David Tennant and Daniel Mays offer up some superb acting in Des, a chilling serial killer drama that pays true respect to the victims
“It’s not up to us to make subjective decisions”
Created by Lewis Arnold and Luke Neal and based on Brian Masters’ book Killing for Company, Des manages that rare feat of balancing its exploration of a true crime story without overamplification of the despicable actions of a serial killer. That killer was Dennis Nilsen who murdered at least 12 young men in London between 1978 and 1983 and was only caught when he himself called to complain that the drains at his flat were blocked. What the drains were blocked with is just the first bone-chilling detail in what is a horrifying story.
Des begins at those drains and so from the off, respect is paid to the victims. We’re spared prurient re-enactments of the murders, and the heinous treatment of the bodies that followed, and instead witness the case largely through the eyes of DCI Peter Jays. In the mode of there’s always one decent copper in the mix, Daniel Mays does an excellent job of portraying the corrosive horror investigating not only these atrocities but how the police force at large managed to miss this for so long, and how the legal system will still come to fail some.
Also in the mix is Masters himself, the writer who builds his own relationship with Nilsen once he’s incarcerated and decides to pen his biography. Jason Watkins plays him effectively, a contrasting perspective to the police dynamic. And as Nilsen himself, David Tennant is eerily effective, a strident and challenging personality whose motives remain murky and whose narcissism is pervasive in almost his every interaction. There’s little sensationalisation here, just a brutally – but correctly – unvarnished evocation of a monster.
Over its three episodes, which take us from the discovery of the crimes through to trial and verdict, so much attention is paid to the unglamorous, painstaking nature of policework, particularly when it comes to the identification of those lost in the system. Period footage talks of the homelessness crisis of the time and the vulnerability of those on the edges of society on whom Nilsen preyed. The homophobia stoked by the media is ferociously indicted too, something sadly that still rings true today. Troubling but essential watching.