The truth behind The Real Des: The Dennis Nilsen story

Dennis Nilsen’s crimes will be explored in ITV’s new documentary.

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Dennis Nilsen and Des' David Tennant

Following on from ITV’s drama series Des, Dennis Nilsen – the notorious killer of at least 12 young men across London during the 80s – will once again be explored in new documentary, The Real Des: The Dennis Nilsen story, which will be narrated by David Tennant.

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The hour-long film will delve deeper into the real cases and the mind of the killer, who was the focus of the three-part drama, starring former Doctor Who star David Tennant.

Known as a “kindly killer” the documentary will detail Nilsen’s moves between 1978 and 1983, after which he admitted to killing as many as 15 young men.

So where is he now? Is he still alive? And are his victims known?

Here’s everything you need to know about the Dennis Nilsen story.

When is Des: The Real Dennis Nilsen story on?

The documentary will air on ITV on Thursday, September 17th at 9pm.

It comes after the drama series, which aired on ITV on Monday night, and continued on Tuesday 15th and Wednesday 16th.

All episodes will be made available to stream on the ITV Hub once broadcasted.

Who is Dennis Nilsen?

Dennis Nilsen – from Aberdeenshire, Scotland – was one of the most prolific serial killers in UK history. Although he is known to have killed 12 men from 1978 and 1983 in London, the actual number is disputed, with Nilsen claiming to have killed 15.

However, Nilsen claimed not to remember much of some murders, offering only vague victim profiles to the police. Although appearing to rarely recall their names, he reminisced fondly about the exact conversations he enjoyed with victims.

In his lifetime, Nilsen is believed to have attempted to kill seven others.

Nilsen murdered almost all his victims through strangulation alone. However, if this method failed to kill, he also drowned several men in his bath when they were unconscious. He hid the bodies in his flat, often washing and redressing them after death. After several days he would dissect the bodies before burning them in a bonfire, or – later on – boiling the remains and flushing them down the drain.

dennis nilsen Des
The real Dennis Nilsen after his arrest in 1983

As the ITV series Des and the documentary suggest, Nilsen preferred to be called “Des”, with his post addressed to “Des Nilsen”.

Controversially, in Killing for Company: The Story of a Man Addicted to Murder (the book which the series is based on), author Brian Masters suggested “Des” was the more human side to serial killer “Dennis Nilsen”.

Nilsen served in the Metropolitan Police from 1972 to 1973, several years before his murder spree. He claims to have resigned from the force due to homophobia, with Masters noting Nilsen “left with a moderate report and with no complaints having been lodged against him”.

Although Nilsen admitted he was fascinated at seeing dead bodies in the police morgue, this was not noticed by his colleagues.

Prior to joining the police, Nilsen worked as a cook in the army, a job which took him to Germany.

Dennis Nilsen – from Aberdeenshire, Scotland – was one of the most prolific serial killers in UK history. Although he is known to have killed 12 men from 1978 and 1983 in London, the actual number is disputed, with Nilsen claiming to have killed 15.

However, Nilsen claimed not to remember much of some murders, offering only vague victim profiles to the police. Although appearing to rarely recall their names, he reminisced fondly about the exact conversations he enjoyed with victims.

In his lifetime, Nilsen is believed to have attempted to kill seven others.

What crimes did Dennis Nilsen commit?

We may never know exactly how many people Nilsen killed, but he was convicted for six counts of murder.

Immediately after he was arrested, Nilsen claimed he had murdered 15 men and spoke about each killing in-depth over 30 hours of police interviews. However, months afterwards, Nilsen then claimed he had fabricated three victims. This irked police who noted Nilsen had never contradicted himself or hesitated when speaking about these murders previously.

Although depicted as a ‘gay killer’ by the media of the time, many of Nilsen’s victims were not homosexual. Nilsen mainly preyed on homeless and vulnerable men, or simply those looking to continue drinking after a night down the pub.

Who were Dennis Nilsen’s victims?

Nilsen’s known victims are:

  • Stephen Dean Holmes, 14. Nilsen’s first victim, Holmes’ remains were only first identified in 2006.
  • Kenneth Ockenden, 23. The Canadian student was one of the few of Nilsen’s victims ever reported missing
  • Malcolm Barlow, 23. An epileptic orphan, he had spent most of his life in care homes. Barlow had only entered Nilsen’s flat to thank him for offering medical assistance the previous day.
  • John Howlett, 23 Howlett was strangled in his sleep by Nilsen
  • Graham Allen, 27. Father of one
  • Stephen Sinclair, 20. Nilsen’s final victim was a heroin addict, who often self-harmed.

At least six of Nilsen’s victims have never been identified.

How did Dennis Nilsen get caught?

In February 1983, Nilsen’s crimes were finally discovered by police after blocking his drains with human remains.

He initially said the body parts were remnants of a KFC meal, but law enforcement was alerted after a drainage worker discovered what was eventually identified as a human knuckle.

Dennis Nilsen's flat in 1983
Dennis Nilsen’s flat in 1983

According to Masters, when confronted by Police, Nilsen acted horrified at the discovery, exclaiming “Good grief, how awful!” However, after being asked where the rest of the body was hidden, he immediately confessed.

“It’s a long story; it goes back a long time,” he said. “I’ll tell you everything. I want to get it off my chest. Not here — at the police station.”

At the time of his arrest, Nilsen was employed at a Jobcentre in Denmark Street, London.

Des David Tennant
David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen in Des

How did Dennis Nilsen die?

In 2018, Dennis Nilsen died in prison aged 72 after suffering a ruptured aneurysm.

Dennis Nilsen (David Tennant) and Brian Masters (Jason Watkins) in Des
Dennis Nilsen (David Tennant) and Brian Masters (Jason Watkins) in Des

Who is Brian Masters?

Brian Masters, 81, is a journalist and author. Throughout his career, he has written about the royal family – and several mass murderers, including Rosemary West and Jeffrey Dahmer.

After writing a letters to Nilsen shortly after his arrest in 1983, Masters met with the killer in prison without having “felt the slightest unease”. This and their subsequent meetings were documented in book Killing for Company, in which Nilsen described in depth each murder.

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The last episode of Des airs on ITV on Wednesday, September 16th at 9pm. The Real ‘Des’: The Dennis Nilsen Story is on ITV on Friday 17th 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