Culture Film & TV

Des: A Different but Effective Depiction of a Serial Killer

TW: Mentions of murder and attempted murder.

Des is a three-part ITV drama about the arrest and trial of British serial killer Dennis ‘Des’ Nilsen, who was caught in 1983 and convicted of the murder of six young men but who probably actually murdered twice as many. The episodes aired on Monday 14th, Tuesday 15th, and Wednesday 16th September and are currently available on ITV’s catch-up service.

As noted in the BBC News article published before the first episode aired, this series can’t be a ‘whodunnit’ or a ‘howdunnit’ because that information is already known: Dennis Nilsen strangled and drowned his victims during the five years preceding his arrest. However, the BBC’s designation of the series as a ‘whydunnit’ doesn’t hold true upon viewing. While the trial of Nilsen hinges on his state of mind during the killings, and therefore whether he can be convicted of murder or manslaughter, there is never any explanation from Nilsen or anyone else of precisely why he did what he did.

Nonetheless, the drama presents an unsanitised but simultaneously respectful portrayal of the events from the discovery of human remains in the drains leading from Nilsen’s home to the jury’s verdict on his sanity and culpability. It acknowledges that certain events have been dramatised, but that the characters and events are for the most part faithful to reality. It also sets the scene with contemporary footage from the media of the trial and of Thatcher-era London, for both those who lived through that time and those like me who are too young to have done so.

The cast boasts some of the best actors in British television, not least David Tennant in the title role. His resemblance to Dennis Nilsen, which is interspersed with footage of the real Nilsen, is uncanny. The series highlights David Tennant’s versatility, given how sinister but realistic he comes across as Nilsen, more similar to his character in Channel 4’s recent drama Deadwater Fell than to his roles as what feels like every well-known hero and villain in popular culture.

Alongside David Tennant, amongst others, are Daniel Mays as Peter Jay, the detective working to convict Nilsen, and Jason Watkins as Brian Masters, Nilsen’s biographer. The series is based on documents, interviews, and Masters’ biography of Nilsen, with Masters also being one of the series’ writers. Perhaps the series would have done even more with the real people behind its three protagonists, but both Peter Jay and Dennis Nilsen passed away in 2018, which makes the acknowledgment of Nilsen’s victims and the efforts of the police to convict him in the series bittersweet.

While there was some concern at the announcement of the series’ production that it would glorify Nilsen and thereby disrespect his victims if anything it turns Nilsen into a sinister curiosity and dwells on the inability of the other characters to believe or understand how he could have done what he did. He is shown to have had many traits in common with other serial killers, such as greater intelligence and ego than average, as also seen in The Ted Bundy Tapes, but Nilsen’s traits are more subtle and even during the trial he is conveyed as a nuanced human being rather than some superhuman force of evil and genius.

The victims who were identified are given the acknowledgement that they deserve, and the trauma caused to victims, their families, and even survivors of attempted murders by Nilsen, is shown starkly and by excellent make-up and acting. This is arguably more effective than showing the murders taking place because it leaves the very worst things to the viewer’s imagination. In turn, this creates empathy with the difficulty of the contemporary British law enforcement and media in fathoming what Nilsen did. It would be made more satisfying if it were possible for the remaining unidentified victims to finally be given their names, but as Nilsen is dead that is unlikely to ever happen.If there is any disturbance to be had by watching Des, it is psychological, although there are graphic descriptions of his murders and scenes including human remains. The series is worth watching for both the excellent performances of the entire cast, and for an unsensationalised glimpse into some of the most heinous and not well-known crimes committed in Britain last century.

Chloé Agar

Chloé (she/her) is an Egyptologist who, when not studying obscure ancient languages, writes fantasy and sci-fi fiction and non-fiction articles on education and the arts for The Oxford Blue, The Oxford Student, and Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative.