David Tennant: ‘This is about a failure of society’

As David Tennant sheds his natural charm to play serial killer Dennis Nilsen, he tells The Big Issue how vulnerable people were failed under Margaret Thatcher and why we need to act with more kindness

“If we’re about to plunge into this recession, the likes of which we have never known, then that will expose all the flaws in our society. And I don’t feel comforted by the fact that we’ve got, just like in 1979, a rather alarming right-wing government again.”

David Tennant is one of the finest actors of his generation. But the 49-year-old, whose career went stratospheric with Doctor Who, is also smart, engaged and very happy to talk politics.

The actor talks to The Big Issue ahead of his latest role, in which he had to strip away all the charm and likeability he has displayed throughout his career to play Dennis Nilsen, one of the most notorious murderers in British history.

This took place under Thatcher, who said there was no such thing as society, didn’t she? And that’s the problem

Des, which airs on consecutive nights on ITV from 14-16 September, is set to be one of the most watched shows of the year – and it foregrounds key questions around the Nilsen case: namely, how was this man able to get away with killing so many vulnerable – and often homeless – young men for so long?

Tennant says: “Des is telling a story about a London that was riven with homelessness and poverty and joblessness, and people falling through the cracks in society, which feels increasingly like the society we’re back in.

“This took place under Thatcher, who said there was no such thing as society, didn’t she? And that’s the problem. As long as there’s no such thing as society, then we don’t have a collective responsibility for each other. I’m not saying we will ever be able to protect everyone, but there have to be safety nets. There have to be.

“Nilsen shouldn’t have been able to get away with it for as long as he did. And we have to wonder why that happened. And that’s got something to do with the fact that he was preying on people that society had, to a greater or lesser extent, turned its back on.”

In a serious interview, Tennant fears that the current recession could see more people falling through the cracks, more people becoming homeless, and therefore more people vulnerable.

“The echoes are pretty worrying,” he says. “The world through which Dennis Nilsen walked and wreaked his havoc – I think we’re closer to it now than we have been for a long time.

We’ve got to be alert to that as a society. We’ve got to be very aware that there are dangers and that there are people who are going to be more vulnerable than they should be in the coming months. We all have to take part in being aware of that. And as a society, we have to find ways of providing resources for helping people.”

Looking ahead, Tennant, suggests a blend of kindness and public spending to prevent a sharp rise in homelessness.

“We’ve got we’ve all got to proceed with maximum kindness, haven’t we, in in the months to come?” he says.

“This lockdown has been a great leveller. Suddenly everyone’s been in the same boat because you can’t escape a virus by being well off.  It brings us all together. And hopefully that allows us all to have a better understanding of the equality of the individual, which in turn allows us to just think with a bit more kindness and understanding than we’ve been famous for as a society up to now.

“If that means we spend a bit more public money now to avoid having to spend much, much more public money in the future, then fine. It seems that economic arguments are what wins it with this particular government, so let’s make them.”

Des airs on September 14, 15 and 16 on ITV