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

Ahead of his darkest role yet, as serial killer Dennis Nilsen, David Tennant talks politics, society, homelessness and our 'rather alarming right-wing government'. Adrian Lobb fires up Zoom

“It’s a worrying time on so many levels and in so many areas of society, isn’t it?”

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. 

We are speaking via Zoom. Tennant has spent much of lockdown perfecting his videocall manner – no fiddling with his laptop or technological mishaps for him. 

Tennant’s (how to describe it… short, scripted, heightened-reality comedy drama series?) Staged, made with Michael Sheen and co-produced and co-starring his wife Georgia, is perhaps the best made-under-lockdown-and-about-lockdown TV. 

“We’re all learning how to live through our computer screens aren’t we?” says Tennant, who is who is unfazed by technological advances. He can fly a TARDIS, after all. “Making a whole TV show, well most of it, this way, from this room was not something I could have predicted, even in early April.

David Tennant talks on Zoom with The Big Issue’s Adrian Lobb

Tennant chats in a contemporary fashion with our Adrian

“I’m not in an industry that knows what to do when it can’t be in busy rooms. It’s hard to make TV shows socially distanced. It’s impossible to go to the theatre. So I feel blessed to have been able to work at all. But I’m alarmed that our industry, which is one of the industries our country’s still good at, is struggling. And a lot of my colleagues will be struggling. Most actors don’t make a lot of money.”

For new ITV three-part drama Des, the actor faced a new challenge. The audience will watch, there is no worry about that. Tennant puts bums on seats. And just as our admiration for Tennant shows little sign of abating, so our fascination with true crime endures.   

But to play serial murderer Dennis Nilsen, who killed at least 12 young men in London between 1978 and 1983, Tennant had to strip himself of all the natural charm and easy likeability he exhibited from his TV breakthrough in Takin’ Over The Asylum back in 1994, in Doctor Who, his whip-smart Hamlet, Broadchurch and beyond. 

This took place under Thatcher, who said there was no such thing as society. And that’s the problem

The transformation is unnerving. To see Tennant as Nilsen talking so matter-of-factly about these crimes is as disturbing as it is impressive. But, unlike so many true crime documentaries, there is no hint of titillation nor any fetishising of the perpetrator.  

“It was something that we talked about every day on set,” says Tennant. “You don’t want to give him control of the narrative. And you don’t want to be celebrating the horror – you want to be memorialising the victims. That’s the important difference.

“This is about actual people who lost their lives, and this is about a failure of society.”

No murders are shown. Instead, writer Luke Neal chose to start the story, which he bases on the book Killing For Company by Brian Masters (played in Des by Jason Watkins) on the day the police (Daniel Mays as DCI Peter Jay) first talk to Nilsen.

This was a decision, Tennant says, that was taken to avoid the trap of telling a story based only on Nilsen’s recollections.

“It would disingenuous to believe everything he told us because he’s an unreliable witness at best,” says Tennant.   

“But you want to try to understand Nilsen because it’s important that we understand the darkest corners of what a human being can be. It seems unknowable to us yet we’re all slightly wondering how far away any one of us are from it.

“We may all have peeked into an abyss now and again. All these questions that in your darkest moments you wonder about – what are you capable of? And what happened to Nilsen that meant he didn’t have that filter, that he stepped into the abyss? I don’t think we should shy away from these stories.

“It’s important we understand that he was one of us. We are all the same animal that Dennis Nilsen was. So therefore it’s not a sort of horror movie where Freddy Krueger is something from another dark dimension. Nilsen walked among us and therefore we as a society are responsible for him.”

Des is about a London that was riven with homelessness and poverty and joblessness, and people falling through the cracks in society

Actors talking about society is not always widely welcomed. But not speaking out about the state of the nation or the state of the world is a political act as well.

Of course, it is easier to speak out once you are as established as David Tennant. Nevertheless, it is refreshing when he speaks so candidly about some of the failings that led to Nilsen being able to kill young men, many of them homeless, over the course of five years with no one even investigating – and the risk of a return to a less caring society. 

Des is 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,” he says. 

“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. 

If we’re about to plunge into this recession, then that will expose all the flaws in our society

“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. And I don’t know that we offer any solutions in this but we do perhaps offer a warning.”

Tennant is not sure the warnings will be heeded. We talk about communities pulling together during the lockdown and rough sleepers being temporarily housed by the government (showing what can happen with the political will). 

He nods along enthusiastically as I describe how RORA – the Ride Out Recession Alliance led by The Big Issue and Shelter – is campaigning to prevent Covid homelessness. But Tennant sees a storm coming.

“If we’re about to plunge into this recession, the likes of which we’ve never known, then that will expose all the flaws in our society,” he says.

“And I don’t feel comforted by the fact that we’ve got, just like in 1979, a rather alarming right-wing government again. The echoes are pretty worrying. The world through which Dennis Nilsen walked and wreaked havoc – I think we’re closer to it now than we have been for a long time.

David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen in ITV's Des

“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.”

Tennant, who is after all a former Doctor, prescribes a blend of kindness and public spending to combat the threat of more people ending up vulnerable and to prevent a sharp rise in homelessness.

“We’ve all got to proceed with maximum kindness, haven’t we, 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


This article originally appeared in The Big Issue on August 31 2020. Buy the magazine here