NEW INTERVIEW: David Tennant On Playing The “Appalling Yet Fascinating” Serial Killer Dennis Nilsen For New ITV True Crime Series, Des
David Tennant's new true crime drama Des will be coming to ITV in September and earlier this year David spoke to The Telegraph about the series and gave an insight into playing one of the UK's most notorious serial killers, Dennis Nilsen.
The new three part drama, which David also executively produces, is based on Killing For Company, the biography of Nilsen written by Brian Masters which includes conversations with the killer who would go by the name of 'Des'.
In the early days of his career David Tennant moved down to London from Scotland and rented a flat in Crouch End. One day his flatmate gave him a book.
“The person I was lodging with said, ‘You should read this – it happened nearby.’ ”
The book was Killing for Company by Brian Masters, the story of the serial killer Dennis Nilsen.
“I remember reading it and just being appalled,” says Tennant. “And intrigued.”
But the “intrigue” Tennant felt – indeed the intrigue that made Brian Masters contact Nilsen in prison and propose writing his biography – stems from Nilsen’s apparent blandness.
“Steve McCusker, one of the arresting officers, said to me that the thing that struck him about Nilsen was how boring he was,” says Tennant. “He loved the sound of his own voice, he chatted away all the time, but basically he was just a bit dull. That’s the bit that has always intrigued me about this story. It’s the person next door that we’ve never asked about – how much do we really know about them?”
It’s a question made more unnerving by the fact that Tennant is speaking to me dressed as Dennis Nilsen. It is February and we are on the set of Des, a three-part ITV drama from New Pictures, makers of The Missing. For anyone familiar with the famous Nilsen mugshot that was plastered across so many front pages in the early Eighties, seeing Tennant transformed is wildly discordant. Tennant has the oversized glasses, the lank fringe, the scruffy open-necked shirt. He has Nilsen’s Scots drone down pat (gleaned from an interview Nilsen gave in a 1993 Carlton documentary). Twenty years after he first found out that a mass murderer had lived nearby, David is Des.
Tennant is mesmerising as Nilsen and, like it or not, the psychology of a seemingly ordinary man who did unspeakable things is grimly fascinating. Tennant keeps catching himself describing Nilsen as fascinating too. “I keep hearing Brian Masters’ voice in my head as I’m talking to you about this,” he says. “Because he won’t use the word ‘fascinating’. He doesn’t like that word, and I can see what he means. It has an implication of being bedazzled by someone, doesn’t it?”
Tennant says no one on the cast or crew wanted to glamorise Nilsen.
“Because it’s a true story and because it’s also a relatively recent true story, there are still people alive who were affected by the horrific things that he did,” he says. “You want to approach that responsibly.”
“[Nilsen] worked in a job centre that you can visit. He lived in houses that still exist. His was just a very ordinary, humdrum life – apart from the fact that he murdered young men in his flat. By looking at these stories, you go, ‘How close am I to that? How much would it take to tip me into that world?’
“Indeed, Dennis himself talked about, ‘Once you’ve done one murder, the next one isn’t so bad.’ ”
You can read the full interview with the rest of the cast of Des in today’s issue of The Telegraph or online here.
Des comes to ITV in September