NEW INTERVIEW: David Tennant On Why He’s Glad That Serial Killer Dennis Nilsen Is Not Alive To See Him Bring Him To Life On Screen
David Tennant is about to take on the role of a lifetime as he steps in to the shoes of the notorious serial killer Dennis Nilsen in a new three part true crime drama for ITV.
Des is told through the prism of three men – Dennis Nilsen played by David Tennant, Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay played by Daniel Mays and biographer Brian Masters played by Jason Watkins – the series will explore the personal and professional consequences of coming into contact with a man like Nilsen.
Late last month David Tennant and a host of cast and crew took part in a Zoom chat with press to publicise the series.
David, who also acts as executive producer on the series spoke about how he came to take on the role of the man who was dubbed the “kindly killer”.
He said: “A couple of people had said, ‘Oh, he looks a bit like you’, which of course as an actor you say, ‘Really?’ And then you start investigating this story. I was 12 when he was arrested so it was a name that I was aware of, it had been in headlines. I knew he was a sort of bogeyman in the national consciousness. But the more I looked into it, the more I thought, this is a story that is worth telling. It’s tricky to get the balance right, you don’t want to slip into sensationalism. I might have had reservations if we were presenting it as some sort of gothic horror piece. But we weren’t.”
David spent a long time researching Nilsen for the role and the series was four years in the planning stages.
“I did spend a lot of time studying him, listening to his voice, trying to think myself into that space. There is some footage of Nilsen you can watch and there’s a lot that has been written about him. There are people who knew him quite well, and you take all that in. What you don’t want to do is a Rory Bremner version of Dennis Nilsen.”
David also said that he’s glad that Nilsen is no longer around to witness his portrayal.
“After he was arrested, Dennis Nilsen became obsessed with was the legend of ‘Des’ – the reputation that he left behind. Whenever he slipped out public consciousness, there was almost a sense that he wanted to get back into it. That’s why I’m relieved he’s not alive, I would hate for this to go out and for him to be sitting in some cell somewhere imaging we were in any way glorifying him. When we started developing this he was still alive. I’m sure he would have complained about what we said and everything we did. At the same time, he would have been rather smugly pleased he was on television. I think it’s right and proper it’s transmitting after he’s gone.”
Nilsen’s crimes were horrific. He murdered boys and young men in his flat from 1978 to 1983. He was undetected for five years, and it was only when DCI Peter Jay was called to 23 Cranley Gardens on 9 February, 1983, to investigate human fragments of flesh and bone clogging the drains, that the police realised they had a serial killer on their hands. David was keen that the drama would not add any unnecessary depth to his crimes and that he would not be glamourised in anyway. Des is about the victims and their memory and not about making a star out of Nilsen.
“Des found the right way to tell this story. It wasn’t sensationalist. It wasn’t celebrating the violence, it was memorialising the victims,” he explained.
“I thought this was a story that we should tell. With these stories, it’s tricky to get the balance right. You want to tell it with appropriateness. You want to tell it with sensitivity. You don’t want to slip into sensationalism, which would be too easy to do and would not serve the victims.”
Dennis Nilsen was eventually brought to justice for his crimes. He was arrested and convicted at the Old Bailey of six counts of murder and two of attempted murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, which was replaced by a whole life tariff in 1994.
David says: “I am not for a second saying we should empathise with Nilsen or forgive what he did, but I think it’s important to see that people are capable of malfunctioning so grotesquely. It is a part of the human condition. I felt moment to moment I could understand where he was coming from. I think what was difficult was joining the dots with someone like Nilsen and I don’t know that he ever managed to successfully do that for himself.”
“We are all aware of the responsibility of telling this story, and I think it is right to tell this story as it’s a part of who we are as a society and as humans. The last thing we want is to make anyone feel exploited and we have been very careful to not do this at every stage of the development. Everyone is aware of the real-life damage of this story and I hope that people will see that we have told this story responsibly.”
Des also looks at how society played its part and failed the victims. “There is a story to be told about the victims and why people fall through the cracks of society. Plus, how Nilsen could murder so many men without being noticed.
He shouldn’t have been allowed to murder all those people. Somebody should have noticed what was going on a lot earlier than they did. As a society we have try to understand why this happened and how to not have it happen again.”
Des airs on ITV on 14th, 15th and 16th September at 9pm