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TV Review: The Black Panther Murders: Born to Kill?

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Years ago I used to quite like Crimewatch, until one day I realised that, despite telling us not to have nightmares, the people who made the reconstructions of various terrible events were going out of their way to make sure we did.

The so-called Black Panther – Donald Neilson died in 2011

Murder. Rape. Torture. Armed robbery – Crimewatch strives to make these things look incredibly sexy. Everyone who gets to direct a segment thinks he's the next Quentin Tarantino. You can practically hear the excited heavy breathing every time somebody gets a shotgun pointed in their face.

Presumably some graduates of the Crimewatch school of responsible television had a hand in the new series of Born to Kill, Channel Five's barrel-scraping crime documentary strand.

My hopes weren't exactly high when I checked the channel's own website to see this programme on Donald Neilson, the so-called Black Panther, billed as – and I quote – a "profile of the 1970s armed robber and kidnapper". (Coming up later: Leo Sayer, a profile of the 1970s singer/songwriter.)

Let's ignore for a minute the question of why an armed robber and kidnapper – and multiple murderer – needs an hour-long profile in a peak time Tuesday slot and move on to the opening.

The programme's logo was lifted straight out of grimy, unsettling films such as Saw and Hostel. There was even – a tasteful touch, this – what looked like blood dripping from one of the letters.

The rest of the programme told, with considerable relish, how Neilson went from troubled youth to career criminal who abducted and killed the teenage Shropshire heiress Lesley Whittle.

Now, her story has been told over and over, and I've no intention of repeating it here.

Still, Channel Five had an excuse. They were looking at why Neilson committed his crimes, which included burglary and armed robbery. This was a thoughtful, sober and informative attempt to understand the criminal mind.

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Oh, who are they trying to kid? This was a cheap excuse to exploit somebody else's misfortune. TV made by ghouls for ghouls.

"Was he driven to a life of crime?" asked overly earnest voiceover man. "Or was he BORN TO KILL?" (Surprisingly he didn't go the whole hog and end his question laughing like Vincent Price at the end of Michael Jackson's Thriller. You missed a trick there, Channel Five.)

Every time the narrative reached a particularly important or academic point – such as a man in a balaclava pointing a shotgun out of the screen – the dramatic music that ran throughout would swell to give added impact.

He was bullied as a child because his surname was originally Nappey – ta da! He liked being in the Army – ta da! He liked discipline – ta da! And had a tough relationship with his father – TA DA!!! Born to kill? Of course not, and anyone who says otherwise is an idiot, a Channel Five producer or, possibly, both.

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Donald Neilson died in prison in 2011, aged 75.

Let him rot.

Later on, over on ITV 2, viewers could enjoy Anthony Hopkins and co having each other for lunch in Red Dragon, one of several films about Dr Hannibal 'The Cannibal' Lecter.

Fortunately, most people can tell the difference between cheap thrills and real-life tragedy.

Well, unless they work for Channel Five.

Andrew Owen

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