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 Neilsonís crimes, had already acquired partial backing from private sources for the idea and had approached Longís 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 Neilsonís 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 couldnít 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, "Ianís obvious commitment to making a serious film rather than a piece of exploitation - and the other reason was Iíd 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 Iím 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, Iím 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.
"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 Neilsonís 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 Neilsonís 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 Neilsonís 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, Neilsonís account of what he said and for Lesley Whittleís 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 writerís 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, Neilsonís 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 Whittleís 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 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 donít 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 Whittleís brother had already expressed a wish to be distanced from the film and for their familyís privacy to remain undisturbed, Holmís 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 peopleís private lives. Iím not saying thatís what weíd been doing - far from it, in fact - but by the end, thatís how I felt about myself...because to write a character, you have to be that character and when youíve 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, itís very, very upsetting...Iím 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 thatís from the person who made Mark Of The Devil! - and if you canít see what the difference is, then you should stop taking the tabloids."
Copyright © 2005 Michael Armstrong