Few men look better in a sheepskin coat than Daniel Mays; his face, pale as winter, was made for 1983. But in Luke Neal’s drama Des (14 September, 9pm), in which he played a copper whose lugubriousness was matched only by his determination, our eyes rarely lingered on him for long. Nor were we transfixed by Jason Watkins, in spite of both the brilliance of his turn as that noted writer of true crime, Brian Masters, and of the extreme badness of his wig.
No, it was David Tennant as the serial killer Dennis Nilsen we’d rolled up to see in this particular freak show, having carefully convinced ourselves, just as Masters, Nilsen’s so-called biographer, seemingly once did, that our motive for giving him such unwarranted attention had to do with understanding rather than prurience (“I’m here to comprehend,” announced Masters smoothly, when he visited the murderer in prison for the first time). If I experienced a certain queasiness every time Tennant spoke, the dread only grew when he fell silent, the envelope of his lips so prissy, his eyelids a couple of metal shutters about to be drawn down for the night. Good drama provides a space that enables the viewer to fill in some gaps, but in this case, I strongly resented being asked to do any imagining of my own. I needed my mind to remain, as far as possible, as clean and as white as a freshly laundered sheet.
Nilsen, a quiet Scot in an anorak who worked in a Kentish Town job centre was – save for the appalling crimes he committed – by all accounts an unremarkable man, and Tennant played him that way: precise, pernickety, mannerly in all his dealings with officialdom. It was a performance that was mesmerising in its ordinariness, and which made a lot of the horrible disjunction between Nilsen’s insistent, rather nasal, voice and the words themselves, which encompassed corpses in cupboards, heads stewing in saucepans, and the logistical problems involved in trying to find space for stray body parts when one lives in a small attic flat. Why had he done these things? Why had he killed at least a dozen men? (The precise number of Nilsen’s victims remains unknown.) “I was hoping you could tell me that,” he said, with a whiny plaintiveness that was at once baffling and repugnant.
Based on Masters’ book, Killing For Company, ITV’s drama was close to faultless. Incredible acting. Wonderful period detail, every scene cast in a liverish yellow as if even desks and chairs, TV sets and bathroom suites chain-smoked in 1983. It came with tiny spots of black humour connected to such things as drains – Nilsen was among those who had complained of the smell at his home in Muswell Hill, a foul stench for which he was entirely responsible, and which eventually led to his arrest – and to Masters’ barely concealed excitement at his subject’s relaxing, post-murder activities (Nilsen liked to watch telly with the dead; to sit cosily beside them and make one-sided conversation). Throughout, proceedings were framed with an awareness that many of the men, homeless and vulnerable, were victims of Thatcher’s Britain long before they were victims of Nilsen. It was always gripping, and never tasteless or glib.
But, still. These things cannot disguise the fact that, in the end, Des was entirely gratuitous: just another entertainment, however careful or kind. It told us nothing new. It could not, and did not, explain the inexplicable. It exploited, for all its compassion, the sad ends of men whose families still mourn them. It exalted a killer’s name, something he would have enjoyed (Nilsen liked to read newspaper accounts of his crimes; he felt the title of Masters’ book, Killing for Company, did not put him sufficiently centre stage).
Just because, in your closing titles, you tell your audience that, to date, only eight of Nilsen’s victims have been identified – as if your film might somehow give this work new impetus, almost 40 years on – doesn’t exonerate you from these charges. Nor does it excuse the rest of us from having watched it so unstintingly. I was not improved by it. If I was transported, it was only briefly to hell.