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Writer Luke Neal: watch ‘Des’ with the victims, not Dennis Nilsen, in mind

Writer Luke Neal on Des, the new ITV drama starring David Tennant as serial killer Dennis Nilsen, and what we can learn from the societal failure that allowed his crimes to go undetected for so long

“We can never forget Dennis Nilsen’s crimes. Because if we do, they will happen again. So we have a duty as a society to remember – not to remember him, but to remember what he was allowed to do.”

A new three-part drama arrives on ITV this week. Des is likely to be among the most watched shows of the year. It tells the story of the investigation into the crimes of Dennis Nilsen, starring recent Big Issue cover star David Tennant as Nilsen alongside Daniel Mays as DCI Peter Jay – who led the investigation into his crimes, and Jason Watkins as writer Brian Masters, who wrote the book ‘Killing For Company’, on which much of the story told here is based.

This is not your ordinary true crime drama. Instead, in writer Luke Neal’s hands, it is a furious indictment of a society that did not care enough for its most vulnerable members.

Dennis Nilsen did not have a reign of terror. People were not worried about a serial killer stalking the bars of London. There was no hunt for this mass murderer. Because despite murdering at least 12 young men, Nilsen was never investigated until body parts were found in his drain – after Nilsen himself called someone to unblock them.

Why not? Because Nilsen had, from 1978-1983, murdered vulnerable, often gay and almost always homeless young men. And because, although some had been reported as missing by their families, many were not missed and none were a priority for the police or society.

There is still a population that we would rather treat as invisible as a society than actually look at and ask what we can do

The drama does not show Nilsen committing his crimes. Instead, it centres on the gradual realisation that this quiet man who worked at a local job centre had been killing people, undetected, for years – and the shock as the police try to find out who he killed, why he killed them, and how their disappearances went undetected for so long.

This was a time of Thatcherism, mass unemployment and rampant homophobia. These three coinciding situations created a perfect storm for Nilsen to exploit – with too many impoverished, ignored and vulnerable young men that society was doing little to care about or help in big cities, especially in London.

The impact of the deep rooted homophobia of the time was captured by Bronski Beat on the song ‘Smalltown Boy’ – describing, quite beautifully, how some young gay men felt compelled to flee families or home towns and head to cities in search of acceptance and freedom and excitement. Instead, what many found was unemployment and, subsequently, poverty. Some ended up homeless and extremely vulnerable.

For, as David Tennant pointed out in his recent interview in The Big Issue, there was very little by way of a safety net: “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.”

Ahead of Des airing on ITV this week, we spoke to writer Luke Neal about why this story needs to be told – and why it needs to be told sensitively, without sensationalism, and viewed with the victims and not the perpetrator at the front of our minds…

There are many ways to approach a drama about the crimes of Dennis Nilsen – how did you avoid sensationalism?

Our show is very much about the human cost of Dennis Nilsen. It’s not about Dennis Nilsen, it’s about the effect he had on people and society.

Why is it called Des?

That was the name Dennis Nilsen was most widely known by. Des was the union worker, the champion of the downtrodden, the person who would go to a bar and listen to the plights of young men as he bought them drinks. That’s who Des was.

But he was a construct made by a narcissistic psychopath in order to commit murder and continue to commit murder for five years without being caught. And when he was eventually caught, he used the construct of Des to make the police think he was being helpful. He was even nicknamed the ‘Kindly Killer’. But there was nothing kind about Dennis Nilsen.

Why did you want to tell this story… and why now?

I watched a documentary on Dennis Nilsen and realised I lived quite close to where he lived. I was living in Highgate at the time. So I watched a few more. But as good as those documentaries were, with true crime, the mistake we can make is that the crime is the most important thing. I wanted to ask what responsibility society has for this man who was able to find 12 people that he could get away with killing.

Do we have, collectively, a misleading idea about Nilsen and his crimes?

The more research I did, the more I realised how much misinformation was out there. Everyone would say, well, Nilsen is a gay serial killer and killed gay men. But the more you research the more you realise he didn’t actually – he killed homeless people.

Society didn’t notice they were missing. Society didn’t investigate when someone said they were missing – because some victims’ families did look for them for years. The authorities were either overwhelmed with missing people or didn’t care enough to try everything to look for them.

