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Des stars David Tennant and Daniel Mays on the pressure of playing real-life characters

The three-part ITV true crime drama about serial killer Dennis Nilsen airs across three nights this week.

Des David Tennant

David Tennant and Daniel Mays have spoken out about the pressure of playing real-life characters in ITV true crime drama Des, ahead of the three-part series’ first episode tonight (Monday 14th September).

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Tennant plays serial killer Dennis Nilsen, nicknamed Des, in the series, while Mays takes on the role of Peter Jay, a detective inspector heavily involved in the case – and both actors have said that playing real-life characters poses unique challenges.

Speaking in the most recent issue of Radio Times, Tennant said: “What we didn’t want to do is titillate or turn Des into a horror movie. That is not the kind of story we are trying to tell. What we are doing is trying to figure out who this creature was.

“Why he did what he did, in terms of what went on when he picked up men and took them back to his flat – the only real witness we have to any of that is Dennis Nilsen. But he’s proved himself to be an unreliable narrator on many occasions. So the audience is taken into the story by Peter Jay’s character, you discover the horrors through his eyes [as in the pan-on-the-stove scene].

“We can never really understand Nilsen’s point of view so we have to come to it through Jay and Brian Masters. They both view him through very different lenses.”

“When you’re making a story about something that is living history, you must do it sensitively,” says Tennant. “You are talking about things that are still very raw and we were aware of that every day on set and in the edit. We were always discussing this, even down to what cards you put up at the end [before the credits of the third and final episode] to talk about what happened after the event.”

Meanwhile Mays told BBC News, that the added pressure of being part of the cast for a drama like Des came from wanting to do justice to those people involved in the real story.

He said: “There’s always the added pressure when you’re playing a real person, particularly in a story like this. You want to do the story justice.”

The series tells the story of the arrest and trial of Nilsen through the prism of three different men – Nilsen himself, Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay, and biographer Brian Masters, played by Jason Watkins.

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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 before his crimes were discovered.

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.