Des – ITV’s account of Dennis Nilsen

As the second wave of coronavirus lockdown looms, we all need cheering, so ITV’s three nights devoted to a drama about serial killer Dennis Nilsen this week may be approached with trepidation.

Nilsen was found guilty of murdering 15 boys and young men between 1978 and 1983. The case still has the power to dismay us, being a perplexing tale of loneliness and inexplicable horror. Most of the victims were not even missed.

Brian Masters’ classic portrait of serial killer Dennis Nilsen

ITV’s series, starring David Tennant as Nilsen, who was known as Des, is not a lurid recreation of the crimes, however. It comes at the events from an unusual angle, which should make the drama fascinating.

Writer Brian Masters got close to Nilsen while he was behind bars, and this relationship is central to the drama. Masters wrote a classic account of his dealings with Nilsen, Killing for Company, using the killer’s own writings and poems in addition to their interviews to offer psychological insights into the man.

The book starts with a description of Muswell Hill, where Nilsen had been living when he was arrested. It looks at his Scottish background and slowly builds a portrait of this solitary but intelligent civil servant.

Masters also spoke to Nilsen’s mother and leading detectives on the case, and wrote a balanced and rare depiction of a strange, shocking predator.

In the drama, Masters, played by Jason Watkins, is exhilarated to be involved in writing up the case, but he underestimates the impact his new obsession will have on his life. The series considers the ethics of our interest in such figures.

Undoubtedly, these are dark events, but I don’t feel our inclination to watch such series is prurient. Our curiosity to understand how these crimes occur and who commits them is powerful.

But after each episode, I might switch over for some escapism and watch Battlestar Galactica.

Des, ITV, Mon-Wed 9pm

Murder by the Sea’s most fascinating case? You decide…

I hear CBS Reality’s Murder by the Sea is gearing up for a fifth series.

This is good news for the many viewers who have become devoted followers of these documentaries, recounting difficult murder cases that have confronted police around UK coastal towns.

Beside the seaside – Geoffrey Wansell

Presented by the flamboyant Geoffrey Wansell, each episode interviews detectives and other experts – including true-crime writers like myself – to review cases ranging from the bizarre to the shocking.

In recent days this blog has been receiving hundreds of hits from viewers who have been watching summer repeats of the series. In response, I would love to hear which episodes you have found most compelling…

Which Murder by the Sea case did you find most interesting?

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark TV series

Michelle McNamara, who died in 2016, wrote one of the most fascinating true-crime books of the last 10 years.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark charted her obsession with a case about an unknown perpetrator she called the Golden State Killer. The crimes graduated from burglaries to rapes and then murders.

They were chilling in their sadism, remorselessness and sheer volume.

McNamara was a graduate in creative writing who had an interest in true crime. She ran a website called TrueCrimeDiary and started to explore the crimes of a burglar and attacker known as the East Area Rapist, who operated in the Sacramento area in the late 1970s.

Between 1979 and 1986 there was then a series of murders attributed to the Original Night Stalker. It wasn’t until 2001 that DNA evidence confirmed it was one man committing this multitude of crimes.

Joseph James DeAngelo arrested

McNamara’s mission was to make the case better known and to uncover who had been getting away with these attacks for decades.

She died before she saw a suspect, former police officerJoseph James DeAngelo, aged 74, get arrested in 2018. He is charged with multiple first-degree murders and is awaiting trial.

However, McNamara’s book may have been instrumental in assisting detectives with her suggestion that the DNA should be used to explore the killer’s genealogical background. Perhaps this new HBO true-crime series, which is showing on Sky Atlantic in June, will reveal if her book played a part.

The documentary is directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus. This should be an intriguing account of the case, but also, via McNamara’s own fixation on it, an insight into why so many people are fascinated by true crime.

The Real Prime Suspect series 2

The Real Prime Suspect with Jackie Malton

I watched the opener of Jackie Malton’s latest series last night and thought it was a particularly sensitive and interesting episode.

The case was the heartbreaking kidnap of Muriel McKay from her home in Wimbledon in 1969. It was extraordinary for several reasons.

Muriel was the wife of Alick McKay, a newspaper executive and right-hand man of Rupert Murdoch. In 1969 Murdoch had just begun his move into expanding his newspaper interests into Britain from Australia, having recently bought the News of the World and The Sun.

The bungling kidnappers thought they were abducting Murdoch’s wife, Anna, rather than Muriel McKay, but still demanded £1million in ransom despite their blunder.

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Murder by the Sea: Michael Downes

Anyone who doubts the value of bobbies on the beat in these days of major police cuts should consider the case of Michael Downes in Blackpool in the 1970s and 80s.

