to seed (and whilst Galway has assimilated himself amongst the upper echelons, Vera has remained resolutely working-class). With a cigarette never far from her lips, she seems somewhat out of place in their palatial home. Hargreaves who, like Lake, would pass away in the mid eighties, is probably best known for being one of the original cast members of Coronation Street.

Trouble At T’Mill is low on crime, but high on character conflict and is yet another strong episode from the early part of the first series.

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The Mad Death – Simply Media DVD Review

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It always seemed that it could never happen here, but when a cat infected with rabies is smuggled into Britain it triggers a major crisis. Facing hostility from the public (angry that some of their pets have been impounded) the authorities struggle to stop the outbreak from spinning out of control ….

Tom Siegler’s (Ed Bishop) decision to befriend an apparently benign wolf he discovers at the side of the road has far-reaching consequences. By now the audience has already been primed to expect something awful to happen, although the tension is eked out for a few minutes longer (Tom, having cut his finger slicing a lemon, then goes over and pets the fox – although at this point there’s no reaction).

The boiling point isn’t far away though. Animal wrangling must have been an issue for the serial, as attempting to depict rabid beasts would require considerable co-operation from the animal actors (which no doubt couldn’t always be guaranteed). Director Robert Young keeps the tension bubbling along though, thanks to rapid cuts and close-ups, with the result that the action scenes feel viscerally real.

Young had cut his teeth on horror films (directing Vampire Circus for Hammer in 1971) before moving into television in the early eighties. Robin of Sherwood, Bergerac, Jeeves & Wooster and G.B.H. all benefitted from his presence. Possibly it was his work on The Mad Death which made him an ideal fit later for Robin of Sherwood, as both had – at times – a woozy, non-naturalistic feel.

This is first seen in The Mad Death after Tom, by now seriously ill after being bitten by the fox, is hospitalised following a car crash. The hospital should be a place of safety and security, but instead it’s a hallucinogenic nightmare for him. The mere act of reaching for a glass of water becomes overwhelming (he’s then pictured drowning in a bed of water – a technically impressive shot) whilst other visions are equally as disconcerting (his wife and his mistress both pay him uncomfortable visits). It’s interesting that during these scenes we often switch in and out of reality (with the result that the viewer is privy to Tom’s fevered imaginings). This simply adds to the sense of horror.

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Ed Bishop

Bishop, a sometimes underrated actor, is excellent as the increasingly tortured Tom. Another stand-out scene for him occurs earlier in the opening episode when he attempts to dispose of the fox. First with a broom handle (that was never going to work) and later with his car. Eventually he does manage to drive him off, but by then the damage has been done.

Although Tom’s story dominates the first episode, the two central characters of the serial – Michael Hilliard (Richard Heffer) and Dr Anne Maitland (Barbara Kellerman) – are also introduced. They first appear during the opening few minutes in a rather clumsy way. It might have been better to cut this scene and hold them back until they actually started to interact with the main plot (for example, when Anne was dispatched to the hospital to confirm the diagnosis that Tom is suffering from rabies).

If Anne has the medical knowledge, then Michael is her equal when it comes to the veterinary angle. But he’s refusing to get involved ….

Richard Heffer was by this time a very familiar television face. A regular in several 1970’s WW2 dramas (Colditz, Enemy at the Door) he’d also made several appearances in Survivors and had appeared throughout the final series of Dixon of Dock Green. Barbara Kellerman had also notched up some notable television appearances during the seventies (The Glittering Prizes, 1990, Quatermass) and would later go on to appear in the BBC’s C.S. Lewis adaptations during the late eighties and early nineties.

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Richard Heffer and Barbara Kellerman

The beginning of the second episode brings any latecomers up to speed with a summation of the events so far, before looking ahead to the current measures being implemented to control the outbreak. This is done quite neatly via a news report (a very effective way of info-dumping).

Episode two also sees a rabid dog terrorising a group of customers in a shopping centre. With a fair number of extras deployed, it’s a good indication that The Mad Death had a very decent budget. Robert Young once again crafts some striking shots – a slow plan past several shop window dummies (stopping eventually on what initially appears to be another dummy but turns put to be a heavily suited dog handler) is especially memorable. A series of jerky cuts gives these scenes a naturalistic, documentary feel.

Anne continues to prove that she’s no shrinking violet by driving a jeep containing Michael and a number of marksmen at high speed through the shopping centre (in a desperate attempt to get to the dog). This is something of a wish-fulfilment scene, since most of us have probably wanted to do this at some point.

Inbetween the moments of terror are longer periods of reflection. Animal lovers, such as Miss Stonecroft (Brenda Bruce), are appalled at the way their pets are being treated (chained up like prisoners twenty four hours a day, she says) whilst Michael and Anne eventually fall into each other’s arms. This always looked inevitable, but it seems sure to annoy Anne’s partner Johnny (Richard Morant). And the fact he’s an arrogant member of the landed gentry who isn’t prepared to take any precautions with his animals is guaranteed to get Michael’s back up ….

The third and final episode ramps up the action another few notches after Miss Stonecroft lets a whole pound full of dogs loose. With the animals roaming the countryside, Michael takes to the skies, coordinating a team of armed soldiers. Their instructions are clear – all animals are to be shot on sight. The filmic sweep of these scenes is another example of the serial’s healthy budget.

Meanwhile, Anne finds herself tangling with an increasingly detached Miss Stonecroft whilst Johnny, also doing his bit to deal with the dogs, eventually runs into Michael. The question is, will he use his gun on the animals or on his love rival? These interlocking plot threads help to keep the interest ticking along until the final few minutes.

Shot on 16mm film, the picture quality is generally pretty good considering the age and unrestored nature of the material. I did notice one picture glitch – at 18:38 during episode three there’s a slight picture breakdown (a brief loss of sound and a blank screen for a second or two).  After the blank screen, we see Michael raising a glass of scotch to his lips but before the glitch he wasn’t holding one, so a short section of this scene is missing (Michael being offered and then accepting a drink).  Luckily it’s not a vital moment, but If I learn any more about this issue then I’ll update this review.

Thirty five years down the line, The Mad Death is still a tense and disturbing watch, thanks to Robert Young’s skilled direction and the performances of the cast. It remains a powerful serial and is well worth adding to your collection.

The Mad Death is released by Simply Media on the 7th of May, RRP £14.99, and can be ordered directly from Simply here. Quoting ARCHIVE10 will add a 10% discount to the order.

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Barbara Kellerman