Many of them had issues, whether it was around addiction or the reasons they were estranged from their family. Those people tend not to be priorities. And this wasn’t a mistake by Nilsen. Nilsen carefully planned and took the people home that wouldn’t be looked for. This is what serial killers do.

I didn’t want to show the crimes out of respect to the poor people who had no choice to be connected to this story. We have a duty of care and respect to their families but also to the memory of those people – they should never be used to get a cheap gasp from an audience

Why did you start the drama with a montage of news footage describing unemployment rising and homeless young people on the streets…

To show that there was a huge amount of vulnerable people. Margaret Thatcher cared less about the poor than she did about stimulating the economy. So she allowed unemployment to rise. And that, coupled with misunderstanding about how to treat addiction and people not accepting homosexuality meant there were a lot of shadows and a lot of dark corners where Nilsen was allowed to operate. A lot of these situations are still around.

Do you fear a return to that, as homelessness rises once again?

When you see all the young people who are homeless in Soho or Kings Cross,  the horribly disturbing question that you ask is if Nilsen was around today, would he be able to get away with it? My sad, honest answer is yes, probably.

Because there is still a population that we would rather treat as invisible as a society than actually look at and ask what we can do.

London can still be a lonely place…

It is incredibly lonely place at times, I think. There are moments where, where you feel so alone – and I can’t even begin to imagine if something happened, whether that be addiction, mental illness, circumstances where you are suddenly on the streets, you are alone, and vulnerable to attack from all sides.

And we are about to emerge from the deepest recession of modern times – has the pandemic highlighted this even more?

Coronavirus has absolutely shown this. We’ve put 14,000 homeless people in hotels, but what happens after? They are going to put them on the streets again.

It’s great that organisations like The Big Issue and Stonewall Housing are trying to stop this happening, but there’s only so much private organisations can do. You need the full force of government whose duty should be to protect its weakest in society.

And, unfortunately, Conservative governments don’t see that as their duty as much as they should. And Margaret Thatcher certainly didn’t.

Was casting David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen a risk – in that his popularity and star power could add to the myths around the murderer?

David’s superpower in other shows is his charm. He has such effortless charm. But he has entirely eradicated it for this role. And that comes from someone who knows that this drama has a greater cause. David took that on with both hands.

And Danny [Mays] and Jason [Watkins] bring a different energies: what Danny  brings, so brilliantly, is a warm heart and an optimism which becomes eroded over time because he stares into the void of human nature that is Dennis Nilsen. Then you have the pomp and naive arrogance of Jason’s character, which again starts to get eroded. Because it takes a lot to look into a moral vacuum, which is a human psychopath. All of them came and were incredibly selfless, in order to serve the project. And for that we’re incredibly lucky.

Everyone can play a part by just seeing the person on the street as a human being

Are we too obsessed with serial killers in this country – fed on a diet of fictional killers in TV drama?

I do truly believe that we need to talk about serial killers. Because I feel like we need to understand how they come to be and how they get away with their crimes, so they don’t happen again. And if it’s done under that guise, there is actually an importance to it.

But if it’s to get a cheap thrill about someone else’s pain and death, then I’m not interested. And I don’t think it’s healthy for society to keep obsessing about it.

Not all TV drama gets that right. It can feel like a means to an end – to celebrate a great detective. But it always has to be about human cost. If you don’t do that you’re doing a disservice to the viewer and you’re doing a disservice to the victims, even if they are fictional.

And you’re also doing a disservice to television, because it is an incredibly powerful tool to subtly allow people to ask questions that they’ve never asked before. And if you’re not doing that, if you’re allowing people to have free ride, then you’re slightly abusing the power you’ve been given.

Des is likely to have an enormous audience – what do you want viewers to take from this?

We can never forget Dennis Nilsen’s crimes. Because if we do, they will happen again. So we have a duty as a society to remember – not to remember him, but to remember what he was allowed to do.

So how do you want Des to impact on the way we act as a society?

I hope people leave this drama with the resolution that someone like Dennis Nilsen should never be allowed to do what he did. And to think about what they can do to help make sure it doesn’t happen again. And everyone can play a part by just seeing the person on the street as a human being. If everyone can just see them, that’s a start.

Because then if we all see them as human beings, at some point, we will tell the government that it is not acceptable that nothing has been done yet.

  • Des airs on ITV on 14-16 September at 9pm