Two years after the cruel murder of 64-year-old widow Catherine Weaver in 1978, another woman, Hilda Keefe, 64, spotted an intruder at the Blackpool home she shared with her 87-year-old mother.

Amid the fun and beauty of Blackpool, serial killer Michael Downes looked for victims. Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

Hilda yelled for help and the intruder fled – leaving behind some washing-line pieces. A local PC called Dave Milner recalled that lengths of washing line were used to secure Catherine Weaver. He took an interest in the case and called on Hilda and her mother regularly.

Vote: your favourite episode of Murder by the Sea

On one visit Hilda said it was a shame that the man had never been caught. After all, he had been wearing such a distinctive green jacket. She had even seen him herself when was out and about.

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The Trial of Christine Keeler


When researching The Hunt for the 60s’ Ripper I came across a book that really shocked me.

This was Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK, written by Geoffrey Robertson QC and published in 2013. It is a slim but angry look at the Profumo Scandal.

This was the 1963 hoo-hah in which Secretary of State for War John Profumo was forced to resign for lying about an affair with a young woman – Christine Keeler. His philandering had apparently also jeopardised national security because Keeler knew Soviet naval attache Yevgeny Ivanov.

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Murder by the Sea new series

I’ve heard CBS Reality’s Murder by the Sea is returning in January (Tuesday 7th 10pm).

For those who haven’t seen it, the premise is that the jolly seaside resort is often the setting for unusual and sometimes frightening homicides.

Why should a place we associate with fun, sun and relaxation suffer such crimes? Having been involved as a talking head in all four series so far, I think several factors are important.

There is the transient nature of holiday resorts. Thousands of pleasure-seekers and workers flock in during the season, meaning many let their guard down and mingle with strangers in search of a good time.

Blackpool and Ilfracombe

One episode was about Stephen Akinmurele, 21, who moved to Blackpool to work as a barman. He murdered three people in their senior years, including his former landlady.

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ITV drama about serial killer Dennis Nilsen

ITV has just announced a new three-part drama about murderer Dennis Nilsen.

Called Des – Nilsen’s nickname – it has top-quality talents involved, including David Tennant (a long way from Doctor Who here), Daniel Mays (Line of Duty) and Jason Watkins (The Crown). It is also based on Brian Masters’ landmark book, Killing for Company: The Case of Dennis Nilsen.

ITV has a decent record of producing serious, sensitive dramas about some of Britain’s most grotesque murderers.

Among them I would place This Is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, Appropriate Adult (about Fred West) and the recent A Confession (the murder of Sian O’Callaghan).

True-crime controversy

However, there is a fine line to tread with such difficult subjects. True crime is often attacked for being lurid and crass, virtually treating real tragedies and grief as part of a horror genre.

Brian Masters’ book, while it had its critics, was a serious attempt to understand how Nilsen was able to prey on young vulnerable men.

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Murder by the Sea: Louisa Merrifield

Of the six cases featured in the latest Murder by the Sea series, Louisa May Merrifield’s is the one I would most like to research further.

The Blackpool Poisoner was the final episode on CBS Reality’s British series last week, and it is fascinating.

In 1953 Louisa went to work as a housekeeper for a rather cranky old gal called Sarah Ricketts, aged 79. As I point out during the programme, Louisa was something of a dodgy character, having had 20-odd jobs in three years prior to this.

Panoramic view of Blackpool sands at low tide with the tower and central pier in the distance http://photoeverywhere.co.uk

Murder at the bungalow

Louisa and her third husband, Alfred (who was 24 years her senior at 71) moved into Mrs Ricketts two-bed bungalow at 339 Devonshire Road, Blackpool.

The housekeeper got her employer to change her will, leaving her £3,000 bungalow to Louisa and her husband. Soon after Louisa put rat poison in the old lady’s favourite treat – a jar full of jam.

As Murder by the Sea makes, Louisa was greedy and boastful. She made several blunders and was soon arrested.

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Murder by the Sea: Barry Rogers and Penelope John

It is hard not to feel great sympathy for Rhianne Morris, who appeared on this week’s Murder by the Sea.

She was the girlfriend of Barry Rogers, who, with his mother Penelope John, went to jail in 2018 for murdering his grandmother, Betty Guy.

Barry Rogers and Penelope John

It is clear Rhianne is still haunted by her time with Rogers, who was abusive to her. She would later come to discover that while they were together, Rogers and his mother concocted their callous plot to murder 84-year-old Betty, a former nurse.

Once again Murder by the Sea, presented by the eccentric Geoffrey Wansell, uncovered a dark side to a beautiful coastal area, this time Pembrokeshire.

Matricide is a rare crime. As this episode makes clear, however, for a mother and son to collude in the killing of the mother’s mother is even rarer.

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