ITV's Des (2020)TWITTER/TELLMEWHATSG

Des is a true crime series set apart in a saturated market. Within the first ten minutes of Des, you bear witness to a frank confession for a string of murders that the police didn’t know had even occurred. What follows is a murder investigation in reverse. Based on the real-life actions of Dennis Nilsen, the infamous serial killer, Des saw David Tennant give a hauntingly accurate portrayal of the man himself, alongside Daniel Mays as Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Peter Jay, and Jason Watkins playing Brian Masters, author of Nilsen’s biography Killing for Company.

David Tennant as Dennis NilsenTWITTER/WILL_BRANDER

While the timeline of this series cannot be credited to a directorial decision – as it simply follows that of the real-life investigation – it plays a large part in the intrigue of the show. At the conclusion of the first episode, I turned to my Dad with surprise and said ‘well how are they going to make two more hours out of that, he’s confessed already!’ The ingenuity of Des is that it isn’t the typical ‘whodunnit’. Rather, we watch as the police department scramble to catch up with Nilsen’s five-year murder spree that had gone on completely unnoticed.

“In choosing to focus on the court case, rather than recreating or re-enacting the gruesome crimes, Des takes a much more victim-centric focus.”

Not dissimilar to the elderly victims of mass killer Harold Shipman, Nilsen targeted the vulnerable, those in the unfortunate predicament that their deaths would go unnoticed or without suspicion. Of the 12 known victims, all but three were homeless, runaways, or male prostitutes without a permanent address. This led to the investigation played out on screen, as police officers race to identify Nilsen’s victims in order to officially charge and convict him. In choosing to focus on the court case, rather than recreating or re-enacting the gruesome crimes, Des takes a much more victim-centric focus.

Tennant himself says that the purpose of this show was “in no way to celebrate the macabre, but to memorialise the victims as much as anything”. And while the notion of using a smash-hit true crime series to ‘memorialise’ the victims is a bit far-fetched, as there are obvious commercial interests involved, I do believe that Des took a better approach to true crime drama than others in the genre. For example, the film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, which starred Zac Efron as brutal serial killer Ted Bundy, did little except romanticise Bundy and introduce many to the paraphilia of hybristophilia – an attraction to people who’ve committed violent crimes.

Daniel Mays as Peter JayTWITTER/TELLMEWHATSG

Deserving commendation for his shockingly accurate portrayal of Nilsen, David Tennant conducted extensive research into the former civil servant turned criminal. Speaking with people who knew him, and communicating with the families of the victims, it seems that this show was at least conducted with a high degree of accuracy, not straying too far from the true story for ratings. The accuracy of Tennant’s portrayal was brought to attention in the documentary that followed the drama’s three-night run – which I have to admit was an excellent way to capitalise on a captive audience. Containing never before seen footage of Nilsen’s police interviews, the likeness between Tennant and Nilsen is frankly quite terrifying. As if more proof was needed, Des shows, yet again, that David Tennant’s range as an actor is truly amazing.


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There’s something vaguely sickening about a love for true crime. As serial killers/offenders often are, Dennis Nilsen was extremely self-obsessed. While described as rather boring or unremarkable by most who knew him, following his incarceration he grew fascinated with his representation in the press, and sought extensive control over Masters’ biography. Therefore, the suggestion that he would probably enjoy the fact that there has been a TV series about his cruel acts, and that a new generation of people have been made aware of him almost 40 years on, is rather horrifying. He got what he wanted – notoriety – and we’re playing right into his hands. So why can’t we stop?

Jason Watkins as Brian Masters TWITTER/DANMC2

As humans, we have a need to understand and prevent danger; the basic building blocks of human evolution is survival of the fittest. This plays a large part in our love for the macabre in Des’ story. Reading Masters’ book or watching this ITV adaptation is as close as we can reasonably get to putting ourselves in the mind of a killer. Masters himself stated in the blurb of his book that ‘It is vital that we try to comprehend such catastrophes rather than turn in horror from them, if we are to discover how to avert their repetition’.

While not so relevant in Nilsen’s case, a fascination with true crime often stems from an interest in solving the case for yourself; it is human nature to want a conclusion and, when one doesn’t present itself, many take to theorising their own. And with hoards of novice detectives and conspiracy theorists filling Reddit threads, Twitter, and YouTube, this fascination is going nowhere anytime soon.

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