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Interview: Jason Watkins on new itv drama Des

Des is a true-crime drama focusing on one of the most infamous criminal cases in UK history, Dennis Nilsen. Known as the ‘kindly killer’, Nilsen (David Tennant) was a local civil servant who spent five years murdering boys and young men he met on the streets of Soho from 1978 to 1983. He would meet and befriend these men before offering them food or lodgings for the evening back at his North London flat. His victims were often homeless or living off grid, having slipped through the cracks of 1980s society and were therefore welcoming of this stranger’s apparent generosity. When he was finally caught on 9 February 1983, Nilsen had murdered a total of fifteen men over a period of five years, making him Britain’s most prolific serial killer of the time. 

After his arrest, Nilsen was astonishing in his honesty: admitting outright to all fifteen murders in the police car outside his flat. But infuriatingly for the investigating detectives, he couldn’t remember any of his victims’ names. With no apparent motive, inconclusive forensic evidence and most of Nilsen’s victims living off-grid, the police started the biggest manhunt investigation in UK history. This time not for the murderer, but for the murdered.

The story is told through the prism of three isolated men – a detective, a biographer, and Nilsen himself. While Detective Peter Jay (Daniel Mays) and the police investigation’s attempt to get justice for as many victims as possible provides the narrative and emotional spine, the relationship between Nilsen and his biographer Brian Masters (Jason Watkins) allows us to delve into the mind of one of the most emotionally elusive serial killers the world has ever seen. Can we ever really understand the mind of a psychopathic killer? And, if we try, what price do we pay?

Jason Watkins tells us more…

Tell us about Dennis Nilsen?
Dennis Nilsen was a seemingly rather ordinary man who worked in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Jobcentres in Soho and Kentish Town. He went on to murder up to 15, possibly more, young men in London and was imprisoned after his trial in 1983 on 6 counts of murder. He remained in prison until he died in 2018. Nilsen’s modus operandi was predatory and horrific. He would often go on to pick up young men in bars, sometimes homeless people living on the streets in the North London area and around Soho. Nilsen would take them back to his flat, where he would strangle and dismember them, and often keep their remains in his wardrobe or under the floorboards. He would later dispose of them in his garden or down his toilet.

Who is Brian Masters?
Brian Masters is a biographer. Before meeting Nilsen, he wrote mainly of the aristocracy and had covered the life of the Duchess of Devonshire among others. He took an interest in the case of Dennis Nilsen as it unfolded on television and in the newspapers, and gripped the nation. He was interested in the psychology of Nilsen and what makes an individual commit such horrific crimes. Masters was also interested in the general public’s fascination with the case and the way the press portrayed it. Some of the headlines were mixing up the London gay scene with murder and somehow being homosexual was possibly linked to the salaciousness of the crimes committed. It was inferred in some of the headlines that being homosexual was
a dysfunctional thing and might possibly lead you to commit terrible crimes. He was appalled, quite rightly, by this atmosphere within the press. He wanted to right a wrong.

I think that it was partly his reason for contacting Dennis Nilsen. Masters wanted to interview Nilsen in the hopes of writing a book about him giving the real story, but also to get into his head and find out why somebody does what he did and what makes him tick. He was able to interview Dennis Nilsen pre-trial. This is crucial because as the leading detective DCI Peter Jay was seeking criminal prosecution. There was a parallel interview process going on between Dennis Nilsen and Brian Masters. These meetings ended just after the trial. Most of the book was written by then. Nilsen went from spilling the beans to Masters about many of his crimes and what he had done, to bizarrely culminating in Nilsen pleading ‘not guilty’ at trial. After his conviction, Masters went on to maintain contact with Nilsen as he felt like he had a slight duty of
care in one respect even though his crimes were horrific.

What research did you do to portray Brian?
I read Brian’s memoir and also watched a couple of really good documentaries. They were excellent in working out his manner and how he spoke, so there was a degree of impersonation about it. I did an amount of research about Nilsen but I already knew a lot and I decided at some point just to stick to what I needed to know for the script. I linked my research to the script because I didn’t want to take on the whole subject and worked on a need-to-know basis.

What were the main challenges playing a real-life person like Brian?
You have to present a three-dimensional real person on-screen. This person has to appear to be very real, so you are always trying to be believable and not to be presented; not to deliver simply a good impersonation. You let them into your brain and what you are thinking so you react to characters you are in scenes with. Brian and Christopher Jefferies, both real-life people I have played, are not dissimilar in many ways. They are both slightly the product of elocution. Christopher Jefferies’ parentage is from Lincolnshire, educated on the Wirral and briefly in the Midlands and later London. Likewise, Brian is from the Old Kent Road, but you feel like he has had a sense of elocution and he has a slightly weak ‘r’. They are weirdly not dissimilar. The trick I would say, is that you have to acknowledge the impersonation and give your audience a real character, somebody that they wouldn’t meet in their normal lives.

How was meeting the real-life Brian?
We met before filming at the Garrick Club. He is seemingly posh in the drama but his roots are not. He was part of the social scene in the ‘50s and knew people from television but was from a very humble background. He was incredibly entertaining, engaging, knowledgeable, a great talker, had a forensic mind and was really great company.

During our meeting at the Garrick Club, he told a story about how after the success of ‘Killing For Company’, he was then asked to write a book about Jeffrey Dahmer, which he did. In the book, he suggested there were similarities between Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen. Nilsen read the book and went on to call the Garrick Club as he knew Brian frequented there. The waiter came out to Brian and said, ‘Excuse me, there is a telephone call for you’. He went on to say hello and it was Nilsen, “Hello, this is Dennis Nilsen here. How dare you compare me to me to Jeffrey Dahmer? Our friendship is over”.

‘Des’ shows the story of three very different men. How do each of them come together?
There is a great triangle between the three characters at the heart of the drama. Peter Jay, who is Daniel’s character, has sons so there is a weird paternal link there with young men being victims. Brian is gay and had a long-term relationship at that point, which he kept private. Brian is trying to comprehend Dennis Nilsen and why he committed these crimes; whereas Peter Jay wants Nilsen behind bars. The two of them have different views of Nilsen, and they also have preconceptions of each other. Masters thinks Jay is a brutish detective who just wants to twist the truth to get the man nailed and doesn’t care about the reasons why.

Masters feels Nilsen is, to some degree, a victim of his own childhood. The theme of culpability is central in the drama and how much Nilsen’s possible deprivation in his childhood made him commit these crimes. While at the same time, not making excuses for his crimes or devaluing his punishment, and sharing with its audience the utter revulsion to his horrendous acts.

What did you think when you first saw David Tennant as Des?
I had a sneaky suspicion he may look like him because they were not dissimilar in terms of build. The first press shot production took was quite remarkable. It is so like the mugshot that many people are familiar with. I think there may even be a better press shot of him in the police van being driven from court that makes you think, ‘goodness that’s him’. There is a lot to discover in Tennant’s portrayal of Des, as not everybody has heard him speak. David is absolutely knock out in this, as is Daniel. There are some really exceptional performances in this drama.

Des airs on itv this Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 9pm. Stream Des via itv hub.