What is the allure of true-crime drama, especially involving serial killers? Is it the need to understand these murderers or is it a sick fascination with the grisly details? Either way, depicting the horrors of murder is tricky business especially where dealing with real life events. Enter : Des.
These were definite concerns for the makers of Des, a British three-part television drama miniseries, based on the 1983 arrest of Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen after the discovery of human remains causing the blockage of a drain near his home.
There are three prominent characters in Des. The murderer Nilsen (David Tennant), Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay (Daniel Mays) and biographer Brian Masters (Jason Watkins).
The series examines the trio in equal measure as they interact with each other for their own goals. Nilsen – like most psychopaths – has a narcissistic desire to be the centre of attention and is in essence manipulating the people around him to tell his story. Jay is intent on finding out the identities of the victims for the sake of the families, while Masters wants to get a good book out of the whole deal.
The characterisations are kept close to the bone with personalities revealed through dialogue alone. There are no action sequences or emotional drama to keep viewers entertained as the series mainly revolves interviews with Nilsen conducted by either Jay or Masters. A typically dry British drama, but the best kind, if you know what I mean.
Once you understand where the writers are coming from, you realise that the plot is as basic as it gets. There are no flashbacks employed, by and large, and Nilsen’s terrible deeds are described by his words and nothing more. Gore fans will be sadly disappointed as hardly anything grisly is actually shown.
However, the series does a great job in outlining the criminal justice process and the challenges facing the police when dealing with a serial killer who mutilates his victims beyond recognition. Without much evidence to go on independently, the police have to rely on Nilsen’s confessions, which is less than ideal.
The sub-plot of Master’s relationship with Nilsen is not fully explored though. There is some hint that Masters is a homosexual – like Nilsen – and wanting to protect the gay community by exercising some control over the narrative with his book but that’s all we get – a hint.
What impressed me most about Des was the producers’ commitment to keep the story as realistic as possible. Of course, some artistic license is allowed but the series is devoid of any tacky sensationalism whatsoever.
Everything is presented in a matter of fact manner. No glamorising of the psycho-killer, no demonisation of the police and no dramatisation of the biographer’s moral dilemma.
In fact, the core idea of society’s helplessness in containing such aberrant behaviour is played up well and this makes Des very disturbing. After all, it would appear from the facts that without Nilsen’s own actions, he might never have been caught. he says as much at the very end that the only way he could stop was to be apprehended.
Even scarier is the fact that no answers are provided by the series as to why Nilsen did what he did. There are no psychological breakthroughs that determine what makes a psychopath tick. Which is just as horrific as Nilsen’s crimes themselves!
The star of the show is of course David Tennant. He does a brilliant job in evoking Nilsen’s smug and smarmy personality. Tennant does not have too much at his disposal to do so as most of the time he is merely sitting down and talking but he manages to convey Nilsen’s mundane menace with quiet aplomb.
May and Watkins are functional – they do their part efficiently – but both take a back seat to Tennant’s stellar performance. Definitely one of Tennant’s strongest roles in recent memory.
Des is the perfect antidote to the sensational true-crime dramas that have become commonplace across the Atlantic. It is thought-provoking and genuinely frightening without resorting to the usual horror tropes. Brilliantly under-stated in its delivery, it certainly deserves all the attention it can get. Essential viewing!
… still there’s more …