DVD Movie Review: The Black Panther (1977)

blackpanther3bigCallousness in extremis

This is quite something – the much-to-be-admired BFI has recently released Ian Merrick‘s study of the times and crimes of Donald Nielson, aka The Black Panther, on DVD with a second disc of superb extra features, and the package as a whole is one of the most chilling, intelligent crime dramas you are ever likely to see.

A jobbing builder in Bradford, West Yorkshire, Donald Neilson turned to crime when his business failed. It is believed he committed over 400 house burglaries without detection during his early days of crime. Before he became notorious as The Black Panther he was sought under a variety of nicknames such as The Phantom and Handy Andy. To confuse the police, he adopted a different modus operandi every few weeks. For example he would steal a radio from each house and abandon it nearby, then when that pattern of behaviour was established he would drop it and do something else. Proceeds from simple housebreaking were low however and after stealing guns and ammunition from a house in Cheshire he upped his criminal activity which resulted in his turning to robbing small post offices. Neilson committed eighteen such crimes between 1971 and 1974. His phobia about dogs meant that he avoided post offices with guard dogs.

His crimes became progressively more violent as he sought to protect himself from occupants prepared to put up a resistance to defend their property. In February 1972 he gained entry to a sub-post office in Rochdale Road, Heywood, Lancashire during the night. Leslie Richardson, the postmaster, and his wife woke to find a hooded man in their bedroom. Richardson leapt out of bed to tackle the intruder while his wife phoned the police. During the struggle, Neilson showed Richardson his sawn-off shotgun and snapped in a West Indian accent, “This is loaded.” Mr Richardson saw that the gun was pointing up at the ceiling and there was no danger of anyone being shot. He snapped back, “We’ll find out if it’s loaded,” and pulled the trigger himself blasting two holes in the ceiling. The fight continued and Richardson managed to pull Neilson’s black hood off to reveal not the West Indian he had expected but a white man with dark staring eyes. Neilson then stamped mercilessly on Richardson’s feet breaking several toes and kneed him in the groin. As Richardson collapsed on the floor, Neilson made his escape empty-handed. Richardson gave police a description of his masked intruder which turned out to be inaccurate in many respects. Several other photofits of Neilson were similarly unhelpful to the police but one, made by sub-postmistress Margaret Grayland, was extremely accurate.

Neilson’s first three murders occurred in 1974. He shot dead two sub-postmasters and the husband of a sub-postmistress as well as brutally battering sub-postmistress Margaret ‘Peggy’ Grayland in post office robberies. He killed Donald Skepper in Harrogate in February 1974, Derek Astin of Baxenden near Accrington in September 1974, and Sidney Grayland in Langley, West Midlands during November 1974. The Baxenden murder gained Neilson the nickname The Black Panther when, during an interview with a local television reporter, Astin’s wife, Marion, described her husband’s killer as “so quick, he was like a panther”. Alluding to the killer’s dark clothing, the enterprising reporter ended his piece by asking “Where is this Black Panther?” and the soubriquet stuck. The Whittle case made him Britain’s most wanted man in the mid-1970s and the kidnapper was irrefutably linked to the post office shootings when he shot security guard Gerald Smith six times while checking a ransom trail and forensics showed the bullets were fired from the same .22 pistol that was used to shoot Derek Astin and Sidney Grayland.

Lesley Whittle (1957–1975) was a 17-year-old girl and was Neilson’s youngest victim. Whittle was the daughter of noted coach transport business owner George Whittle, who had left his entire fortune to his second wife and their children, Ronald and Lesley. After reading about a family dispute over George’s will, and three years of planning, on 14 January 1975 Neilson entered the Whittle family home in Highley, Shropshire, and kidnapped Lesley from her bedroom.

Neilson calculated that the family would not materially miss £50,000 of their fortune, and so made a subsequent demand in a note left at the family home for that sum. A series of police bungles and other circumstances meant that Whittle’s brother Ronald was unable to deliver the ransom money to the place and time demanded by the kidnapper.

Whittle’s body was found on 7 March 1975, hanging from a wire at the bottom of the drainage shaft where he had tethered her in Bathpool Park, at Kidsgrove, Staffordshire. The subsequent post-mortem examination showed that Whittle had not, in fact, died slowly from strangulation, but instantaneously from vagal inhibition. The shock of the fall had caused her heart to stop beating.

After being caught by chance by two policemen in early 1975, Nielson was arrested and sentenced to full life imprisonment in 1976, remaining in prison until his death on 18 December 2011.

So what sort of a job does Merrick’s film do in recounting the horror?

It is quite brilliant – as is customary with brave, unforgiving work such as this, the media and critical reaction at the time was near-enough entirely reactionary, describing the film as twisted, sick, and all the rest – even Sue Lawley called the film ‘sick’ on the BBC’s Tonight programme at the time. However, if said self-appointed moral guardians had actually applied themselves to impassive examination, they would have seen what everyone can so clearly see now – that The Black Panther (1977) is in fact a remarkably respectful, brilliantly written clinical examination of Nielson’s crimes, and a compassionate account of their affect on his victims and their familes. Merrick’s direction, as the film’s opening credits announce, is based entirely on what was known about the crimes, even to the point that Nielson is not actually shown killing Whittle, as a renowned psychiatrist of the time expressed his conviction that her death had in fact been an accident, as Nielson always maintained.

It was of course filmed very near the time of the murders, so Merrick’s film cannot be credited with ‘recreating’ the period, but what it does do so well is offer an insight not only into the horror of Nielson’s crimes and the terror he spread, but also of a society that is at the end of its tether – a key scene shows several thugs beating a man up in the street, with Nielson and others simply turning a blind eye, for example, and Michael Armstrong’s spare, emotionless script provides a completely non-sensational account not only of the killings, but also of Nielson’s appallingly aloof attitude to his own wife (Marjorie Yates) and daughter (Sylvia O’Donnell).

Donald Sumpter is quite remarkable as Nielson, and the rest of the cast provides performances that are entirely in keeping with the dark, sombre mood. Debbie Farrington as Lesley Whittle is also a standout.

Not a film to enjoy, but one that transfixes, educates and appalls. Unmissable.

Watch The Black Panther here.

102 mins.

Source for text in bold: Wikipedia

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