'Des' director believes serial killer Dennis Nilsen lied to 'beat' Yorkshire Ripper's body count

Tom Beasley
·Contributor
·3-min read
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)

Lewis Arnold, director of ITV miniseries Des, believes that Dennis Nilsen trumped up the number of victims he claimed to have killed in order to “beat” the Yorkshire Ripper’s infamous murder spree.

David Tennant plays the notorious serial killer in the three-part ITV miniseries, which also stars Daniel Mays and Jason Watkins.

Arnold, who has previously directed episodes of Broadchurch and Misfits, said as part of a press conference promoting the show that “detail was everything” to Nilsen and so it was unlikely he didn’t remember those he had killed.

Read more: Tennant is glad Nilsen never got to see Des

Nilsen was arrested in 1983 and confessed to killing 15 or 16 people, several more than Peter Sutcliffe, who had been convicted of 13 murders in 1981.

The director added: “That's why I personally believe he killed 12 and not the 15 that he originally claimed.

“He obviously claimed many years later that the reason he said 15 was that he was worried about the police, whereas actually the year before Sutcliffe had been arrested for killing 13 people.

“So by saying 15 or 16, he knew he was the most infamous British serial killer.”

Read more: David Tennant fans shocked by Nilsen transformation

Writer Luke Neal said it is not uncommon for people like Nilsen to “manipulate truth” in order to maintain control over their own narrative.

He said: “When serial killers give all of their information, society will put them in jail and we will try to get over them. We will try to heal the wounds that they have caused.

“And they know that, so what they do is they hold stuff back and they tell little mistruths.”

Nilsen’s murders were carried out in London between 1978 and 1983, with his victims predominantly young men.

He died in prison in May 2018 at the age of 72, having served more than 30 years in jail.

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Arnold said one of the goals of Des is to “correct some of the inaccuracies” in the way the Nilsen story has been told and interpreted over the years.

He added: “Everybody thinks they know about Nilsen and they think they know about the case and they have certain assumptions and might be slightly ill-informed about who the victims were.

“If the drama just informs people about the events that actually transpired, who these people were and why this man possibly managed to get away with it. It asks and raises those questions.”

For Neal, the parallels between the poverty and homelessness of the 1970s and 1980s that made many of Nilsen’s victims vulnerable and similar crises today are worthy of note.

“I hope that people watch this and go 'okay, we need to make sure that someone like Dennis Nilsen is never allowed to get away with this again',” he said.

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“There are certain steps that we and government can do in order that these poor people who are on the streets and find themselves victims of this poverty are given the help and given the humanisation which means that they cannot go missing.”

Des is due to air over the course of three nights on ITV at 9pm from 14 September.