A Review: The Black Panther (1977)
Free and on YouTube, Kidsgrove and Bathpool Park are pivotal in the thriller 'The Black Panther' which tells the true story of Donald Neilson (not to be confused with Dennis Neilson) who kidnapped and murdered Heiress Lesley Whittle in1975.
Directed by Ian Merrick and starring Donald Sumpter as Neilson (formerly Nappey) the film is a low budget factual account highlighting the terror that gripped north Staffordshire in the mid-1970s.
This pioneering docu-drama like footage contains very little dialogue, leaving the few lines that are uttered enmeshed in a shadowy, empty, tinny cinematic projection.
On the other hand, if it is local landmarks of local interest you enjoy, this is a must. The town of Kidsgrove is the setting for the final twist to be delivered in this real life depiction filmed only two years after Nielson's arrest.
Boathorse Road (which can be seen from the 34A bus) is also clearly detectible when Neilson undertakes his reconnaissance to Bathpool before the abduction.
Location aside, this no-nonsense documentation unmistakeably and unashamedly reveals Neilson's brutal regimented personality, principally directed towards his beleaguered wife and daughter. In one scene Neilson tells his daughter in no uncertain terms that if she was ever faced with a gun she should co-operate which infers that Neilson would try to justify his executions.
The realistic post office raids in the early hours and subsequent shooting of postmasters awakened from their beds tellingly reveals that the 'Black Panther' would callously dispatch anything or anybody that would get in his way.
As an ex-soldier, Nielson exacted all of his crimes with military precision. Nevertheless, one colossal and confusing error would see him die in prison in 2011 aged 75 years.
The puzzlement is concentrated on the telephone boxes in Kidderminster (the film mentions Walsall) where Ronald Whittle (Lesley's brother) was to receive a telephone call at the Swan shopping centre regarding the ransom instructions.
Journalists had inadvertently turned up at the scene after a tip-off and Neilson had fled. The whole story had then been subsequently reported in the media but later the coverage had been blacked out. This media blackout was lifted at a later date.
Knowing now that the police must be involved at this point, why did the Panther arrange a later drop of the £50,000 ransom money at Bathpool Park where the young girl was entombed?
Phone booths are metaphorically woven into the story line of The Black Panther. One such booth is featured outside Kidsgrove Post Office where Lesley's brother would visit for the final instructions. In one phone box scene the camera pulls away slowly and film almost becomes still; for the lens to zoom in quickly again to produce an unusual filmic take.
The climax of this veritable narrative unfolds when the proposed ransom drop becomes slipshod which spells the death for the noosed16 year old left for three days in an underground drainage shaft at Bathpool Park.
However, Lesley had not died from slow strangulation but from vagal inhibition (her heart had stopped beating before she hung). And worse, the pathologist evidenced that there had been no food found in her stomach and she had weighed just 98 pounds.
Police incompetence is hinted at in the film whereas Staffordshire Police would come under intense criticism for their overall handling of the operation as in they had bungled the instructions for Ronald Whittle's proposed ultimate drop.
However, police forces from Shropshire, West Midlands and even Scotland Yard were also thought to be equally accountable.