Theatre Review: Des – ITV 3 part miniseries  

Dennis Nilsen was a Scottish serial killer in North London who died in 2018. Known as “Des”, he murdered at least 15 young men between 1978 and 1983, although he was convicted of only six. His motivation was necrophilia. This is not a story for the faint-hearted.

David Tennant captures the dour, Scots impassivity beautifully. Nilsen – rumbled because a neighbour called DynoRod who found human remains in a drain – held back nothing and was disarmingly open with the police. This three part drama is not about Nilsen’s guilt or innocence. Rather it focuses on his interaction with the police, especially Peter Jay played by Daniel Mays.

And a finer piece of acting than Mays in this role you’ll look a long way to find. Director Lewis Arnold often gives us Mays’s face in close up while Tennant is “casually” speaking the unspeakable. Mays can convey horror, revulsion and incredulity – which he musn’t let Nilsen see – with the tiniest twitch of a facial muscle or by swallowing. It’s a masterclass.

Also good is Jason Watkins as the rather bumptious Brian Masters who coaxed information from Nilsen for his biography and rather annoyed the police, according to this version of events.

The other noteworthy thing about this production is the attention to period detail. This is a time when (almost) everyone smoked continually. And they do. It’s very authentic. I’m left wondering how actors, who probably have more sense than to smoke in real life, cope with this requirement. I must ask the next one I interview.

Review by Susan Elkin