Des: When does David Tennant’s chilling true crime drama start on ITV? Who is in the cast? What is the true story of the ‘kindly killer’?

Daniel Mays and Jason Watkins join David Tennant in ITV’s latest dark true crime series about Dennis Nilsen’s shocking crimes between 1978 and 1983.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 16 September 2020 - 1.57pm
ITV

Des, a true crime drama about serial killer Dennis Nilsen, is one of the most highly-anticipated new drama series of the autumn.

Starring David Tennant, Daniel Mays and Jason Watkins, the programme follows the mould of previous hit ITV series Appropriate Adult, A Confession and White House Farm, in retelling a chilling real-life UK criminal case from a new perspective.

The three-part drama will be told from the perspective of the police, Nilsen himself and his biographer Brian Masters. The series will not only highlight the police investigation and trial but also the effect of the media coverage on public perceptions of the victims at the time, raising questions of just how far have we really come since then.

“David Tennant is going to be brilliant as Dennis Nilsen and with Daniel Mays as Jay and Jason Watkins as Brian, this has an incredible cast to bring this story to screen and we are delighted to be making this with New Pictures,” said ITV’s head of drama Polly Hill.

Kim Varvell, executive producer for New Pictures added: “Dennis Nilsen’s crimes shocked the nation in the early 1980s. Our programme focuses on the emotional impact of those terrible crimes, both on those who came into contact with Nilsen himself, and also on the victims’ families.”

When does Des start on ITV?

David Tennant as serial killer Dennis Nilsen in Des on ITV ITV
David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen

The drama is the most highly anticipated new series in ITV’s autumn schedules.

You'll be able to watch it from Monday, September 14 at 9pm on ITV.

It will consist of three, hour-long episodes.

It's been confirmed that Monday's premiere was the biggest drama launch on the channel since Cleaning Up in 2019.

Is there a trailer?

There is! Get a a glimpse of David Tennant's portrayal of Dennis Nilsen in the first look trailer below.

Des: David Tennant is 'chilling' and 'menacing' - the reviews are in... 

The first episode of the three-part series received rave four-and five-star reviews from TV critics. Den of Geek's Louisa Mellor says that Tennant delivers such a "compelling performance that he may struggle to shake off the association in future", while Suzi Feay in the FT calls Jason Watkins' portrayal of Brian Masters "wonderfully unctuous".

Generous performances from Mays and Tennant, writes Lucy Mangan in The Guardian, "create something even greater than the sum of their parts", while The Independent's Ed Cumming praises the drama's "confident script directed with a good sense of time and place".

Who's in the cast of Des?

David Tennant - Dennis Nilsen

David Tennant (Broadchurch, Doctor Who, Good Omens) takes the lead role in one of the most infamous criminal cases in UK history.

Dennis Nilsen was a local civil servant who murdered at least 12 boys and young men between 1978 and 1983.

He would meet and befriend these men before offering food or lodgings for the evening back at his North London flat.

Nilsen is unexpectedly cooperative when he is arrested, freely admitting to killing "15 or 16" victims. He revels in the attention from both police and press, but frustration builds when he’s remanded and treated like a prisoner before he has been convicted.

Come the trial and the explosion of press interest, Nilsen revels in the power of watching his life play out in the eminent theatre of the Old Bailey. 

Speaking in an interview ahead of the show, Tennant said he found the character of Nilsen 'intriguing' from an acting point of view.

He said: "As an actor you are always looking at what makes the human condition and why humans do what they do. In this case, it was about looking at what makes human beings do something like this. How could a human be capable of this? It was about joining the dots and looking at whether it was an illness or was it just darker impulses?" 

 

Daniel Mays - DCI Peter Jay

Daniel Mays (Line of Duty, White Lines, Ashes to Ashes) plays Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay, who brought Nilsen to justice.

DCI Peter Jay is a focused and dedicated cop at Hornsey Police Station in North London. The Nilsen case is the highest-profile of his career, and he will stop at nothing to get justice for the victims’ families.

A working-class foil to the establishment arenas of the Met and the Bar, he’s more interested in emotional justice for the victims’ families than the narrow parameters set by the legal and justice system.

