Des Writer Says True Crime Shows Shouldn’t Be Made To Glorify Serial Killers
It’s no easy task to write a script based on one of the most horrific serial murder cases in British history, delving past the darkness for the real, human stories beneath.
With ITV true crime drama Des, screenwriter Luke Neal has brought viewers the true story of Dennis Nilsen, who murdered at least 12 boys and young men at two residences in north London between 1978 and 1983.
Rooted in painstaking research and astute social commentary, Des is a drama which goes far beyond the lurid tabloid headlines; addressing the failings in society that allow monsters like Nilsen to exploit vulnerable and desperate individuals.
The story begins in 1983, on the day of Nilsen’s confession and arrest. Officers are called to the scene of what initially appears to be an ordinary street in London’s Muswell Hill district, following reports of a number of small bones and human flesh in a drain.
By framing the story in this way, rather than showing us the murders leading up to the devastating discovery, Neal was deliberately removing Nilsen’s perspective, making room for something altogether more interesting.
Neal told UNILAD:
We were never going to show the murders, simply because the only person who knows what happened that night is unfortunately Dennis Nilsen, and he is the most unreliable narrator.
He is a pathological liar. He is a narcissist, he is a psychopath. So we didn’t want to trust him. So we wanted to tell another story, of the two men who tried to understand him, in very different ways.
One tried to understand how he did it – and what he did – and the other one just trying to understand why he did it.
Instead, Neal wanted to focus on biographer Brian Masters, played by Jason Watkins, and Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay (Daniel Mays), two decent and well-meaning men who spent more time in the presence of pure evil than many of us would be able to bear.
Des was based upon Masters’ groundbreaking true crime book Killing For Company, a critically acclaimed and extensively detailed biography described by Neal as ‘a game changer’ in the genre.
Prior to reading about Nilsen in the papers, Masters held surprisingly little interest in the inner workings of serial killers, having previously written on topics such as French authors and the British aristocracy.
However, Masters, who is himself gay, had concerns about the way the case was being spun in the press, with headlines connecting the London gay scene with murder. He wanted to tell the real story, visiting and speaking with Nilsen for eight months to give a fuller, more accurate portrait.
He went in and really tried to get under the skin of Dennis Nilsen, at a cost of his own. I’ve spoken to Brian at length – he was so helpful in this process – of the psychological demand it takes to sit in a room with what can only be described as a moral vacuum.
You can’t help but be sucked in and have your own morality tested in order to get the answers that you crave.
The other man at the heart of the drama is Detective Chief Inspector Jay, who sadly passed away in 2018. The lead investigator in Nilsen’s case, DCI Jay is portrayed in Des as a man of great compassion and integrity, described by Neal as ‘an incredible man, an incredible detective’.
This was an extraordinarily difficult case to lead, not only because of the shocking nature of Nilsen’s crimes, but because it was so difficult to identify the victims in question.
Upon his arrest, Nilsen admitted to having killed ’15 or 16′ victims, in the chillingly casual manner noted during many of his interviews. He couldn’t remember all the names, and only six bodies were ever recovered.
On top of this, Nilsen deliberately targeted what Neal has described as an ‘invisible population’, people who ‘even if they’re looked for by their parents, they’re not found, and they’re not really cared about by the system’.
Many victims were homeless or living off-grid, making identification extremely difficult. Yet, despite this, and despite limited resources, DCI Jay was able to identify six victims, ultimately leading to Nilsen’s conviction.
I think we have to learn from people like Nilsen and learn the warning signs, and see that this doesn’t happen again.
The way that it doesn’t happen again is that we give more attention to the plight of people with addiction or bad families, and to homelessness.
Even if it just means looking at them, and actually seeing them as humans. That’s a start because once we start seeing them as human beings, then it won’t be long before we say, ‘human beings shouldn’t be treated like that’.
Neal believes there are ‘absolutely’ parallels between the UK in 1983 and today’s society, with many more people ‘slipping through the cracks’ over the course of the pandemic.
Unemployment ultimately leads to increased homelessness, and an ‘invisible population’ far too many government ministers do not view as their responsibility to protect. Under such circumstances, Neal believes, a person such as Dennis Nilsen could well take advantage.
Neal and director Lewis Arnold spent five years researching the case, feeling that they owed it to the victims and their families, families who had endured judgement and prejudice and misleading headlines about their loved ones in the press.
Leaving ‘no stone un-turned’, Neal and Arnold spoke with those who had spent time living on the streets, as well as with individuals from Stonewall Housing, building up a picture of what it must of felt like to be hungry and desperate and invited back to someone’s home.
In order to do the story justice, Neal felt it was important not to shy away from the grimmer details of the case, which are spoken about in the show rather than explicitly shown.
