Why “Des”? The real meaning behind the title of ITV’s Dennis Nilsen serial killer drama

The drama's writer joins David Tennant in explaining the intriguing secondary meaning behind the seemingly simple title.

Des David Tennant and Daniel Mays

Quick question: why exactly is new ITV serial drama called Des? Without having watched the three-part series, you’d likely answer the title refers to its subject, Dennis Nilsen, the Scottish mass murderer played by former Doctor Who star David Tennant.

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And you’d be right. Well, partly. Turns out there’s another key reason why the killer’s nickname was picked over the likes of ‘Nilsen’ or, as he was also known in headlines of the time, ‘The Muswell Hill Murderer’.

Speaking to RadioTimes.com and other press, series co-creator and writer Luke Neal explained how the title cites how ‘Des’ Nilsen, a seemingly harmless JobCentre worker, was the false persona of a man who butchered up to 15 innocent people.

“’Des’ was something that Dennis Nilsen called himself. To people that knew him, Nilsen was head of a union. He was somebody who was a champion of the downtrodden. He was somebody who was nice to people. But ‘Des’ was a construct that Dennis Nilsen had made in order to get people back to his flat and to kill them,” he said.

“It was a construct of a compulsive psychopath narcissist made in order to get away with murder […] Des is a fallacy that allowed Nilsen to control his own narrative.”

Neal also explained how the title reflects what motivates the other main real-life characters in the series, DCI Peter Jay (the police officer head of the case, played by Daniel Mays) and Nilsen’s biographer Brian Masters (Jason Watkins).

“The job of Brian and Peter in this series is to get past ‘Des’ – to get past, what people called, the ‘Kindly Killer’. They have to see the real person behind that in order to see the answers needed to be found. And then find out how this man got away with killing for five years.”

Speaking about the show’s title, lead David Tennant added: “After he was arrested, Dennis Nilsen became obsessed with was the legend of ‘Des’ – the reputation that he left behind. Whenever he slipped out 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. I would hate for this to go out and for him to be sitting in some cell somewhere imaging we were in any way glorifying him. I’m sure he would have complained about 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.”

In May 2018, Nilsen died in aged 72. He suffered a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm, passing away in “excruciating pain,” according to his inquest.

ITV’s Des follows the serial killer’s capture and sentencing for six counts of murder in 1983. As the drama highlights, many of Nilsen’s victims were never identified.

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

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