But the devastating truth for Jay is that he cannot identify all of the victims. Over the course of the Nilsen case, Jay becomes increasingly disenchanted, but also learns to work with Masters, whose intellectual approach to Nilsen is the opposite of his.

Barry Ward and Daniel Mays in Des ITV
Barry Ward and Daniel Mays in Des

Jason Watkins - Brian Masters

Jason Watkins (The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, W1A) plays writer and Nilsen’s biographer, Brian Masters.

An academic best-known for books about French literature and British aristocracy,  Masters is drawn to Dennis Nilsen like a moth to a flame, finding unexpected connections with a serial killer that both beguile and unnerve him.

Brian is similar to Nilsen in several ways. Gay, lonely intellectuals from tough working-class backgrounds, both revel in being the centre of attention, though Brian’s love of the limelight tempers his desire to remain an invisible observer.

He realises that he may be worse than the tabloid journalists covering the story because over the course of the series he finds he’s become obstructive to the police work and almost a mouthpiece, or apologist, for a serial killer.

The story is told through the prism of these three isolated men - a detective, a biographer, and Nilsen himself.

While Detective Peter Jay and the police investigation’s attempt to get justice for as many victims as possible provides the narrative and emotional spine, the relationship between Nilsen and his biographer Brian Masters allows the series to delve into the mind of one of the most emotionally elusive serial killers the world has ever seen.

Further cast members include Ron Cook (Mr Selfridge), Faye McKeever (Little Boy Blue), Chanel Cresswell (This Is England), Barry Ward (White Lines), Tony Way (After Life), Bronagh Waugh (The Fall) and Ben Bailey Smith (David Brent: Life on the Road).

What is the true story of Dennis Nilsen?

David Tennant and Jason Watkins in Des ITV
David Tennant and Jason Watkins in Des

Dennis Nilsen, who became known as the ‘Kindly Killer’, was a local civil servant who spent five years murdering boys and young men.

 His victims were often homeless or living off grid, having slipped through the cracks of 1980s society and were therefore welcoming of this stranger’s apparent generosity. When he was finally caught on February 9, 1983, Nilsen had murdered as many as 15 men over a period of five years, making him Britain’s most prolific serial killer at the time.

After his arrest, Nilsen was astonishing in his honesty, admitting to 15 murders in the police car outside his flat. But infuriatingly for the investigating detectives, he couldn’t remember any of his victims’ names.

With no apparent motive, inconclusive forensic evidence and most of Nilsen’s victims living off-grid, the police started the biggest manhunt investigation in UK history. This time not for the murderer, but for the murdered.

If you’re interested in learning more about the true story, ITV will also be airing a factual companion series The Real ‘Des’: The Dennis Nilsen Story.

Exploring the personality of the notorious serial killer, it features insight from experts in his case, new material and previously unseen archive, interviews with victims' families and footage from an astonishing and infamous interview Nilsen gave to ITV at Albany Prison in 1992.

Where was Des filmed?

Lewis Arnold, the director of the series, said it was "incredibly challenging" to make Des as they had to depict the London of1983 while filming in the modern-day capital.

After struggling to find an exterior property that matched the distinctive look of 23 Cranley Gardens, Muswell Hill, where Nilsen was arrested after police found his drains clogged with human remains, they ended up shooting in Crouch End in North London.

Arnold explains: "This was due to the fact the houses around Cranley Gardens shared the exact same architecture, which we couldn’t find in other London boroughs. The interior of Cranley Gardens was an exact set build of the real space... our production designer Anna Higginson even went as far as having the original wallpaper replicated, and hunted down matches for almost all the furniture Nilsen owned."

The only location that the cast and crew use that was part of the real case were the halls and corridors of the Old Bailey, which feature in episodes 2 and 3.

Arnold says: "The scale and grandeur of the Old Bailey is something you can’t replicate or find elsewhere, and offered us a chance to locate some of the drama within the actual reality of the case."

Des David Tennant ITV

Watch Des if you liked…

Imelda Staunton, Martin Freeman and Siobhan Finneran in A Confession ITV
Imelda Staunton, Martin Freeman and Siobhan Finneran in A Confession

Appropriate Adult, Red Riding, See No Evil: The Moors Murders, A Confession, White House Farm.

 

Des starts Monday, September 14 at 9pm on ITV.