The chilling true story of Dennis Nilsen’s killing spree between 1978 and 1983 has been tastefully placed into an ITV three-part drama, to universal acclaim. With some incredible acting performances – especially from David Tennant and Daniel Mays – it’s two and a half hours of television which is worth a catch up on the ITV Hub.
If you have even a passing interest in true crime, and are from the UK, you should have heard of Dennis Nielsen. A murderous psychopath who stalked London in the late 70s and early 80s, he preyed on young men who were lonely, on the streets and suffered from crippling addictions. Only uncovered when a workman found human remains blocking a drainpipe at Nilsen’s home, the number of victims he claimed has never been confirmed – although Nilsen claimed to have killed between twelve and sixteen. As you may also know – he wound up serving a life sentence in prison after being convicted, and died in 2018, still inside.
The later fact was a relief to David Tennant, who brilliantly portrayed him, who has been quoted as saying that he is “grateful he isn’t sitting in a cell somewhere, thinking we are glorifying him in some way”. Indeed, following a Netflix show about Ted Bundy, multiple social media users were declaring him ‘hot’, etc, and everything down to the name of the show (‘Conversations with a Killer’) seemed in poor taste. It took five years to complete the script and planning of this show, and it’s clear to see why – ITV took great care in ensuring that their portrayal of one of the most evil men to have ever lived was anything but serious, biographical television. It’s summed up in a scene with Nilsen’s biographer, Brian Masters, who tells him in no uncertain terms that he won’t be naming his book after him.
This mature tone is present from the start, and the pacing is wonderful. No messing around, lengthy backstories, nothing like that – simply put, it gets on with it without rushing. Nilsen is in the back of Peter Jay’s police car before the first break of episode one – and the psychological aspects of this drama are already present. Tiny details from the first interrogation (about why he kept his victims’ bodies, and dissected them) such as asking for a cigarette from Jay before offering him one already showed a dangerous man who was desperate for control of every situation. This continues throughout, from gameplaying of the number of victims to the manipulating manner in which he reveals their names – you’re never sure if he’s actually struggling to remember or spinning out the details for effect.
You really end up inside Peter Jay’s mind as he tries to bring down a seemingly willing criminal – how much of this is real? How much can he be trusted? Daniel Mays, long known as one of the very best actors around, gives a more human portrayal of a police detective than most other shows. Typically speaking, a detective is often shown as fireproof until a case comes too close to them – for proof, see 99% of police procedurals that have ever been written – so I feel it was important that he presented a human being, never exposed to such heinous crimes before nor ever again. It felt more authentic and accurate. You can see the emotionl toll the case is taking on him especially in a scene with Lesley Mead, a woman who beloeves her ex-lover was one of the victims, Although they find evidence that he was one of them, they are unable to get justice for him due to a legal technicality – and watching Jay relay this is devastating.
This authenticity was once again shown in the way the Nilsen case was placed within the context in which it was set. It is a common misconception that the crimes were linked in some way to the killer and the victims’ sexualities – it is noted several times that this is not the case. It is sensitively approached in that it shows both sides of this: it presents homophobia in the 1980s, along with people on all sides of the issue and makes it clear that love or relationships had little to do with Nilsen’s murders (although we will never truly know his motivations). It delves deeper into the poverty and drugs addictions which were rife in the 1980s and Tennant places Nilsen within this too – making subtle references to the Tories and Thatcher in an early scene, adding a layer that Nilsen wanted to present himself as caring about these men who he wound up killing, expressing a level of humanity and emotion – which was an interesting take for the drama to take. It would have been too easy and boring to simply present Nilsen as a cold, emotionless murderer – ‘Des’ seeks to look inside his perverted, twisted mind, whilst never forgetting the crimes he committed.
The pacing is wonderful, as is the way the final episode is focussed. The idea of a series finale being about trying to prove pre-meditation seemed a strange one to me, but it fitted perfectly, and was especially gripping. The scenes with an attempted victim, Carl, as Jay helps him realise that the nightmares he is having about being drowned actually happened are unmissable. The interpolation of shots from 1983 and of the drama itself is wickedly clever, as is the unconventional method in which the prosecution’s closing statement to the jury is presented.
‘Des’ is likely to receive a host of awards next year, and David Tennant and Daniel Mays especially deserve them for their incredible performances. ITV has shown once again that their real-life, three part dramas are often absolutely incredible viewing.