When is Des on ITV? When David Tennant’s true crime drama starts

Everything you need to know about the upcoming drama about serial killer Dennis Nilsen.

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Des

ITV’s new drama Des, starring David Tennant, tells the story of serial killer Dennis Nilsen, who murdered at least 12 men and boys in London prior to his arrest in 1983.

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The series is based on Brian Masters’ biography of Nilsen, Killing for Company, and focuses on the events which occurred after the killer was captured by police.

Tennant, who portrays Nilsen opposite Daniel Mays as Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay and Jason Watkins as Masters, recently told Radio Times how he delved into the character, using source material to hone his portrayal.

“There is some footage of Nilsen in an interview he did with Granada Television when he was in prison, and he was an avid home movie-maker, some of which survive, so we were able to see those,” he explained.

“It was a useful starting point to see how he moved and how he sounded, as there are occasional bits of audio of him around, too. And of course the notebooks – he wrote and wrote and wrote in prison.”

RadioTimes.com also revealed an exclusive first-look clip of David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen in Des, showing a scene from the trial.

In the teaser, the prosecution is seen telling the jury they have a decision to make on whether Nilsen murdered the men or whether he was guilty of manslaughter.

He notes the defence doesn’t dispute that Nilsen killed the victims, but that it claims Nilsen was not of sound mind when he committed the crimes, adding: “I intend to prove that Mr Nilsen not only knew what he was doing, but that these crimes were pre-meditated and carefully planned.”

We’ve put together everything you need to know about Des, including when it’ll air on ITV.

When is Des on TV?

CONFIRMED: Des will premiere on Monday 14th September at 9pm on ITV.

The drama will air across the week, with episode two on Tuesday 15th September at 9pm and episode three (the final episode) on Wednesday 16th September at 9pm.

What is Des about?

Des
David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen, and Jason Watkins as his biographer, Brian Masters
ITV

The series will tell the story of the arrest and trial of serial killer Dennis Nilsen, known as Des, through the prism of three different men – Nilsen himself, Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay, and biographer Brian Masters.

ITV promises that the series will explore the personal and professional consequences of coming into contact with a man like Nilsen – who murdered several boys and young men in his flat from 1978 to 1983 and went undetected until police were called following reports of human fragments of flesh and bone clogging the drains. The murders themselves will not be shown, out of respect for the dead. 

The broadcaster says: “Des will explore how a man like Nilsen was able to prey on the young and vulnerable in 1980s Britain.  The series will not only highlight the police investigation and trial but also the effect of the media coverage on public perceptions of the victims at the time, raising questions of just how far have we really come since then.”

Speaking to RadioTimes.com and other press, director Lewis Arnold said that Des carries a chilling warning for viewers.

“Nilsen was able to prey on these vulnerable young men and go undetected for five years without society noticing, or worse, caring,” he said. “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.”

Who is in the cast of Des?

David Tennant, who looks to have undergone something of a transformation for the show, leads the cast, playing Dennis Nilsen. 

Explaining how he researched the role so he could embody Nilsen, Tennant told Radio Times magazine: “There is some footage of Nilsen in an interview he did with Granada Television when he was in prison, and he was an avid home movie-maker, some of which survive, so we were able to see those.

“It was a useful starting point to see how he moved and how he sounded, as there are occasional bits of audio of him around, too. And of course the notebooks – he wrote and wrote and wrote in prison.”

Des
David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen
ITV

Tennant is joined by a wealth of highly regarded British actors, including Daniel Mays (Line of Duty) as DCI Peter Jay, Jason Watkins (The Crown, The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies) as Brian Masters, in addition to Ron Cook (Mr Selfridge) and Faye McKeever (Trollied).

Des-mays
(L-R) Barry Ward as Detective McCusker and Daniel Mays (Line of Duty) as DCI Peter Jay

The cast is rounded out by Chanel Cresswell, Barry Ward, Tony Way, Bronagh Waugh, Laurie Kynaston, Ross Anderson, Ben Bailey Smith, Jay Simpson, Silas Carson, Stuart McQuarrie, Jamie Parker, Lex Shrapnel, Gerard Horan, Joel Morris, Jonathan Coy, Amy Booth-Steel, Ken Bones, Andrew Woodall and Amaka Okafor.

Des
Jason Watkins as Brian Masters
ITCV

Is the real Dennis Nilsen still alive?

Nilsen was actually still alive when the ITV drama first went into production, but he died in 2018. He was 72, and had spent the last 35 years of his life behind bars.

And David Tennant has said he is “relieved” the real-life Nilsen is not alive to see the drama go out on national television, explaining: “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.”

Dennis Nilsen

And the name of the show itself, “Des”, was chosen because the nickname was part of Nilsen’s public persona during the years he was carrying out the killings, series co-creator and writer Luke Neal said.

He explained: “’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.

“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.”

Is there a trailer for Des?

There certainly is a Des trailer, and it’s a creepy affair.  

David Tennant, Jason Watkins and Daniel Mays all-star in the gripping trailer, which you can see here.

ITV has also released an exclusive first-look clip of the show to RadioTimes.com, featuring Dennis Nilsen in the dock.

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Des starts on ITV on Monday 14th September at 9pm. You can buy Brian Masters’ original biography on Dennis Nilsen, Killing for Company, on Amazon. Find out what else to watch with our TV Guide.