‘Des’ | A Focus on the Victims, not the Killer

By Isobel Warner

ITV’s latest drama Des successfully tells the victims’ stories, whilst simultaneously avoiding the glamorisation of a serial killer and his crimes. 

“True Crime” as a genre of entertainment has skyrocketed in the past five years. With hugely successful Netflix documentaries such as Making A Murderer putting the genre on the map, there seems to be an expanse within the true crime genre. This commercialisation and fetishization of human wickedness is not something new, but the sheer amount of original and vastly accessible entertainment based around these tragedies is. 

Take the huge influx of entertainment based around Ted Bundy, the notorious American serial killer as an example. The documentary The Ted Bundy Tapes quickly lead to a film adaptation, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, starring well-known Hollywood actor Zac Efron as Ted. Not only this, but the noted podcast Hunted also depicts the police’s failings with in the capture of Ted Bundy, further displaying the media’s obsession with true crime.

Therefore, the fact that ITV’s new flag piece prime-time drama, Des, is a dramatization of Dennis Nilsen, the serial killer, is not particularly shocking. This 3 part drama depicts Nilsen’s arrest and subsequent police investigations into his crimes, directed by Lewis Arnold and starring David Tennant as Nilsen.

Who was Dennis Nilsen?

Dennis Nilsen, known to his friends as “Des”, is one of Britain’s most notorious and gruesome serial killers. His murders are a London nightmare, and his crimes are well known as being among the most numerous and inhumane. Between 1978 and 1983 at least 12 men were callously murdered at Nilsen’s flat. The majority of these men were either homeless or estranged from their families, many drug users and the majority (although crucially not all) were homosexual. In an extremely homophobic society, Nilsen lured these extremely vulnerable men into his home with the promises of shelter, food, drink, and company. 

As an understatement, Des is not for the faint hearted, as clearly any show narrating these crimes would not be. However, what Des successfully avoids is something a lot of true crime entertainment indulges in – the overwhelming fetishization of these horrific crimes, and lack of respect payed to the victims and their families. 

A Genuinely Linear Timeline

The drama begins with the moment that evidence of the murders is found and Nilsen is subsequently arrested. The narrative then solely moves forwards from this period in time, with the drama revolving and focusing around police interviews and the subsequent trial of Nilsen. 

This linear timeline, with the absolute absence of any time inversion or flashbacks, seems a bold choice in a Christopher Nolan‘ society, where flashbacks and jumping through timelines is fashionable in film, but for this story it is imperative. Through doing so, the narrative avoids dramatizing the crimes themselves, instead allowing the audience to hear about them but only through the narration from Nilsen himself. There is no visual depiction of the murders, or even of Nilsen meeting and luring his victims, and in this way, the drama is actually heightened. The audience is forced to comprehend and visualise these crimes on their own, creating an imagination overload. Far more importantly, it strips away these quasi-salacious audiences which attracts many to true crime programmes which indulge in horrendously vivid details. 

“It’s not your book. It’s not about you. It’s about how someone like you came to be […] but make no mistake, this isn’t a celebration: it’s a warning.”

Brian Masters

Instead, we are given David Tennant in police investigations, openly demonstrating his horrendous delusion as he demands the victims to be found and named, or weakly muttering to himself absentmindedly, or arrogantly sitting in the trial. David Tennant has a huge departure from his traditionally beloved characters and perfectly balancing this horrendous disconnect between Nilsen’s crimes and his outward character. 

As such, we are forced as an audience to confront the chilling reality of this case. Nilsen was not particularly eccentric or openly strange, but instead an ‘ordinary’ person; someone you could work with for years and never know what was under his floorboards. This is perfectly encapsulated when PC Peter Jays (Daniel Moyes) is asked by paparazzi what his own personal impression of Nilsen is, to which he replies “unextraordinary”.  

“Unextraordinary”  

The emphasis and concluding moments of the drama is all hinged on the victims and their families, not Nilsen himself. The last moments of the drama is a memorial to the victims, with the known names written on the screen.  Moreover, two of the most powerful performances are played by the victims and their families. Chanel Cresswell plays Lesley Mead, the partner of Graham Allen, a victim of Nilsen whose murder was not included in the charges against him in trial. In a very male dominated cast, Cresswell brings the reality of these crimes to the forefront, as she acts as a symbol for the countless grieving loved ones of the victims, particularly those who did not receive any justice. 

This focus on the victims, and not on the killer himself, ensures that this drama respectively pays tributes to the men whilst also acting as a warning.


Graphic courtesy of Isabel Armitage

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