Socialist Worker

Des—the grim reality of a killer shown in all its banal horror

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2724

David Tennant as Dennis Nilson in ITVs Des

David Tennant as Dennis Nilson in ITV's Des


A mini-series about a brutal serial killer might not sound very appealing. But ITV’s Des, about killer Dennis Nilsen, is very watchable.

One of the main reasons is the acting. David Tennant is brilliant as Nilsen, creating an unsettling, disturbing character.

Daniel Mays plays detective chief inspector Peter Jay and Jason Watkins is author Brian Masters, who is trying to write a biography of the killer.

The start of the first episode places it firmly in the 1980s and sets the context. There’s an eerie voiceover from Margaret Thatcher, and news reports of rising unemployment and homelessness.

The series points to the fact that Nilsen’s victims were vulnerable, often homeless, men. Some were gay, as was Nilsen.It could have made more of how many of Nilsen’s victims had become so vulnerable. Its portrayal of how the cops deal with the crimes is perhaps at times a little rose-tinted.

And the homophobia of the time is largely glossed over. Having said that, the series does get across just how bleak and hopeless life felt for many people at the time.

Some bits might come across a little dull, such as the later court scenes. But for me, this just added to the feeling that the series tried to show things as they were, without added drama.

Nilsen killed at least 12 men in London during the 1970s and 1980s. He butchered his victims and boiled some body parts in an attempt to make it easier to dispose of them.

It would be easy to make a programme that exploits the gruesome nature of the killings, but Des doesn’t do that. The ordinariness and banality of Tennant’s character may in fact be more terrifying.

Available to watch on ITVHub

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Reviews
Tue 29 Sep 2020, 13:50 BST
Issue No. 2724
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