Over the past few years, ITV has become the go-to British channel for true-crime adaptations. Everything from Little Boy Blue and A Confession to White House Farm have sought to delve deeper into cases we thought we knew but quite obviously don’t, and to present the stories behind the story.
With the true-crime genre so hot at the moment, it’s wasn’t too much of a surprise when it was announced that the channel was to study one of the most infamous serial killers in modern British history – over a five-year stretch during the late 1970s and early 1980s unassuming Dennis Nilsen murdered 15 young men by inviting them back to his place, strangling them and disposing of their bodies in such heinous ways that his case provided oodles of macabre fascination.
Now we have a three-part dramatisation of the case with an all-star cast. You may have already seen photographs of David Tennant in the lead role, looking uncannily and chillingly like Nilsen, but he’s joined by the terrific, always-reliable Daniel Mays as the lead investigating police officer Peter Jay, and the great Jason Watkins as biographer Brian Masters.
Tennant is an interesting choice as the banal bogeyman – in the past year, he has played the bad guy in crime dramas like Criminal and Deadwater Fell, which has not only helped to showcase his ever-broadening range but also play with our preconceptions that are still informed by the manic energy and boyish charm of his portrayal of Doctor Who.
And he is simply sensational in Des.
Right from the moment he saunters around the corner and up the road, returning home from work to find a team of police and forensics surrounding his house, you just cannot take your eyes off him. And that’s saying something because you wouldn’t notice Nilsen – or Des as he was known – in a crowd.
He was personal and amiable, even; intelligent and engaging but ultimately dull and unremarkable in appearance.
Dull and unremarkable in all but one facet: Peter Jay and his team had found human remains clogging the pipes and drains snaking down from his top-floor flat. Beneath the floorboards upstairs in his flat… well. And then there was the cooking pot on the stove. The less said about what the police found in that place the better.
The darkest of stuff, the grisliest of modus operandi, all in an affluent north London suburb.
Jay and his team just could not fathom the horridness of the crimes and the sickness one might harbour to perpetrate them. And then Denis ‘Des’ Nilsen walks around the corner, thick Aberdeenshire accent in tow, football scarf around his neck and a cigarette always on the go. Whatever they imagined – or whoever they imagined – Des Nilsen was not it.
(Jay also couldn’t quite believe how the police had missed all of this free-flowing evil.)
And Nilsen, from the get-go, was happy to admit his part in the murders. During initial interviews, he even admitted to more killings, 15 young men, in residences in East Finchley and then in Muswell Hill.
He went further, admitting that his capture was a “huge relief” and a “weight off” to an incredulous Jay.
The task that now faced the police was to find the bodies of the 15, to provide closure to families who didn’t know that their boys were gone. But as amiable and as compliant as Nilsen was in those early stages, he began to wriggle and to grandstand in a strange, unassuming way – he couldn’t remember the names, or could he? He was starting to play a game.
And then he stopped playing ball.
He found the attention he stopped getting from the police from Brian Masters. A gay man himself, Masters was drawn to the case perhaps he felt a certain kinship with Nilsen or his victims, and his grim fascination with the case soon provided dividends – Nilsen granted him interviews while in custody and authorised a biography.
Just as you were struggling to understand why Nilsen had done such things – even he couldn’t explain why he killed them – with the introduction of Masters they were suddenly revealed: good, old fashioned narcissism.
Jason Watkins as Masters was just terrific as well – he was a character with very deliberate and elaborate mannerisms, and a man whose colourful character was being tested. Masters was both disgusted and fascinated, but crucially he went into this relationship thinking that he had the upper hand, the power in the dynamic. How wrong he was.
It was an exceedingly strong, intriguing start to a drama that quite obviously was at pains not to glamourise or fetishise the murders in any way. Instead, it wanted to get under the skin of not only Nilsen but also those who are drawn to serial killers like moths to a flame.
It also sought to explain the context in which Nilsen’s victims existed – an early 1980s that was wracked with poverty and joblessness. These young men had fallen through the cracks and were desperate to connect, to feel warmth, to feel something.
True-crime adaptations often have noble intentions but fall short due to the restrictions of the format and the sub-genre itself. Des felt different, and was full of context and nuance. In particular, the interview scenes between Jay and Nilsen, and later Masters and Nilsen, had a touch of the Mindhunter about them – intimate, enlightening and intelligent, but with an undercurrent of extreme menace.
Part two is tomorrow night.
Des is being shown on ITV in the UK and is now available via ITV Hub