David Tennant: I’m relieved Dennis Nilsen isn’t alive to see Des

The recently deceased serial killer would have loved the publicity generated by Des, says the ITV drama's lead.

David Tennant in Des

Although alive when the show first went into production, notorious serial killer Dennis Nilsen will never see new drama Des.

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The murderer of at least 12 men died himself in 2018, with the three-part series documenting his arrest and trial finally airing on ITV this September.

According to star David Tennant, his passing is a huge relief. Speaking to RadioTimes.com and other press ahead of the series, the former Doctor Who star suggested he was thankful Nilsen wouldn’t be able to enjoy any interest stirred up by the show.

“After he was arrested, Dennis Nilsen became obsessed with was the legend of ‘Des’ – the reputation that he left behind. Whenever he slipped out of public consciousness, there was almost a sense that he wanted to get back into it. That’s why I’m relieved he’s not alive,” Tennant said.

“I would hate for this to go out and for him to be sitting in some cell somewhere imagining we were in any way glorifying him. I’m sure he would have complained about what we said and everything we did. At the same time, he would have been rather smugly pleased he was on television.

“I think it’s right and proper it’s transmitting after he’s gone.”

Tennant also added the series – a project which took five years to complete – is in no way trying to add unnecessary drama and depth to Nilsen’s crimes.

“[Des] found the right way to tell this story. It wasn’t sensationalist. It wasn’t celebrating the violence, it was memorialising the victims,” he explained.

“I thought this was a story that we should tell […] With these stories, it’s tricky to get the balance right. You want to tell it with appropriateness. You want to tell it with sensitivity. You don’t want to slip into sensationalism, which would be too easy to do and would not serve the victims.”

David Tennant Dennis Nilsen – ITV's Des
David Tennant (L) and the real Dennis Nilsen

Speaking later about the pressure of playing Nilsen, Tennant added: “We are telling a story that is still within living memory, so there are members of the victims’ families who are still devastated by what Nilsen did and there are the victims whose lives have ended because of Nilsen.

“We are all aware of the responsibility of telling this story, and I think it is right to tell this story as it’s a part of who we are as a society and as humans. The last thing we want is to make anyone feel exploited and we have been very careful to not do this at every stage of the development.

“Everyone is aware of the real-life damage of this story and I hope that people will see that we have told this story responsibly.”

As Des writer Luke Neal explained, in order to portray Nilsen responsibly, he decided no actual murders would be shown on screen. The show instead would start shortly before Nilsen’s arrest in February 1983.

“In our view, the only thing those poor men who went home with Dennis Nilsen did was go with somebody they met with somebody in the pub for a few more drinks. [Their death] doesn’t deserve to be gratuitously shown in a TV drama.

“I think we actually wanted to tell another story, which was the human cost of Dennis Nilsen. What comes after he’s caught.”

A former policeman, Nilsen murdered up to 15 men between 1978 and 1983. After killing his victims by strangulation or drowning, he would bath and dress their bodies. Police were alerted to the crimes when dissected remains were found stuck in the drainage system of Nilsen’s flat.

After spending a total of 35 years behind bars, Nilsen died aged 72 after suffering a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. According to the inquest of the death, Nilsen died in “excruciating pain”.

Alongside Tennant, Des also stars Jason Watkins (Line of Duty), Daniel Mays (White Lines), Chanel Cresswell (This is England), Barry Ward (White Lines) and Ron Cook (Mr Selfridge).

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Des is coming to ITV Monday 14th September. Find out what else to watch with our TV Guide.