When you’re making a programme or film about a notorious real-life criminal, particularly one who did things as horrendous as Fraserburgh-born serial killer Dennis Nilsen, there’s always the question: Why is this entertainment?
It’s one thing to make a work of fiction about people doing terrible things – Line Of Duty revels in its casual violence and is arguably the most popular TV show of the last decade – but it’s another if the crimes are real and recent.
The families of the men Dennis Nilsen murdered are undoubtedly still alive, so the makers of Des, ITV’s new three-part drama about the killer which started tonight, have gone out of their way to make it as sensitive as possible.
There are no flashbacks to the nights when he murdered his 15 victims and the closest we get to gore is during the autopsy scenes – but even then they are framed in such a way that objects in the foreground obscure the bodies.
But what Des lacks in violence it more than makes up for in graphic descriptions of what Nilsen did to the bodies. The title of Brian Masters’ book was Killing For Company, and that title comes skin-crawlingly to life during these scenes.
David Tennant, who I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with some of his work, really dials the mannerisms down for this, imbuing Nilsen with a dead-eyed calmness that belies the malevolence beneath the surface.
His initial police interview had an almost darkly comic tone, given how at odds his matter-of-fact, couthie demeanour was with the horrors he’d committed.
Those tuning in to hear how Tennant fares with the Fraserburgh accent may be dismayed to learn it lands halfway between Bathgate and the Broch, however, to be fair, if you watch clips of real-life Nilsen’s prison interviews on YouTube you’d be hard-pressed to detect a Doric twang to him as well.
Although it’s all about Nilsen, co-stars Jason Watkins and Daniel Mays have the lion’s share of screen-time over the course of the three episodes.
Mays plays DCI Peter Jay, who led the team of detectives tasked with identifying the remains found in the drains of Nilsen’s London home. He’s very good in the role, although there’s a puzzling bit of business in the first scene that hints at marriage problems, but it’s never referred to again. I think they did it to add a bit more depth to his character, but it’s so tacked on, I wish they hadn’t bothered.
Given that dramas like Des run the risk of exploiting the victims, the issue is addressed directly with the character of biographer Brian Masters (Watkins).
Masters managed to secure interviews with Nilsen while he was on remand for the murders and those conversations formed the basis of his acclaimed Nilsen biography in 1985.
The elephant in the room – who is being exploited here? – troubles Watkins’ character from the start and you can sense Des screenwriter Luke Neal grappling with the idea too.
In the end though, I don’t think he needed to worry – there’s nothing insensitive about the approach he’s taken.
The first two parts, when we see detectives and Masters grappling with how to deal with a man like Nilsen and the process of building the case against him, were fascinating for anyone who love police procedurals, although there were some ideas raised that could have done with further examination.
How, for example, did the fact that all his victims were gay men affect the investigation, given the murders happened at a time when homophobia was rife (not least, I assume, in the police force)? It’s hinted at, but never really developed.
The third episode – the murder trial – is the weakest of the three.
Since most viewers probably know the outcome, it tries to create suspense by suggesting that Nilsen might be considered mentally ill, and so might be not be found guilty of murder.
Quite why that would be so terrible – he’d still be locked up for the rest of his life and being insane doesn’t take away from the horror or culpability what he did – isn’t addressed. It’s just there to add some drama to the court proceedings.
Also, any programme that has the bad TV drama trope of a press pack outside the court absolutely screaming questions at witnesses going into a live criminal trial, gets marked down. It maybe looks good on camera, but would never happen like that in real life.
The same goes for scenes when we see DCI Jay sitting in the courtroom watching the trial, then stepping into the witness box. That soups up the drama by giving audiences lots of cutaways of him rolling his eyes whenever the case isn’t going his way, but a key witness would never be allowed to sit in the trial and then testify.
In fact, during the last hour, Dennis Nilsen is more or less sidelined for the whole running time.
We get a chilling encounter between him and DCI Jay after the trial and another with Masters, but Tennant has little to do, other than sit passively in the dock listening to the evidence.
That slight anti-climax of the series shouldn’t stop anyone watching through.
The performances of Tennant, Mays and Watkins totally make it worth your time and if you are unfamiliar with the case it may well have you gripped from start to finish.
I just wish it had delved a little bit deeper into the motivations of Dennis Nilsen. He mentions seeing the body of his grandfather in a coffin as a child and how, as a boy, he used to put on make-up to pretend to be a dead body, but other than that there’s precious little biographical material in the series.
I’m sure in Brian Masters’ book there’s a lot more details of his north-east upbringing, but by sticking rigidly to a ‘no flashbacks’ rules, viewers are left to fill in the blanks.
But then again, perhaps this lack of explanation is baked into the material from the start.
Remember, Des is based on conversations with Nilsen himself – how much stock do we want to put in the self-analysis of such a despicable man?