If, like me, you revel in the words "based on a true story", then the beginning 30 seconds of ITV’s Des will likely have you hooked. Set in 1983 against the backdrop of Thatcher-era London, the three-part series chronicles the disturbing crimes of real-life serial killer Dennis 'Des' Nilsen. Played with alarming accuracy by David Tennant, the hourlong episodes detail Nilsen's life as a killer and necrophile, diving deep into the forensic investigations, interviews and trials that made up the historic case.
Based on Brian Masters’ biography of Nilsen, Killing For Company, the drama plots the events following the killings, beginning on the day of Nilsen’s arrest at his home in north London. After a call is made to the police about suspected human remains found in a drainpipe at Nilsen's property, Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay (Daniel Mays) arrives to investigate, confirming the bones are indeed those of a human being. Upon questioning, Nilsen freely admits that the remains in the drain are the result of a gruesome killing, before gladly directing officers to another body he has stored in his kitchen cupboard.
It is this stark admission and fast-moving narrative that draw you in from the outset. Skipping over Nilsen’s character progression from civil servant to cold-blooded killer, the first 20 minutes of the series set a shocking and realistic-feeling pace. Taking Nilsen straight to the police station for interview, we soon see that he is unerringly amenable to the investigator’s questions. Detailing the chilling nature of his killings (including watching TV with the corpses), he starts to reveal the extent of his crimes, informing DCI Jay that he will likely find the bodies of up to 15 men spread across his back garden and property.
The information, incomprehensible to the team of officers, is reeled off as casually as a shopping list by Nilsen, who divulges that all of his victims were young, homeless or otherwise in need. Barely batting an eyelid, he goes on to explain that he has been killing and dismembering bodies over the course of the last five years, luring victims home with the promise of drinks and music. With no knowledge of the victims' names and no DNA evidence available during the time period, the police face the impossible task of identifying the bodies against missing persons records, appealing to the public for information about missing loved ones.
The role is a far cry from Tennant’s days on Doctor Who but his striking physical similarity to Nilsen makes it easy to dissociate him from his previous television characters. Gaunt and menacing, Tennant’s disconnected air is genuinely chilling, capturing both Nilsen’s concrete sense of self and matter-of fact speech. It is perhaps during his interviews in remand that we see this most clearly, as he discloses the details of his life and crimes to biographer Brian Masters (Jason Watkins). As he reveals himself to Brian, he begins to recoil from the police, threatening the chance of justice for the families of the victims.
As the series progresses, we learn that previous complaints against Nilsen were ignored by officers, revealing not only gross incompetence but also the homophobia present within the Metropolitan Police. Set during a time of political unrest and rising unemployment, the series does well to capture the financial pressures and public failings associated with the real-life investigation, adding to the overall realistic feeling of the story. This is enhanced by the presence of real news footage throughout the series, showing both the shaky social climate as well as tapings of Nilsen’s arrest.
Avoiding the formulaic filming style of most primetime dramas, Des feels at once contemporary and of the time, managing to bring a distressing story to the screen without the use of gratuitous violence. It is perhaps the absence of gore that makes the series feel so creepy, leaving the audience to conjure up their own images of what happened at 23 Cranley Gardens. For those who enjoy spending their evenings stepping inside the worlds of notorious serial killers, Des was made with you in mind. Just be prepared to go to sleep afterwards with the light on.
Des premieres on Monday 14th September at 9pm on ITV.