David Tennant 'relieved' serial killer Dennis Nilsen isn't alive to see ITV drama 'Des'

Tom Beasley
·Contributor
·3-min read
David Tennant portrays serial killer Dennis Nilsen in ITV drama 'Des'. (Credit: ITV/Harry Dempster/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
David Tennant portrays serial killer Dennis Nilsen in ITV drama Des. (ITV/Harry Dempster/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

David Tennant is ”relieved” that Dennis Nilsen died before ITV drama Des was released, in which the Scottish star plays the notorious serial killer.

Nilsen died in 2018 at the age of 72, having served more than 30 years in prison, and Tennant said he would likely have been “rather smugly pleased” at being depicted on TV.

Read more: Pictures show Tennant’s transformation into Nilsen

Known as the “Muswell Hill Murderer”, Nilsen killed at least 12 men between 1978 and his arrest in 1983 and was ultimately convicted of six murders, as well as two attempted murders.

The three-part series follows the police investigation into Nilsen after his arrest and the efforts of DCI Peter Jay (Daniel Mays) to get justice for his victims.

A recreation of the infamous shots of Nilsen being lead out of Hornsey Police Station after admitting murder. (ITV)
A recreation of the infamous shots of Nilsen being lead out of Hornsey Police Station after admitting murder. (ITV)

The show depicts Nilsen as someone very interested in his own media portrayal, regularly meeting with a biographer — played by Jason Watkins — in the run-up to his trial.

Speaking at a press conference to promote the show, Tennant said Nilsen became “obsessed with the legend of Des” and how he was perceived.

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The 49-year-old said: “[It was] something he would keep coming back to again and again.

“Even in prison, whenever he slipped out of the public consciousness, there was almost the sense that he wanted to get back into it.

“When we started developing this, he was still alive. I’m very relieved he’s not because I would hate for this to go out and for him to be sitting in a cell somewhere, imagining that we were in any way glorifying him.

David Tennant seen during the TV premiere of Amazon Original 'Good Omens' in May 2019. (Photo by James Warren/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
David Tennant seen during the TV premiere of Amazon Original Good Omens in May 2019. (SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“I’m sure he would’ve complained about everything we said and everything we did, but at the same time he would’ve been rather smugly pleased that he was on television.

“So I think it’s right and proper that this is transmitted after he’s gone.”

Read more: Tennant and Colman named hardest working UK actors

The former Doctor Who leading man said he the project had been “on my radar” for a long time and revealed he met director Lewis Arnold on the set of Broadchurch.

Tennant said that he had lived not far from Nilsen’s Cranley Gardens home and that several people had remarked on a resemblance between him and the infamous killer.

“He was a sort of boogeyman in the national consciousness,” said Tennant. “The more I looked into it, the more I thought this was a story that was worth telling.”

David Tennant is the spitting image of Dennis Nilsen in ITV's Des. (ITV)
David Tennant is the spitting image of Dennis Nilsen in ITV's Des. (ITV)

Tennant added: “With these stories, it’s tricky to get the balance right. You want to tell it with appropriateness and with a sensitivity.

“You don’t want to slip into a sensationalism, which would be too easy to do and would not serve the victims.”

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The actor said he was keen to avoid doing “a Rory Bremner version” of the character and go beyond doing an impression.

He added: “What’s important is that you’re trying to get to the truth of something you can recognise as a human being, especially someone who is not like so many of us and has this sort of psychology that is quite difficult to access, hopefully, for most of us.”

Des will premiere on ITV at 9pm on 14 September.