Des was never going to be an easy show to make. Despite wielding a roster of prime talent – including Doctor Who’s David Tennant – ITV’s new Dennis Nilsen’s drama would always be teetering on a knife’s edge.
On the one hand, the three-part series had to respectfully memorialise the victims – the 12-15 vulnerable young men who were murdered by Nilsen (played by Tennant) across London from 1978 to 1983. Yet on the other, Des had to wrestle with something even trickier: portraying Britain’s second most prolific serial killer as neither an inhuman monster, nor a psychological oddity deserving further attention from viewers.
Overall, not an easy feat.
But does Des pull it off? For the most part, absolutely. And that’s mainly due to starting Nilsen’s story on 9th February 1983, the day of his arrest. Not one of Nilsen’s victims is shown strangled or drowned, his preferred method of murder. There are no flashbacks. No shots of bodies stored under the floorboards for later dissection.
Shunning true-crime tropes, Des instead guides audiences through Nilsen’s crimes via the lens of DCI Peter Jay, the man who first led the investigation into the killings. Played convincingly by Daniel Mays, viewers witness how even a seasoned officer was broken down not only by the ugliness of Nilsen’s atrocities but how police bureaucracy failed the victims’ families. As Des portrays, Nilsen was only ever convicted for six of his murders – at least half the actual body count – due to the budget concerns of opening a wider investigation.
The drama also does a stellar job highlighting just how vulnerable his victims were. As Des depicts, news coverage of the time painted Nilsen as a ‘homosexual killer’, baiting the abhorrent stereotype being gay was something inherently dangerous. By portraying the few survivors of the attack, Des highlights how Nilsen didn’t only lure gay men back to his house to be killed, but preyed on the homeless, drug addicts or anyone looking to continue a night’s drinking past last orders. Despite what headlines inferred, the dead were completely innocent.
There’s a lot to be praised in the drama’s accuracy too. Developed over five years by writer Luke Neal and director Lewis Arnold, the drama is incredibly faithful to the source material, Killing for Company by Brian Masters. Masters even appears as a character in the show (played by Jason Watkins) as Nilsen’s confidant and biographer, with the man himself (now 81) on hand behind-the-scenes to advise.
All in all, there’s a lot to admire. However, Des has one problem: David Tennant. He’s good. Perhaps too good.
In one of the best performances in an impeccable career, the Good Omens star is both believable and captivating as Dennis Nilsen in every scene.
While bolstered by a physical rebalance to Nilsen, Tennant serves up a chilling imprint of the killer without straying into a mechanical impression. Conveying each line with disturbing understatement, he reflects Nilsen’s unsettling detachment from each victim, his confession of mass murder delivered as though everyday conversation.
At one point, when asked by officers how many bodies he stored at his property simultaneously, Nilsen deadpans: “I never kept a stock check”.
These uncomfortable moments of humour – such as Nilsen’s inane political commentary dropped alongside an unflinching account of strangulation – are particularly poignant.
It’s through this mix of the meaningless and macabre Tennant and the script nails the show’s core theme: the conflict between unthreateningly JobCentre worker ‘Des’ and the darker ‘Dennis Nilsen’, the man who has slaughtered boys as young as 14.
But here’s the thing: by making Nilsen such an interesting character, viewers want to spend more time with one of Britain’s most notorious murderers.
Though introducing a personality so puzzling with a performance this mesmerising, the context of his crimes is somewhat lost. The nuanced parallels Des tries to draw between 1983 and today are forgotten. And instead of asking if the families ever got justice, most viewers will more likely left be pondering over the killer’s motivations.
In other words, Des will leave you wanting to know more about Dennis Nilsen, not his victims or why so many of them weren’t reported missing.
To make it clear: Des is by far from a sympathetic Dennis Nilsen biopic. Tennant’s scenes are few and Nilsen is not romanticised as the ‘kindly killer’ he has been painted as in the past. The show never simplifies Nilsen’s motives and key events are far from sensationalised. Writer Luke Neal also gave the victims their due, meeting their families where possible before shooting started.
However, dramatising Nilsen on screen was always a trap: frustratingly, his perplexing personality makes all else fade into background. Des can do all it can to highlight the police investigation, but the mass murderer’s warped psychology and puzzling demeanour will always be the show’s main talking point – especially when brought to life by an actor as talented as Tennant.
Fortunately, there is solace knowing Nilsen himself will never see Des. As Tennant said in a recent interview, he felt “relieved” that the killer will never be able to bask in any renewed interest after dying from a ruptured abdominal aneurysm in prison during 2018.
Yet dead or not, we must question the ethical implications of resurrecting Nilsen into public consciousness.
Could Des have done more to question the audience’s own appetite for such a serial killer? Perhaps. However, when taken simply as an intelligent script complemented with an acting masterclass? Des is not to be missed.
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