ITV is bringing another true crime drama to our screens in the form of Des, a series that examines the case of Dennis Nilsen, one of the most infamous serial killers in UK history.
Nilsen, played by David Tennant, was a civil servant who spent five years murdering boys and young men he met on the streets of London from 1978 to 1983. His victims were often homeless or living off-grid and were welcoming of Nilsen’s apparent generosity when he offered them food and lodgings at his home.
When he was finally caught in February 1983, Nilsen had murdered as many as fifteen people, making him Britain’s most prolific serial killer of the time. After his arrest, Nilsen instantly admitted to the murders, but he claimed he couldn’t remember his victims’ names. The police started the biggest manhunt investigation in UK history in an attempt to establish who had been killed.
The show’s writer, Luke Neal, and director, Lewis Arnold, came to the project with a steadfast mission to avoid sensationalising murder – something true crime series often come under criticism for. In fact, Des doesn't depict the murders at all.
“In our view, those poor men went home with Dennis Nilsen… they didn’t deserve to be gratuitously shown in a TV drama. We wanted to tell another story, which is: the human cost of Dennis Nilsen. What comes after he’s caught?” Neal told press including Goodhousekeeping.com/uk ahead of the series airing.
Des focuses not on Nilsen’s murders, but the impact they had on everyone who came into contact with him – namely, Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay (played by Daniel Mays) and Brian Masters (played by Jason Watkins), Nilsen’s biographer.
David Tennant had read Masters’ book about Nilsen and had been told he has a physical resemblance to the serial killer, so he was aware of the man and his crimes.
When he read an early draft of Des, Tennant felt the script had “found the right way” to tell the "unfathomable" story.
“It wasn’t sensationalist. It wasn’t celebrating the violence. It was memorialising the victims,” he said.
“These stories… it’s tricky to get balance right. You want to tell it with appropriateness, with a sensitivity and you don’t want to slip into a sensationalism which would be too easy to do and would not serve the victims of this.”
From the beginning, a key motive of the drama's creators was to highlight for audiences the dangers of allowing members of society to slip through its cracks, something that's incredibly important to understand now, just as it was when Nilsen was taking his victims' lives.
“There were many parallels [from that time] in terms of politics and social economical things that relate to exactly where we are now. In London, you walk through the streets and homelessness… has increased exponentially every year,” Arnold said.
“There could be someone easily preying on those vulnerable people and as a society, we know. I think when you start looking at the parallels, it’s really important in terms of why we wanted to make this right now.”
Arnold added that as a true crime drama, ultimately Des exists to “make the audience realise that this happened and this was real, and constantly remind the audience of the human cost.”
Des airs on ITV this September.
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