ITV recently aired a drama series called DES based on the arrest of serial killer Dennis Nilsen who preyed on homeless men between 1978 and 1983. The case has always fascinated me not least because Nielsen’s home in North London is round the corner from mine and I remember watching the story unfold on the news when I was a child. It also plays into my fascination with serial killers and how they are so often able to operate without anyone guessing at their true nature.
This is a transcript of the article I wrote for the Independent about DES.
To read it on the newspaper’s website: https://www.independent.co.uk/
To watch the show: https://www.itv.com
Des is the new three-part true-crime drama series currently airing on ITV and smashing rating records for the channel.
Taking its title from the nickname of Dennis Nilsen, the programme documents the arrest and trial of the man who killed at least 12 young men between 1978 and 1983.
In a high-impact opening, police show up at Nilsen’s flat after a plumber discovers his drains packed with bone and human tissue.
Horrific, is an understatement though as a writer of criminal profiler/serial killer thrillers, I’m as interested in the psychology of the perpetrator as the crime itself. Possibly that’s why I’m so intrigued by Nilsen’s case. As David Tennant, the actor playing the murderer says:
“It certainly would seem that those who worked with him at the job office found him pleasant enough. Sometimes he would drone on a little, but there was certainly nothing extraordinary, apparently, about this man.”
To me, it’s this aspect that makes the show so compelling. All too often, serial killers are portrayed as bogeymen; monsters, somehow ‘other’. But the truth is, even the most apparently senseless violence has meaning to the perpetrator. Serial killers are people too; humans who do inhuman things.
Delving into these ‘inhuman’ crimes has naturally been an important part of the programme and has consequently raised the criticism that the show’s producers have somehow glorified Nielsen’s actions. While not seeking to diminish the pain Nielsen has caused, I believe the criticism is unfair. Simply portraying or interrogating a crime on screen is a world away from glorifying it.
Unlike Thomas Harris’ baroque depiction of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, DES is almost mundane, down to its bleak lighting and dour costumes. And just as putting racist words in the mouth of a character doesn’t make an author racist, a TV producer who shows a killer revelling in his crimes, isn’t saying murder is a good thing. It borders on patronising to suggest people can’t tell the difference.