‘Dennis Nilsen preyed on those who fell through the cracks’: David Tennant on playing the serial killer

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  • September 10, 2020
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Many actors would think twice before agreeing to play an infamous serial killer. But for David Tennant, who stars in ITV’s three-part true crime drama, Des, the opportunity to play Dennis Nilsen had been building for a long time.

Nilsen, who was convicted in 1983 of a series of murders, was a very ordinary monster with a simple yet disturbingly successful method. He would invite young men, many of whom were without roots, to his house in the north London suburb of Muswell Hill, where he offered them food and drink before killing them.

His crimes were uncovered when the tenants at 23 Cranley Gardens, the block of flats in which he lived, called in a specialist to deal with blocked drains. The blockage was caused by human remains. Almost 40 years later, Nilsen remains a cautionary tale in north London; proof that you never know what your unassuming neighbour might be doing.

For Tennant, who as a young man lived near that infamous address, Nilsen’s story had a further interest. He had read Killing for Company, Brian Masters’s bestselling book about the murderer, out of “local interest” and had previously been attached to a “very dark” film about Nilsen, which fell through.

“I just thought the story was so extraordinary and unbelievable really,” Tennant says. “I’d read Masters’s book and found myself drawn to this kind of unknowable psychology – just the fact that it went on for years with nobody even suspecting that Nilsen was anything other than a rather boring and inconspicuous man.”

The two men share a Scottish background (Nilsen grew up in Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire), and a similarity of build and colouring, so it was perhaps unsurprising that Tennant found himself circling the role. What drew him to Des, however, was the sensitivity with which the writer, Luke Neal, and the director, Lewis Arnold, planned to tell their tale.

“I was really intrigued when I read Luke’s script, not only because it captured the period so brilliantly, but also because the idea of coming into the story at the moment that Nilsen was arrested seemed like the perfect way in, because then you’re not dealing with this potential kind of gore-fest. It avoids being titillating and I think that’s incredibly important.”

It is true that our growing obsession with true crime (ITV appears particularly keen on the genre, having recently screened White House Farm about the Jeremy Bamber case and Jeff Pope’s A Confession, which followed the case of the Swindon taxi driver Christopher Halliwell) brings with it a responsibility to the families of those who were killed. Most true-crime dramas have to walk a fine line between telling the story the audiences want to hear and sensationalising real and still painful events. If Des succeeds, which it does, it is because Neal and Arnold are less interested in the killer than in how his crimes went undetected for so long.

“The more I researched, the less I became interested in Nilsen as a person and the more I was intrigued by the case, what it said about society at that time,” says Neal. “There was so much misinformation out there about the victims, and the coverage was so terrible.”

Many newspapers implied that the victims were gay, hinting that their “lifestyle” was partly to blame for their death. “I really wanted to look at that. I was also interested in what it says about our society that 15 people can go missing and nobody really notices. What kind of society allows someone like Dennis Nilsen to flourish for five years?”

Arnold agrees that it was important to keep the focus on Nilsen’s victims “particularly because in some cases, their families had been trying desperately to find out where they had gone”. They did reach out to the families involved, “some of whom talked to us and some of whom didn’t want to be involved, understandably”.

“I think it’s a drama as much about how you cover crime as it is about the crimes themselves,” he says. “Film-makers making a true crime series have a responsibility: they have to be mindful of the victims and sensitive about the kind of story being told. It was never our intention to glorify Nilsen.”

It is partly because of this that Neal and Arnold chose to eschew flashbacks, a standard device in true-crime dramas. “We came to the conclusion that you couldn’t use flashbacks because the only person who knew the truth of what happened on those evenings was Nilsen, and using flashbacks would be giving credence to his version of events,” says Arnold. “We had no desire to glorify him, and presenting his version of events as the true version would have been doing that.”

A similar thinking lay behind the decision to widen the drama’s focus and show us events through the eyes of the case’s lead detective, Peter Jay (Daniel Mays): “He’s a way for viewers to connect to the crimes because he is as horrified as they should be,” says Arnold.

A third angle is provided by the portrayal of the true-crime writer Brian Masters (Jason Watkins), who became involved after becoming concerned about the way in which the press was covering the case. He interviewed the killer regularly while he was on remand, convincing Nilsen to hand over his notebooks and even a portfolio containing drawings of the dead victims.

“Involving Masters in the story is another masterstroke,” says Tennant. “Not only because it shows us how Nilsen was manipulating different people as they came into his orbit, but also because it allows us to comment on how society views serial killers and to examine our obsession with them.”

To get into character, Tennant watched documentaries and footage of Nilsen from the time. “He also wrote a very extensive self-indulgent autobiography, which I read some of, as well as rereading Masters’s book and looking at billions of articles. But, you know, you study him and you stare at him and you try in some ways to replicate the way he talked or the way he moved, but you also have to get beyond that.

“Because it’s not just about impersonating a character. It’s about trying to get some sort of sense of him, not to relate to why he did what he did but to try to understand it. And it’s particularly hard with Nilsen because he’s someone who has written a lot about himself – but it doesn’t all tally up, so you have to find a space where all the things he said and all the things that other people have said about him can be true.”

For Arnold and Neal, who also worked with the LGBTQ homeless charity Stonewall Housing, which was formed in 1983 six months after Nilsen’s trial, the key to Des is not that it tells Nilsen’s story, but that it takes a sharp look at society during the early 1980s, asking why it might be easy for people to fall between the cracks.

“The only thing that the men who were killed by Nilsen did wrong was go home with someone who was being nice to them and had offered them a drink or a meal,” says Neal. “I don’t think any of us can stand there and say we haven’t done that. That we haven’t gone home with someone to carry on a party or because you feel like you trust them. The unfortunate thing for these poor men was that someone they trusted was a predator. He exploited their need for comfort.”

Tennant agrees that it is “a fascinating study of loneliness – everyone wandering around the city unable to connect” and adding that in many ways Nilsen’s story is a very London tale. “London is where people go to fall through the cracks, and it tended to be those people Nilsen preyed on. And it’s partly because society allows that to happen that he could get away with it. There was a lot of homelessness, a lot of disfranchised people, a lot of poverty and unemployment – in that sense it’s not impossible to imagine someone like Nilsen doing something similar today.”

Des starts on ITV on Monday 14 September at 9pm and continues on Tuesday and Wednesday.