David Tennant On ITV Drama Des: "A salutary tale of what human beings are capable of."

On September 14th, ITV launches its highly anticipated true-crime drama Des, starring David Tennant as the UK serial killer Dennis Nilsen who claimed to have killed up to fifteen young men and boys between 1978 and 1983. Nilsen was arrested in 1983 after human remains were found in the drains of his North London home and a police search of his flat revealed that he had stashed human remains in cupboards and under floorboards. Subsequent police investigations and conversations with the writer Brian Masters led Nilsen revealed the horrors of a mass murderer who would keep the bodies of his victims for weeks.

In new interview in The Times and other publications, David tells how when he was living in North London as a young actor, not far from Nilsen's former flat in Cranley Gardens, he read Killing For Company, Brian Masters’ book on the killer. During the lead up to the drama’s production, he continued to research to try to make sense of the killer’s motivations but says he is still none the wiser. Nilsen would claim that he had no memories of the killings, but David says that there is evidence that contradicts this.

“There were elements of preparation that he had to get ready for luring people back into his flat,” he says. “I think it is very difficult because we will never know for certain. He was an expert in self-justification. He wrote a biography and endless jotters full of explanations and self-righteous indignation. He talks about how guilty he feels at times but there is no consistency to it." 

Nilsen claimed to be unable to name the majority of his victims, and the drama focuses on attempts to identify the victims and do them justice. The events took place in an era of high employment and low investment in social care and safety nets for those falling through the cracks in society. Many of Nilsen’s victims, he claimed, were young and homeless young men who had drifted towards London to escape traumatic home lives in the hope of finding work, a home and self-validation. They were not people who would be missed by family and friends, and David says that there is a message here:

“That’s something that I think is an important part of this story. How could all these people have gone missing and not be missed?”

David was very aware of his responsibilities in portraying Nilsen, both in front of the camera and behind it. “I think with something like this you’ve got to be scrupulous about taking it seriously,” he says. “I was very aware that I had a responsibility not to be flippant with this. I did find myself sitting on my own more than I normally would and taking myself away a little bit, just because it felt wrong to be dressed up as this man who wreaked such havoc and did such terrible things and to be larking around.”

David has also considered whether Nilsen could be labelled as mad. Outwardly Nilsen had a mundane and unremarkable life. He worked as a Jobcentre advisor, and when he was arrested, his colleagues could not believe that he was capable of such acts.

 “I think we’re all on a spectrum,” David says. “Clearly there are some people who you can define as mad, but I think we all move through the shifting sands of mental health our whole life. Dennis Nilsen is entirely defined by these terrible acts that he committed, and so he should be, but at the same time it’s not all he was. He was very proud of the things that he did as a trade unionist and at the job centre. By all accounts he was a very good worker. He became annoyed that those things weren’t being taken into account by the world when he became famous for what he became famous for.”

Much has also been written about Nilsen’s childhood. He never knew his father and his mother raised him as a single parent. Nilsen was close to his grandfather, but was devasted on, when being taken to see him, was shown him dead in a coffin. Nilsen later went on to allege that his grandfather had abused him. David is not sure that the reason for his his future acts can be this simple, saying “…Lots of people have childhoods like that and have grandfathers who died and fathers who left them.”

He continues, “One of the adjectives that I found being used about Nilsen was that he was ‘boring’. He was dull because he would wang on about whatever it was, and he was belligerent. You can imagine that. You can kind of hear him droning on. So of course, when he became the centre of attention, he loved it.“ This is why he feels glad that Nilsen, who died in 2018, is not around today to see himself being the focus of a major TV drama. “There’s liberation in knowing that we’re not giving him any glory that he could enjoy, because I think he would enjoy it. He was incontrovertibly a narcissist and I can’t see how we could have done this without feeding his narcissism. He would have been furious about all manner of things, of course. He was obviously thrilled that a book had been written about him, but he was furious when the details were wrong, if something wasn’t to his liking — and he was furious too that the book wasn’t named after him.”

“I continue to change my mind about what his motivations were," he says. “He remains an enigma and all we can do is try and tell these stories to try and make sense of it.”

“It’s the very mundanity of the story,” he adds. “It’s the fact that I was living so close to where it happened, that it felt so local — it’s the weight of that reality you try to wrap your head around. Those extraordinary inhuman acts took place in an apartment that’s just over there! You know, we pass people in the street every day who may, or may not, have these [impulses]. We all, of course, have secret lives, but where do our secret lives end and our public lives begin, and what does it take for one to intrude into the other?”

“I think that’s why we tell these stories,” David concludes. “We’re all rightly intrigued by the monster within all of us potentially. Des isn’t a thriller. This isn’t Silence of the Lambs. This isn’t a whodunnit. It’s a warning. It’s a salutary tale of what human beings are capable of.”

Des will be shown over three nights between 14th and 16th September on ITV. The series also stars Daniel Mays and Jason Watkins.