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David Tennant on why it’s important killer Dennis Nilsen’s story is told in ITV’s Des: ‘This is dark and bleak – and ready to be told’

Alison Graham talks to David Tennant about how he approached playing one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers.

David Tennant as Des in The Big RT Interview

In the opening episode of Des, a police officer approaches a pan on the stove in the seedy kitchen of a grim north London flat. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you, guv,” shouts an underling before the detective has a chance to lift the lid.

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Though we don’t see it, the pan contains a human head. The flat is at 23 Cranley Gardens in Muswell Hill, an address – like 10 Rillington Place and 25 Cromwell Street, homes of mass killers Reg Christie, and Fred and Rose West – that will live in infamy.

The Cranley Gardens flat was the home of Dennis Nilsen, 37, a civil servant who murdered young men. His crimes were only discovered when the drains became blocked by human flesh. The flesh that Nilsen had flushed down his toilet after he dismembered his victims – men who had fallen through the cracks in society, men Nilsen picked up in London bars, took home, ostensibly for a drink and a meal, and later killed, confident they wouldn’t be missed.

Nilsen was jailed for life at the Old Bailey in 1983, after being convicted on six counts of murder and two of attempted murder, though police always believed the death toll was much higher. He died in prison in 2018.

The repulsive story transfixed Britain and the wider world and remains a byword for the horrors that can lie behind the most banal doors on the most ordinary of suburban streets.

David Tennant was only 12 when the case broke, so his memories are sketchy, though he later became fascinated by how an outwardly nondescript-looking man who worked in a job centre in Kentish Town, north-west London, and whose colleagues thought he was pompous and boring, went home to bloody, anarchic, murderous chaos. He plays Nilsen in ITV’s three-part Des, showing on three nights this week. It was written and executive-produced by Luke Neal, and developed by Neal with its director, Lewis Arnold.

Tennant’s extraordinary performance dominates. Even when he’s not on screen, his Nilsen shadow is long and dark. He has captured not only Nilsen’s casual narcissism and utter lack of remorse, but also his dead-eyed stare, the one everyone knows from his arrest photo. Tennant looks like the killer, too – oddly, people have never been afraid to mention this potentially unflattering observation.

“Yes, I know, it’s always the kind of thing that people would point out,” Tennant tells me, “so maybe that was one of the reasons why I thought, ‘Maybe there’s a story to tell’.”

Tennant’s interest in the Nilsen case was piqued “when I read Brian Masters’s book Killing for Company when I lived in Crouch End [a stone’s throw from Muswell Hill]. It was nearby and the Nilsen story was almost local folklore.”

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David Tennant is back on our cover – this time the former Doctor Who star talks to Radio Times exclusively about his blood-chilling transformation into one of Britain's most infamous serial killers. Read the full interview in Radio Times this week and tune into Des Monday – Wednesday at 9pm on ITV. Also inside, Fiona Bruce takes to the skies in a Spitfire to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and discusses stories of heroism and sacrifice, Luke Treadaway speaks on new epic drama, The Singapore Grip, and the history lesson it has given him, Katherine Ryan talks single parenthood and her boundaries on screen, and Jude Law on his return to TV with the new powerful thriller The Third Day. All this and more in Radio Times this week, click the link in our bio to find out how you can get your copy… . . . #radiotimes #radiotimescover #davidtennant #des #doctorwho #thriller #judelaw #thethirdday #fionabruce #antiquesroadshow #luketreadaway #thesingaporegrip #battleofbritain #katherineryan #theduchess #tv #entertainment

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Various Nilsen scripts floated around down the years as Tennant became one of Britain’s most sought-after actors and Casanova, Doctor Who and Broadchurch all came and went.

But it was while working on the latter that plans for a true-crime drama began to take shape with director Lewis Arnold and a script from a friend of a friend of his actor wife Georgia’s, Luke Neal. Its primary source material was Masters’s book, published in 1985 after Masters (played by Jason Watkins in the drama) had spent many, many hours interviewing Nilsen in prison about his crimes.

After some years the project was given the go-ahead because, as Tennant puts it, “This is a dark story and a bleak story and an extraordinary story and one that I think is ready to be told.”

As the script took shape, Tennant deep-dived into research about Nilsen, a sadist who made life easy for future biographers and actors by leaving mountains of handwritten notebooks full of tedious self-justification.

How did Tennant achieve that sinister empty look? “There is some footage of Nilsen in an interview he did with Granada Television when he was in prison,” explains Tennant, “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.”

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Deliberately, Des shows nothing of the crimes (some of them committed at an earlier London flat of Nilsen’s, at 195 Melrose Avenue in Cricklewood) and there are no flashbacks to his life before he was arrested – apparently when he returned home one evening after the monstrous detritus had been found in the drains. The landlord had received a report of the blockage.

Des follows the investigation into the murders led by Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay (played by Daniel Mays), his interviews with Nilsen and Nilsen’s relationship with Masters.

Tennant is emphatic: “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.” The drama shows initial tension between the detective and writer.

Of course the profound horror of what Nilsen did to those young men reverberates and the production made every effort to contact, and discuss the project with, any surviving family members.

Des David Tennant
David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen in Des

“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.”

So why does Tennant think serial murderers such as Nilsen have such a hold on the television-viewing public’s imagination? “I think it’s inevitable we are fascinated by the extremities of human experience, because it’s not a fairy tale or a movie where the villain is from another dimension.

“With someone like Nilsen we all have to deal with the fact that we are members of the same species as him. We are all human beings, we are all aware of where the abyss is, without having to look into it.

“What is extraordinary to us is that someone like Nilsen steps into it. I think that’s why we are interested in these stories; they remind us that these people are not from another planet.”

Most of the “action” in Des takes place shrouded in a fug of cigarette smoke, particularly in the police station. It was the 1980s, after all. No one needed to nip out to the pavement to light up. Of course, the cigarettes smoked on set were herbal.

“Whenever we talked to anyone who had been there [including police officers involved in the investigation],” says Tennant, “they talked about the chain-smoking of endless cigarettes. But cigarettes were a useful way of getting Nilsen’s favour so he would talk.”

He certainly talked, casually chatting away to the investigating detectives. His confessions were long and tough to hear, not just because of their content, but also because of Nilsen’s unshakeable self-absorption. “I think in every moment he believed he was king of his own narrative, and he would be the one to define what his own story was.”

Of course, David Tennant is a sensible and well-balanced man, and most certainly did not take home his abhorrent character to his actor wife Georgia Moffett (who we saw recently in the lockdown comedy Staged with her husband and Michael Sheen). “But I think the run-up to filming, when you are steeped in research, reading everything and watching everything and talking to people [about your character], that’s almost more what you bring home. That’s the time when Georgia was likely to ask, ‘Are you ever going to talk about anything else?’”

The filming of Des finished in January, though the final production processes were finished during lockdown. Of course, the world is an uncertain place, but once restrictions are lifted Tennant and his Des co-star Jason Watkins hope to resume filming of the BBC adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days, which was interrupted in South Africa by the pandemic.

Like the rest of us, Tennant has spent the past few months at home, with his family. “We did all right, we are lucky, we have a garden – five kids are a lot during lockdown. But they can run outside, and at least home-schooling is over, I hope for ever.”

Read more about Des

This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV guide.
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