REVIEW Des (S1 E2/3)

After last night’s superb start to this retelling of the infamous serial killer case of the early 1980s, all eyes were on Detective Superintendent Peter Jay and the killer himself, Dennis ‘Des’ Nilsen.

Although Nilsen (played with superb, creepy matter-of-factness by David Tennant) was quite happy to admit to 15 killings in two suburbs of North London he had ‘struggled’ to remember the names.

And, as his mind became foggier, the question was whether he was being wilfully unhelpful or whether his failure to recollect the names of the lives he took was genuine.

Credit: ITV.

As a result, the race was most definitely on to identify the names of the 15 men Nilsen claimed he had killed, and this episode focused on that frantic search. This traditional procedural element balanced the instalment from the night before, and was given an extra dimension of jeopardy when Scotland Yard began to breathe down Jay’s neck – they wanted to wrap the investigation up and charge Nilsen for three victims they had found.

Jay, on the other hand, was determined to give the families closure, and the longer he fought for more time, the more victims were identified. Like Kenneth Ockenden, a Canadian tourist whose mother had connections to the Canadian government. His disappearance in 1979 had turned into a high-profile, diplomatically-sensitive case, and the last thing Jay’s superiors wanted was to poke that particular hornet’s nest.

A nify piece of dogged detective work finally confirmed what Jay believed to be true – poor Kenneth Ockendon was indeed one of Nilsen’s victims.

(It was interesting to watch pre-database and pre-internet investigation, highlighted by the fact police had to match fingerprints by eye in those days.)

All this procedural work was all well and good – and we know the benefits of it when it comes to tempo and emotional wallop – but the real highlights of this episode featured Nilsen.

How could they not?

Credit: ITV

Getting agitated in prison, and now issuing no comment to the police, it was down to biographer Brian Masters to tease out both more information and his motives.

Some of their exchanges were grimly fascinating and couldn’t-take-your-eyes-off intense.

I found myself hanging on Nilsen’s every word, utterly absorbed and desperate to know why this man committed the crime he did. Such is the allure of the serial killer and his or her spectral, whirlpool charisma.

In one, Nilsen showed Masters a sketchbook he had made for him. It was full of neatly-written, neatly drawn images and words, like a fanzine or comic book. His victims were there, preserved on the page. The sheer self-importance of the very offering of these glimpses into his life was staggering and disarmed Masters immediately. He had been given a gift… just another way to manipulate the writer and get him onside.

He told Masters that he had kept one or two of his victims for a “couple of weeks” and spoke about one in particular: “His naked body fascinated me. I’d roll him onto his back, touching him. Full control, ownership of this beautiful body.”

And another: “I’d put him in the armchair and watch telly. I’d look over at him and wonder what we’d talk about if he could speak.”

He also opened up about his relationship to death.

Nilsen explained in that clipped, matter-of-fact way that he had grown up by the sea and that “death surrounds you when the sea’s involved”.

He described the day when, at six-years-old, his mother asked him if he wanted to see his grandfather. Nilsen said that his grandfather was a hero to him and the only person he had ever loved. When he entered the living room, he saw his grandfather, dead in an open coffin. He had died at sea.

From that moment on, “the mystery of death always fascinated me,” he said.

When Masters questioned him about Kenneth Ockendon, Nilsen said that this had been the only murder he had regretted. When Masters delved deeper and asked if he felt any remorse, Nilsen snapped back: “They live with me in my cell. All of them. How can I feel remorse when I’ve taken all those pains into myself? I’d give anything for any one of them to walk in here and shoot me dead but the sad fact is that they had to die.”

It was telling stuff, and if you’re at all interested in the motives and machinations of the psychopath, these exchanges were like gold dust: they gave a real hint as to what happens inside warped minds. As television drama, these scenes had the prickly intimacy of a stage play.

As for Masters, there was a sense that his relationship with Nilsen was changing. When he first entered the interview room, he was confident that his elaborate, slightly camp demeanour would disarm Nilsen. And it did to an extent – but as their meetings and conversations increased you got a sense that Nilsen was beginning to manipulate the manipulator.

Paul Hirons

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.


Des is being shown on ITV in the UK and is now available via ITV Hub

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Andy D says:

    I agree on the point about policing methodology here, with blood type and fingerprints being the only forensic tools that we’re strong enough for court cases. There was a fascinating documentary last year on the advent of DNA testing into police work only a few years on from this case, and it’s easy to forget just how revolutionary that was in transforming the whole criminal justice system. Sadly not available anymore (thanks BBC) :


  2. Andy D says:

    Also, modern audiences seem less interested in the consequences of murder than those of chain smoking :


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.