Why The Black Panther's Troubles Are More Complex Than it Just Being a Victim of a Media Witch-Hunt

Appearing on to DVD and Blu-ray for the first time ever in 2012, The Black Panther was the subject of an excellent article by John Patterson in The Guardian's Film Blog section. In what proves to be an invaluable history of Ian Merrick's 1977 film, Patterson recounts its low-budget genesis, at the time when the British film industry was a non-entity and how it was unfairly made a scapegoat by a press desperate to blame anyone but themselves for the murder of Lesley Whittle. Patterson's obvious joy at the re-emergence of a film that received an unfair crack of the whip the first time round is easy to identify with but his assertion that The Black Panther is 'a meticulous, tactful, well-made and highly responsible true-crime movie', less so.

The Black Panther is inevitably a dirty and grim experience. Donald Sumpter portrays British multiple murderer Donald Neilson as a monosyllabic, entirely un-sympathetic, character; a dry, portentous man with a meticulous eye for planning and detail but next to no social skills, nor friends to practice them with. Cold, calculating killers are not supposed to be fun to spend time with, but there are ways and means to make films about them more lively than Merrick does here. At one point we go on a silent three-hundred and sixty degree rotational tour of Neilson's den, stopping to gaze - in wonder, dread? - at macabre shelf items and assorted weapons. In another scene (a still from which is here) Neilson looms over Whittle's shoulder as she walks to meet a friend. Merrick's devices for showing his subject's depravity are as plodding as the man himself is wannabe all-action master thief. With a big ring drawn around the location he plans to go to, Sumpter taps his map as Merrick zooms in on his hand. Subtlety too, it appears, was not on the agenda.

Whilst the unfair attacks on the film at the time focused little on its actual content (as recounted by Patterson, chief persecutor Sue Lawley hadn't actually seen it), it is actually easy to see how Merrick's film might have been seen as untimely, distasteful and potentially insensitive. The Whittle family quickly distanced themselves from a production that started in 1976, just a year after their daughter's murder. On his website - as pointed out in the comments on Patterson's piece - the film's writer, Michael Armstrong, seems sympathetic to concerns raised by them and the families of other Neilson victims. Regardless of this, by December 1977, exactly two years after Neilson's arrest and one year after his trial, The Black Panther was released.

In our isolated and distanced position now this perhaps seems like plenty of time between event and drama, but a notable more recent comparison is to Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. Stone's film shot in 2005 and was released in 2006 but still met strong opposition from families of those killed during the events of September 2001. Patterson praises The Black Panther's tact but there are moments where it seems to falter, such as the brief scene in which Whittle (Debbie Farrington) is shown naked, a large part of the reason for the film's 18-certificate. Clearly the families and communities effected by Neilson's crimes had at least some solid grounding to be disappointed with Merrick's timing and elements of his film's depiction of events, though it is equally arguable by those approaching it with a cold critical eye that Merrick's choices in the depiction of Whittle and the film's release window have little impact on its overall quality.

Certainly, there is a great deal of truth in the fact that Merrick goes to great lengths to follow the facts and to reproduce moments from Neilson's history that are known to have occurred. Neilson's eventual capture, by two police officers who routinely stopped him and were then themselves kidnapped at gunpoint, follows near step-for-step the description of events laid out on Wikipedia, which cites the trial and the obituary of Walter Boreham, who took Neilson's nine-hour statement. Whittle's eventual death takes place off-screen, mirroring the fact that to this day, no-one is sure whether Neilson pushed her from her place of imprisonment or whether she simply fell, having been kept there for days.

Here too though, there must have been concerns at the time - and should have been from Merrick - that the approach he was taking might have been considered insensitive. Bathpool Park in Kidsgrove, Staffordshire, where Whittle was found in a drainage shaft, is not listed in IMDb's dossier of filming locations but as someone who lives very close to that area I can tell you that it definitely does feature in the film. Sumpter is seen turning in to the sharp junction of Boathorse Road, which still exists today, and then driving down to Bathpool's car park, which can be traced down from that point and is, again, largely unchanged. It must have been very difficult for the family to see again the location at which their daughter died, together with an actress depicting her last days, such a short time after the event and surely Merrick would have had the option to shoot these scenes at an alternate locale, closer to the film company's London base.

Whilst the return of The Black Panther to its status as an easily accessible piece of British film history must indeed be celebrated, the reasons for the moral questions surrounding its disappearance cannot be laid solely at the feet of the media, nor the censors, nor Sue Lawley's ill-educated dismissal. Merrick and the production company took definite identifiable risks in engaging in a production focusing on Neilson so soon after his crimes and produced a film that, though at times fairly impressive, is largely no better than average in terms of its quality and certainly contains elements that do not fit with its sometime even-handed treatment of events. The temptation in situations like this is to immediately blame those who wish to censor and detract and certainly past events, such as the video nasties debate, have shown those parties to be guilty many times over. In isolated individual incidences though, and just like the media themselves, film-makers have an ethical responsibility when addressing issues such as murder and whilst Merrick may not have overtly crossed the line in this regard he certainly took a risk, which his film may have ended up paying for during the 1977-2012 period.


  1. graham here i saw the film when it was first released in birmingham,and years later i realize it was a mistake to go and see it,i think it was all about making money,hence the film being released so soon after the events,with little or no thought for the family.

    1. Very difficult to argue with that Graham. It's a difficult conversation to hold because I'm sure that any time at all would be too soon for a family to live these events through again. As a rule of thumb however, two years feels far too close to home to depict the events in this way and, as I say in the article, I think it's wrong to place the blame for the film's bad reputation solely at the feet of censors and media. The film-makers knew exactly the risk they were taking.