The Black Panther

Ian Merrick
Michael Armstrong
Ian Merrick
Donald Sumpter, Gerry Sundquist,
Debbie Farrington, Ruth Dunning
Running Time:
98 mins
Available on Bluray and DVD from Amazon.
Read on: History (Part 1) >>
The Black Panther

The Black Panther - History: Part 1

The Black Panther

Made in 1977.

In the winter of 1976, Armstrong was introduced by Stanley Long of Alpha Films to Ian Merrick who was intending to make a film about Donald Neilson, the mass killer nicknamed by the media, The Black Panther.

Merrick, armed only with a paperback account of Neilson's crimes, had already acquired partial backing from private sources for the idea and had approached Long's distribution company, Alpha Films for a distribution guarantee to enable him to raise the balance required to make the movie.

Because of the huge notoriety of the case, Long was nervous of committing to the project, well aware that the decision to make a film about Neilson's activities and, especially the terrible murder of sixteen year old Lesley Whittle would be faced with fierce criticism from every quarter. He finally agreed subject to Armstrong writing the screenplay.

"I really met Ian more out of a sense of loyalty to Stanley than for any interest in the subject," says Armstrong, "In fact, I found the idea somewhat abhorrent and couldn't really see why anyone, other than for salacious reasons, would want to make a film about the case."

The meeting between Armstrong and Merrick however bore fruitful results.

"Two things made me agree to the project," says Armstrong, "Ian's obvious commitment to making a serious film rather than a piece of exploitation - and the other reason was I'd never written anything before based on a real-life event. Mark Of The Devil, although based upon certain historical realities was still, nevertheless, a fictional story. I think, if I'm really honest, it was ultimately that challenge which made me agree to write the screenplay - although, looking back, had I known the effect it would have on me, I'm not sure if I would have made the same decision I did then."

Merrick and Armstrong were in total agreement that they would resist any attempts to commercialise the film in any way. Upon that firm understanding, Armstrong embarked upon the screenplay.

The Black Panther

"For me, the crucial question, as always in cases like these, is what makes a man like Neilson do what he does?" The only way I felt I could get even halfway to that answer and avoid assumptions and drawing any conclusions was by depicting no more than verifiable facts, witness testimonies and above all Neilson's own version of events as recorded in the transcripts of the trial."

In order to achieve accuracy, Merrick employed a couple of researchers who painstakingly waded through not only the lengthy transcripts but also the seemingly endless amount of media coverage that had accumulated over the long period of Neilson's criminal activity.

"I felt that, to prevent any chance of the film slipping into subjective dramatisation rather than maintaining a clinical objectivity, dialogue should be minimal throughout - and then only generic or directly verifiable quotes from the trial transcripts or interviews in the media. There was so much media coverage of the case, including interviews with Neilson's daughter, that I was able to evolve a system of writing dialogue using a combination of direct quotes alternating with generic responses - when portraying glimpses of his domestic life and, in particular, the scenes with Lesley Whittle. For these, I used, Neilson's account of what he said and for Lesley Whittle's dialogue, only the kind of things any terrified sixteen-year-old girl would come out with in such a circumstance. This method of working meant I could avoid any writer's usual methods of characterisation. In other words, letting the people concerned speak for themselves, thereby allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions."

Slowly piecing all the information together, Armstrong and Merrick realised that there were, basically, two movies to be made. The one, Neilson's story. The other, the inept police investigation.

"There was no way we could really show the police side of things," Armstrong explains, "not without turning the film into an expose of police ineptitude and media interference, the combination of which could be claimed was partly responsible for the events which directly led to Lesley Whittle's death. This is why, in the finished film, all the Whittle family/police/media side of things are at a minimum and purely generic - although, having said that, there are still enough depicted incidents in there for an audience to glean some of the absurd incompetence which occurred."

The Black Panther

The other complication in writing the screenplay was that every line spoken and every action depicted, however tiny, had to be checked by lawyers as to its authenticity and its inability to defame, misrepresent or libel.

"We were even told - I don't know how true it was - that Neilson, himself, had actually taken legal consultation to consider suing for defamation of character - which, from a convicted self-confessed mass murderer, seemed a little strange - especially as the film was primarily depicting events as he, personally, had described them in court."

By the Christmas of 1976, Armstrong had a 1st draft of the screenplay completed and on the 31st of January delivered his final draft. The film went into pre-production the following day.

Despite a veil of secrecy surrounding the production, word began to leak out and Merrick was soon facing hostile criticism from every quarter, especially the various institutions representing sub-postmasters. Efforts were also now being made by various "moral" organisations and establishment bodies to prevent the film being made.

The role of Neilson was offered to Ian Holm. Impressed with the screenplay, Holm agreed - subject to his speaking with the Whittle family. As Lesley Whittle's brother had already expressed a wish to be distanced from the film and for their family's privacy to remain undisturbed, Holm's request for a brief meeting of reassurance was impossible. The part was consequently offered to Donald Sumpter who, co-incidentally, had been a fellow student with Armstrong at RADA, years earlier.

