Warning: this article touches on subject matter that some readers may find distressing
1983. A time of mass unemployment, widespread civil unrest, a deep recession – and also the setting of Des, the new ITV drama delving into the life of real-life serial killer Dennis Nilsen.
Starting with his arrest, the new three-part series follows Nilsen (played by former Doctor Who star David Tennant) as he confesses to killing 15 young men across London over five years.
And although set almost four decades ago, the show carries a critical message for our own time, according to writer Luke Neal. Speaking to RadioTimes.com and other press ahead of the show’s launch, Neal suggested that an unforgiving economic climate and lacklustre social care helped Nilsen operate under the radar.
“It’s very important to say that whatever motivations Nilsen had, the fact that he was able to kill is the most important thing,” Neal said, before citing how many of Nilsen’s victims were poor or homeless.
“The fact that there was a population that was invisible to society is how he could get them to his place. And he could keep getting them to his place until he did it 12 or 15 times […] It’s worth reminding all of this is incidental if he doesn’t have a situation where he can get away with this.”
Neal expanded on these comments further when introducing the series alongside director Lewis Arnold.
“Working on Des has taught us both a lot about society; how much it’s changed in some ways since 1983, but alarmingly, how it’s stayed the same in others,” he said.
“The poor are as poor as they have ever been, homelessness is on the rise and we are facing record unemployment. Nilsen was able to prey on these vulnerable young men and go undetected for five years without society noticing, or worse, caring. The economic and political resonance between the 1980s and today made this story feel sadly as relevant as it’s always been.
“The question we have asked ourselves quite a few times during development is: If Nilsen were operating today, would he get away with his crimes to the same degree and for as long as he did in 1978 to 1983?
“The truthful answer, ‘probably’, sadly still makes this such an important story to tell. We must never forget these crimes, however unpalatable. If we do, we risk someone as abhorrent and dangerous as Nilsen thriving again.”
Between 1978 and 1983, Dennis Nilsen murdered up to 15 men. 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.
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).
Des begins Monday 14th September on ITV. Find out what else to watch with our TV Guide.