Angela Basset as Tina Turner, Sir Ben Kingsley as Gandhi, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles and Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison… Dramas about real-life figures are, obviously, helped by incredible lead performances. What these particular examples also boast is that the actor bore an uncanny resemblance to the person they were playing. It’s something that can elevate the piece even more.
Auditions for Des, ITV’s three-part look at one of Britain’s most grimly fascinating serial killers and the fall-out from his macabre actions, couldn’t have taken long. There really is only one man that could have been considered for the role of Dennis ‘Des’ Nilsen. That man is David Tennant.
Still perhaps most famous for his manic interpretation of Doctor Who, recent years have shown us that the 49-year-old Scotsman is at his best when channeling darker souls: a man accused of murdering his own family in Deadwater Fell, the main villain of Netflix’s Jessica Jones, even a full-on demon in Amazon’s Good Omens. We know he can play evil, but can he play ‘real’ evil…? Well, yes he can.
Fans of true crime documentaries may have seen some of the home movies of ‘The Muswell Hill Murderer’ before. Tennant certainly has, only here in Des he perfectly apes the casual quickfire mumbling, frank honesty and haughty arrogance of the gangly killer. He’s not so much playing Dennis Nilsen here as being Dennis Nilsen. All in all, it makes for immersive, if slightly oddly uncomfortable, television.
As with most modern crime dramas based on real crimes, the point here is not titillation. There are no scenes of Nilsen stalking victims or dramatically strangling them in either of the North London flats he killed in. Des is, as ITV’s most recent similar success A Confession was, much more human in approach. It’s more interested in the victims, the police work and the impact of the crimes. Which is as it should be. Anything else would just feel schlocky.
We open with Daniel Mays’ Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay investigating a call of a discovery of human remains. We know what’s to unfold here, but Mays’ Jay doesn’t. As the picture becomes clear, it seems as if we’re going to be made to wait for Nilsen’s arrival. But then, no rush, no panic – he saunters into view and gives himself up willingly and without fuss. From here on in, it’s pretty much a David Tennant one man show.
‘Are we talking about one body or two?’ Nilsen’s asked as he settles into the back of the police car. ’15 or 16,’ he chillingly replies.
As with a lot of 9pm TV crime dramas, the most entrancing scenes come during questioning – and so it goes here. This is no Line of Duty-style interrogation, though. There’s no verbal combat. Tennant’s Nilsen just casually offers up a full and frank confession in the most nonchalant way. There’s something about a man describing how he lured, strangled and dismembered teenage runaways while eating a sandwich that somehow ratchets up your disgust. Yet it’s mesmerising.
Alongside Tennant and Mays, completing an impressive main cast, is The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies’ Jason Watkins. The BAFTA winner is Brian Masters, the man whose book – Killing for Company – has been adapted for the screen here.
There’s an excellent line dropped in towards the end of a conversation between Nilsen and Masters here… ‘Everyone has skeletons rattling around their cupboards,’ Des sardonically says. Almost as if he was teeing his new biographer up for a punchline.
After Nilsen opens up the murders, DCI Jay’s team have to spring into life – they need to identify the remains and charge their man before the press inevitably catches hold of the story. When they do, the first, rather tetchy face-off with the media sees one reporter ask the question that’s at the very heart of this drama… ‘How could Nilsen kill for five years without the police noticing?’
It’s a question we’re hoping to have answered across the next two nights.
Did you tune in for Des episode 1? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Still catching up on Des episode 2? Read Steve’s review of episode 1 here.
There’s a good chance that you’ll already know this, but there’s no such thing as a ‘nice guy serial killer’. Multiple murderers can volunteer at as many food banks and help as many old ladies across the street as they like, they’re still soulless, black-hearted monsters. They may seem pleasant enough, sure. They can charm and disarm. In fact, most do – it’s how they gain trust and are allowed to operate. But it’s always a facade.
In the opening episode of ITV’s new three-part drama about the murders of – and investigation into – Dennis Nilsen, one of Britain’s most prolific ever serial killers, ‘Des’ was strangely amiable. You know, for a man who was confessing to the murders of 15 young men. David Tennant, in the lead role, perfectly conveyed the apparent openness and honesty that Nilsen initially showed to police. In episode 2, the mask begins to slip.
The more we see of the killer here, the more we realise that this isn’t a contrite man happy to assist the police and help give his victims’ families peace. Instead he is, as most serial killers are, an abject narcissist and a delusional sociopath.
