Des: David Tennant’s ITV drama tells the untold story of serial killer Dennis Nilsen

Posted by for TV

ITV true crime series Des, starring David Tennant, promises to reveal the “human cost” of the notorious serial killer when it airs tonight. 

David Tennant has, over the years, brought us some of TV and film’s most iconic villains: think Jessica Jones’ abusive Kilgrave, Bad Samaritan’s psychopathic Cale, and Harry Potter’s demented Barty Crouch, to name just three.

In ITV’s Des, though, he faces his toughest challenge yet as he steps into the shoes of notorious serial killer and necrophiliac Dennis Nilsen.

Who was Dennis Nilsen?

Known as the “Muswell Hill Murderer” and the “Kindly Killer”, the bespectacled former police officer murdered at least 15 men and boys between 1978 and 1983.

Nilsen would lure his victims – many of whom were homeless – into his home, promising to provide them with food, alcohol and/or shelter. Then, after murdering them in gruesome circumstances, he would bath and dress their bodies in preparation for sexual acts. 

Disposing of the bodies when he was done with them, however, proved difficult. 

And, eventually, a concerned plumber alerted police to the dissected human remains stuck in the drainage system of Nilsen’s flat.

ITV’s Des: Ben Bailey Smith as Brian Lodge.
ITV’s Des: Ben Bailey Smith as Brian Lodge, another police officer involved in the case.

When informed that officers had come to discuss the matter of human remains, Nilsen feigned ignorance, reportedly exclaiming, “Good grief, how awful!”

“Don’t mess about,” the on-duty inspector is said to have replied, having already noted the smell of rotting flesh emanating from the property. “Where’s the rest of the body?”

Nilsen calmly replied that it was in two plastic bags in the wardrobe, adding: “It’s a long story… I’ll tell you everything. I want to get it off my chest.”

ITV’s Des: David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen.
ITV’s Des: David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen.

So, what is the plot of ITV’s Des?

Nilsen was found guilty of murder on 3 November 1983, and sentenced to life imprisonment. After spending a total of 35 years behind bars, the killer died aged 72 in 2018 – something which Tennant has since said he is thankful for.

“After he was arrested, Dennis Nilsen became obsessed with the legend of ‘Des’ – the reputation that he left behind. Whenever he slipped out public consciousness, there was almost a sense that he wanted to get back into it,” Tennant told the Radio Times.

“That’s why I’m relieved he’s not alive. I would hate for this to go out and for him to be sitting in some cell somewhere imaging we were in any way glorifying him.”

ITV’s Des: the police start to remove the bodies found at Dennis Nilsen’s house.
ITV’s Des: the police start to remove the bodies found at Dennis Nilsen’s house.

It is for this same reason that ITV’s Des – which took five years to complete – does not depict any of Nilsen’s murderous acts on screen.

Instead, the true-crime show picks up shortly before Nilsen’s arrest in February 1983, and explores “how a man like Nilsen was able to prey on the young and vulnerable in 1980s Britain.”

As per ITV’s description: “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.”

Is there a trailer for ITV’s Des?

The trailer for ITV’s Des promises that the series will be “told through the prism of three men – Dennis Nilsen played by David Tennant, Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay played by Daniel Mays, and biographer Brian Masters played by Jason Watkins – as it explores the personal and professional consequences of coming into contact with a man like Nilsen.”

Watch it for yourself below:

What have people said about ITV’s Des?

Speaking at a Q&A, Des writer Luke Neal explained: “I think very early on we knew that we didn’t want to show any of the crimes, because in our view those poor men that went home with Dennis Nilsen, the only thing they did was go home with someone they met at the pub that night. 

“They didn’t need to be shown on a TV drama.”

Neal added: “We wanted to tell another story, which is the human cost of Dennis Nilsen.

“What comes after he is caught and the people that have to investigate in individual ways to get answers for the five years.”

ITV’s Des: Bronagh Waugh as Charlotte Proctor.
ITV’s Des: Bronagh Waugh as Charlotte Proctor.

Who makes up the cast of ITV’s Des?

As well as Tennant, Mays, and Watkins, the ITV drama boasts the talents of:

  • Alex Bhat
  • Ron Cook
  • Gerard Horan
  • Jay Simpson
  • Ben Bailey Smith
  • Barry Ward
  • Bronagh Waugh
  • Ross Anderson
  • Oscar Garland
  • Tor Clark
  • Chanel Cresswell
  • Faye McKeever
ITV’s Des: David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen.
ITV’s Des: David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen.

When is Des coming to ITV?

Des will premiere on ITV tonight, Monday 14 September, at 9pm.

There are three episodes in the miniseries, which will run throughout the beginning of this week, concluding on Wednesday 16 September.

Sign up for the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you don't miss out on the conversation.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Images: ITV

Share this article

Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

Recommended by Kayleigh Dray