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).
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.
Nilsen murdered boys and young men in his flat from 1978 to 1983. He was undetected for five years, and it was only when DCI Peter Jay was called to 23 Cranley Gardens, London, on 9 February, 1983, to investigate human fragments of flesh and bone clogging the drains, that the police realised they had a serial killer on their hands.
Starts with Nilsen arrest
Masters, who will be portrayed by Jason Watkins, corresponded with and visited Nilsen in prison. ITV says the drama will explore the consequences this contact had on Masters and others who met him, in addition to the emotional impact on the victims’ families.
Head of Drama Polly Hill says, ‘This drama starts with Nilsen’s arrest and is looking at him through the eyes of the police officer trying to identify those he killed and deliver justice for them, and the biographer Nilsen chose to tell his story.’
Why do people watch such dramas? These crimes are rare and at the extremes of human behaviour.
I think we’re interested because we all want to know how they happen and gain some insight into the perpetrators’ mindsets.
One of the most moving true-crime dramas I’ve seen was BBC One’s Five Daughters, which told the stories of the victims of Ipswich serial killer Steve Wright.
The experiences of Tania Nicol, Gemma Adams, Anneli Alderton, Annette Nicholls and Paula Clenell were powerfully told. It was heartbreaking to watch but gave you a small appreciation of the huge grief and loss behind the newspaper headlines.
If Des is half as good, it will be, well, not great entertainment, but perhaps thought-provoking and empathetic.
And for a primer on the case, watch this extraordinary BBC2 documentary from 1991, presented by Brian Masters.