Neal was careful not to verge into ‘the sensational’ with the script, handling the narrative with sensitivity, but also ‘didn’t want to pull our punches’.
By avoiding the more harrowing aspects of the case, Neal believed the show would be doing a disservice to the victims, ‘watering down’ the important points those working on the show wanted to make. And, unsurprisingly, spending time inside the darkest parts of Nilsen’s world took its toll.
The research as well was at times horrific. I was told that Danny [Mays] said he had a dream about Nilsen and that was a recurring things for me as well. I would often dream that I was in a room with Nilsen and I couldn’t see him but I knew he was there.
So it psychologically had an effect on me, which I don’t think it can’t, if you let it in and you truly have to look at this person or any person like this.
Neal struggled to sleep during the writing process and found he could relate to the ‘obsessive research’ conducted by true crime author Michelle McNamara, whose book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark has recently been adapted as an exceptional documentary series.
To unravel the words and thoughts of such a malevolent person must no doubt be testing. At times, Neal found it difficult to write about an individual who he disliked so much, repulsed by his ‘self-pitying’ nature, and had to switch off that sense of judgement in order to better serve the writing.
When writing the dialogue for Nilsen, Neal had records to draw from, and became used to the sort of dull, matter-of-fact tone he used. The police officers who met him emphasised ‘how boring he was, and how he just talked’, and this is conveyed to creepy effect through David Tennant’s stand out portrayal.
Neal told UNILAD:
David [Tennant] is sensational in it. He got it straight away and so there’s a lot of gruesome things he has to say, but having done the work he’s done, he kind of just got that it has to be said with such unfortunate logic.
Because that’s what a psychopath deals in, no emotion, just logic. No guilt, just practicality. He says it with such a practical nature, it’s chilling.
You’ve got to dive into the world of them, and see how he would react. It takes a bit of getting used to, but in a weird way, it’s easy because you just have to switch off that emotion.
According to Neal, Nilsen doesn’t feel ‘anything that’s emotional, unless he can get something out of it,’ adding: ‘Nilsen’s world is just about what he can get, and what narrative he can give and what he can control. Anything else, he’s not interested in.’
Like Masters before him, Neal was originally not particularly interested in writing about true crime. He first heard about Nilsen after watching a documentary about him when he was living in Highgate, an area not too far from Muswell Hill.
Although 30 years had passed from the time of the killings to when he watched the documentary, Neal couldn’t help but be struck by how close to home the crimes took place. He began searching for more information about it, left ‘compelled’ by the story and the investigation.
When considering whether it’s helpful to try and understand the mind of a serial killer, Neal described this endeavour as being a ‘double edged sword’:
I think that understanding their motivations is a really maddening thing, because I think if you go down that hole – and we all have gone down that hole, people trying to figure out why he did it – it could be a horrible reason that he did it, because he wanted to, he did it because he enjoyed it, and he did it because he could.
I think what we can learn from serial killers, and the study of serial killers, is that they can only do what they do if we allow them to. If, as a society, we allow them to get away with it, we give them a population – whether that be a homeless population, whether that be a sex working population – that they can take and do what they want with, and get away with it.
Neal believes the most important thing to come out of true crime is ‘how the show makes sure that the audience understands it enough that we can never let it happen again.’
For Neal, true crime dramas that focus on the ‘titillating’ or ‘scary’ aspects of a case don’t hold much interest. He believes such dramas should include social commentary, as well as a motivation to show the true ‘devastation’ inflicted upon human lives.
To glorify those people, I think, is dangerous. But to learn from them, and to learn how to spot the signs and to learn that society needs to change in order for them not to get away with it, I think is needed and necessary.
[…] Moving forward, I would hope that true crime starts to evolve that way and with a little bit more responsibility. And that it doesn’t just use it to get a cheap thrill, it actually has a responsibility and a burden, to tell the story in a human way.
As shown by Des, and of course by the book which preceded it, true crime writing can be a highly effective means of exploring the complex social issues that leave many individuals vulnerable to hidden predators.
With so many of us fascinated by true crime and detective shows, it’s important we also make sure we look beyond the shock factor, to consider how we as a society can stop such horrors from ever being repeated.
The final episode of Des airs tonight on ITV at 9.00pm. All three episodes will be made available on ITV Player.
If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article and wish to speak to someone in confidence, contact the Rape Crisis England and Wales helpline on 0808 802 9999 between 12pm–2.30pm and 7pm– 9.30pm every day. Alternatively, you can contact Victim Support free on 08 08 16 89 111 available 24/7, every day of the year, including Christmas.
Male Survivors Partnership is available to support adult male survivors of sexual abuse and rape. You can contact the organisation on their website or on their free helpline 0808 800 5005, open 9am–5pm Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays; 8am–8pm Tuesdays and Thursdays; 10am–2pm Saturdays.