In this second part, although we don’t see the violence that he committed, we do bear witness to the selfishness, persecution complex and the pure arrogance of the man. While regaling his biographer Brian Masters (Line of Duty’s Jason Watkins) with disturbing tales of his youth and even more disturbing tales of his recent past, it becomes clear that people are just objects to him. He literally made them into objects, after all. He turned living, breathing human beings into corpses.
It’s in these scenes where Des, rather ironically, comes to life. Watkins plays Masters as guarded; clearly fascinated by Nilsen, but alarmed. Distant. As if watching a caged tiger. Tennant’s Nilsen gladly adopts the role of the beast, flexing, strutting and testing his interviewer. He offers up explanations for his crimes: some believable – ‘killing for company’ because he was lonely, craving control over people – but others less so – the murders were designed prove that the public only cares about down-and-outs when they’re dead.
The programme is careful not to gaze upon the titular psychopath for too long, though. As much as it’s an examination of Dennis Nilsen’s psyche and his desire to feel less isolated and alone, it’s also a tale of trauma. Des expertly explores not only the impact that someone like Nilsen can have on victims and their loved ones, but how those tasked with investigating their heinous actions can be affected too.
Daniel Mays puts in a nicely understated performance here. His DCI Peter Jay is believable. A dogged and brave investigator, he’s not showy, not torn from the pages of an airport crime thriller. At times, following this thread of the story sees Des slip into the realms of the police procedural, but it’s necessary. And with an actor of Mays’ ability heading up such scenes, it never feels dull.
Des episode 2 ends with Nilsen in front of a judge. Never once having denied his crimes to date, the increasingly testy and put-out killer shocks the courtroom with a trio of ‘not guilty’ pleas. He wants a full trial. He wants to be seen and heard and be given a chance to try and exercise some power. With everyone looking at him, he feels just that little bit less lonely. And, most importantly, in control.
Did you tune in for Des episode 2? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Still catching up on Des episode 3? Read Steve’s review of episode 2 here.
Being a supporting actor can sometimes be a rather thankless task, even when the character is layered and interesting. This is especially true when the job is effectively buttressing a lead actor who’s in the form – and one of the defining roles – of their career.
Despite a realistic and restrained performance from Daniel Mays as the ruffled and edgy DCI Peter Jay and a well-observed turn from Jason Watkins as biographer Brian Masters, it won’t be the Line of Duty actors whose work will be remembered here. Des was all about David Tennant as the ‘Muswell Hill Murderer’ Dennis Nilsen.
We can praise Luke Neal’s drama for its mature approach to the material, its dedication to telling the victims’ stories and its desire to explore more of the policing than the gore. And we should; Des took a very adult and nuanced slant. Ultimately, however, what will stick with the viewer is the real draw to the series. As worthy as this three-parter was, let’s be honest – we were all here for Tennant’s eerily uncanny Dennis Nilsen.
Tall, gangly and gaunt of face, the man was ten stone wet through – hardly an intimidating or frightening presence on the face of things. While obviously narcissistic and prone to bouts of devious violence, it was Nilsen’s normality that truly unsettled. Here, he mumbles often quite asinine comments, but it’s that ‘banality of evil’ notion that the man playing him really uses to his advantage. You could imagine a polite conversation about current affairs with the man in a work canteen. Just don’t accept his offer to continue the chat back at his flat.
All in all, Des fizzled out somewhat here in its third and final part. Crime dramas based on real-life events, of course, lack the ability to throw their audience curve-balls or add twists to their conclusions. We knew that Nilsen was to be found guilty, so this final part had an air of inevitability around it. Luckily we had three captivating performances to hold it all together.
Perhaps it was done purposefully, again, to underscore that this wasn’t an exploitative ‘serial killer of the week’ story, but we hardly saw any of Nilsen as he sat passively in the dock here. The rest of the cast hurried around him discussing and evaluating him, but the man himself was almost an incidental figure. It’s an understandable way to end the series, but still a shame given its central character is easily its most captivating.
That said, this finale was at its most poignant when dealing with the story of one of Des’s surviving victims, one Carl Stottor. A traumatised and already damaged young man, Nilsen confusingly killed and then resuscitated him, sparing him. Laurie Kynaston sensitively brings Stottor’s vulnerability to life and shows us the lack of empathy that the judicial system can have – or at least used to have – for victims of violent crime.
Des goes some way to addressing that lack of respect for victims by not giving Nilsen the last word here. Instead, we close on a list of the names of those whose lives he cruelly stole. This is, after all, their tragic story. Not his.
Did you tune in for Des episode 3? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!