"Normally, I would have involved myself more heavily in the production side of the film but I needed to clear my head," Armstrong admits. "Writing the screenplay of Panther had upset and disturbed me so much that I found it difficult to go anywhere near it for a while. The whole experience of wading through piles and piles of research trying to ascertain whether or not a bullet hit someone in the right or the left shoulder, in order to be as accurate as possible in showing what happened...frankly, at times, it was more like doing an autopsy than writing a script. Also, unlike fiction where one explores human behaviour at a more universal level: here, the process was voyeuristic and, ultimately, demeaning. I felt like I was some horrible Peeping Tom or gutter journalist digging around for incriminating clues about people's private lives. I'm not saying that's what we'd been doing - far from it, in fact - but by the end, that's how I felt about myself...because to write a character, you have to be that character and when you've just lived through the pain and horror of what those poor people experienced and would never be able to forget for the rest of their lives then...well, it's very, very upsetting...I'm not saying I regret having gone through that - because I learnt a lot about myself in the process - but I seriously doubt I would ever agree to write something based upon a real-life murder case again. In fact, after Panther, I was approached by no less than six different producers, all wanting me to write a screenplay about the moors murders...sick! - and that's from the person who made Mark Of The Devil! - and if you can't see what the difference is, then you should stop taking the tabloids."

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The Black Panther - History: Part 2

The Black Panther

Shooting on The Black Panther commenced on the 28th March and continued through April and May, filming, as closely as was permitted on the actual locations. None of the sub-post offices granted access, although threats by members of their union to demonstrate and disrupt the shooting were never realised. The interior of the tunnel where Lesley Whittle was imprisoned was built and shot at Elstree.

The steady build of media hype and abuse, combined with a serious lack of finance to complete the film only served to increase the stress Merrick was under as he directed the film.

Still recuperating from the distress he had experienced in writing the screenplay, Armstrong, unusually, chose to stay clear of going on set for most of the early shooting, although he was in daily conference with Merrick.

"It was only later," he says, "when I could start to think of it as just another movie, that I was able to pluck up enough courage to go on set and see the screenplay being physically realised."

A commission to write 12 children's fairy tales for the audio market, from Barry O'Keef's record company, Maiden Music, may have had something to do with restoring Armstrong's normal buoyancy.

Press Coverage for The Black Panther

Now back on board, he joined Merrick in the cutting rooms as a barrage of hysterical outrage in the media escalated into major headline news in both the press and on television. At the same time, numerous organisations threatened to boycott the film and picket cinemas, forcing the majority of local councils throughout the country into declaring they would ban the film from being shown in their boroughs.

Armstrong stayed working closely with Merrick on the film until, on the 15th June, the fine cut had been successfully screened for the distributors, Alpha Films. He then returned to his new working alliance with Maiden Music [see Film Archive; The Enchanted Orchestra], casting Adventures Of A Plumber's Mate and commencing work for Stanley Long on a screenplay for a musical sex comedy spoof about Robin Hood. [see Theatre Archive: Movies That Never Got Made]

On the 17th October, amidst continuing controversy and ongoing press and television coverage, the magazine screening took place of The Black Panther.

Armstrong immediately started getting offers to script similar real-life murder cases, including the moors murders - all of which he turned down. He was also asked by producer, Sandy Lieberson, then head of the London office at 20th Century Fox, if he would script a film about the real-life attempted robbery of a London restaurant which went absurdly and comically wrong and had become popularly known by the public as the "Spaghetti House Siege". Like the other projects Armstrong had turned down, Lieberson's film was never realised either, failing to get a green light from the Hollywood office.

The Black Panther Video Sleeve

On November 7th, a special industry screening of the film occurred at BAFTA where the film was well received by the invited audience.

It opened in London on the 26th December at the Plaza 3 cinema in Piccadilly Circus.

Despite good reviews, its opening over the Christmas period and a sudden fall-off of the headlines condemned the film to bad box office. To make matters worse, many local councils banned the film without even seeing it so that its nationwide release failed similarly. Foreign sales also suffered because the case was little known outside the UK.

Alpha later issued it on video but sales were poor and it was not re-released.

It has never been released on DVD.

"I felt so sorry for Ian," Armstrong says, "He'd put everything he'd got into that film and it was a good film but...he went back to America quite embittered over the various organisations who'd condemned it without even bothering to see it. Normally movies with so much media coverage result in audiences flocking to see what all the fuss was about but, somehow, that just didn't happen with Panther. Of course, a Boxing Day opening for such a grim and depressing subject didn't exactly help. It's such a shame because Ian did a great job and Don [Donald Sumpter who played Neilson] gives an amazing performance. Then again, maybe for the sake of Lesley Whittle's family and those of the sub-postmasters who were murdered, it was better that things worked out the way they did. I pray that, one day, they find peace - if that will ever be possible. If I could get so upset just writing about what happened: what ever must it have been like to have it happen to you for real?"

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