'Des': David Tennant's transformation into serial killer Dennis Nilsen revealed

Tom Butler
·Senior Editor
·3-min read
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)

ITV has released new images from Des, its forthcoming drama series about Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen, starring David Tennant as the notorious murderer.

Nilsen was a civil servant who spent five years murdering boys and young men he met on the streets of London from 1978 to 1983. When he was caught in February 1983, Nilsen had killed as many as fifteen men, and was the UK’s most prolific serial killer at the time.

Doctor Who star David Tennant looks eerily alike Nilsen in these new pictures for the true crime show which airs on ITV in September.

Scottish serial killer, Dennis Nilsen (right), is escorted from Highgate police station to a police van on his way to a court appearance in London, shortly after his arrest in February 1983. Nilsen murdered between 12 and 15 young men between 1978 and 1983. (Photo by Bryn Colton/Getty Images)
Scottish serial killer, Dennis Nilsen (right), is escorted from Highgate police station to a police van on his way to a court appearance in London, shortly after his arrest in February 1983. Nilsen murdered between 12 and 15 young men between 1978 and 1983. (Photo by Bryn Colton/Getty Images)

The show is principally based on the book Killing For Company, written by Brian Masters, who plays a key part in the show and is portrayed by Jason Watkins. Daniel Mays is DCI Peter Jay, the police officer who interviews Nilsen after his arrest.

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Nilsen freely confessed to his murders, which he usually committed by luring homeless or wayward youths into his flat. He disposed of the bodies by burning them on a bonfire or flushing parts down the toilet. It was a visit from Dyno-Rod who came to unblock the drains that alerted police to the body parts clogging up the drains.

David Tennant as Nilsen outside Cranley Gardens. (ITV)
David Tennant as Nilsen outside Cranley Gardens. (ITV)
David Tennant as Nilsen on trial for murder. (ITV)
David Tennant as Nilsen on trial for murder. (ITV)

When Jay confronted Nilsen in his flat, the serial killer initially feigned ignorance, but when DCI Jay said “don’t mess about, where’s the rest of the body?”, Nilsen told him he would find the rest of the body in his wardrobe.

He was eventually charged with six counts of murder and two of attempted murder, and found guilty by a unanimous decision. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and was recommended to serve a minimum of 25 years. He spent the rest of his life in prison and died in 2018.

Nilsen's first meeting with Brian Masters (Jason Watkins) who will meet Nilsen over many years to create the biography 'Killing for Company' which the drama is based on. (ITV)
Nilsen's first meeting with Brian Masters (Jason Watkins) who will meet Nilsen over many years to create the biography 'Killing for Company' which the drama is based on. (ITV)

Here’s the synopsis: “David Tennant takes the lead role in new true crime drama, Des focusing on one of the most infamous criminal cases in UK history.

“Referred to as the ‘kindly killer’, Dennis Nilsen was a local civil servant who spent five years murdering boys and young men from 1978 to 1983. He would meet and befriend these men before offering food or lodgings for the evening back at his North London flat.

Daniel Mays as Detective Peter Jay meeting the press to appeal to the public to come to the police if they have any information on Nilsen. (ITV)
Daniel Mays as Detective Peter Jay meeting the press to appeal to the public to come to the police if they have any information on Nilsen. (ITV)

“Daniel Mays plays the detective, DCI Peter Jay, who brought Nilsen to justice, with Justin Watkins as writer and Nilsen’s biographer, Brian Masters. The three part drama is co-created and written by Luke Neal and directed and co-created by Lewis Arnold.”

Des comes to ITV in September.