Des creators: How we made it - from exposing the truth behind the headlines to working with Brian Masters, the making of ITV’s Dennis Nilsen crime drama revealed

Writer Luke Neal and director Lewis Arnold reveal how they made Des, a new three-part crime drama about serial killer Dennis Nilsen starring David Tennant coming soon to ITV.

By Sophia Moir Published: 9 September 2020 - 2.15pm
Lewis Arnold / Twitter (picture by Robert Viglasky)

The infamous case of serial killer Dennis Nilsen is being told from a new perspective in a brand new crime drama.

Des, a three-part mini-series coming soon to ITV, stars David Tennant as the civil servant who murdered at least 12 boys and young men in London between 1978 and 1983.

Rather than telling the story solely from Nilsen’s perspective, the drama gets to the truth behind the headlines to reveal the true impact of Nilsen’s heinous crimes on his network of victims.

Speaking ahead of the launch of the series, the show’s writer Luke Neal and director Lewis Arnold reveal how they made Des - from working with Nilsen’s biographer Brian Masters to liaising with the families of Nilsen’s victims and the late family of Police Detective Peter Jay, who led the investigation into the murders...

Casting David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen

David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen ITV
David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen in ITV's Des

David Tennant revealed in a previous interview that he got involved with this production of Des after a mutual friend shared writer Luke Neal’s script.

Now, Neal has revealed that what happened is that he asked a writer friend to read over his script - who shared it with Tennant when he mentioned Nilsen in passing.

Neal explains: “Without telling me, she sent it on to him and David [Tennant] emailed me saying he loved it and was interested in attaching himself to it. It was my first script but he didn’t care about any of that. 

“He was the script’s champion from then until the very end. It’s no exaggeration to say that without David, this would have never been made. I basically owe him my writing career!"

Needless to say, Tennant is subtly brilliant in the role of Nilsen, alongside Daniel Mays (Line of Duty, White Lines) as Police Detective Peter Jay as Jason Watkins (The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, W1A) as Nilsen’s biographer, Brian Masters.

“The first rushes I saw with David as Nilsen gave me chills. He really is incredible in it; but the whole cast is tremendous," Neal added.

Director Lewis Arnold agrees that the casting was key.

“We knew that this show would essentially be built around the performances of our three lead characters, with Peter Jay and Brian Masters being the audience’s way into the crimes and mind of Dennis Nilsen,” he said.

Getting to the truth behind the headlines

Des writer Luke Neal on set Lewis Arnold / Twitter (picture by Robert Viglasky)
Des writer Luke Neal on set

Dennis Nilsen’s crimes shocked the nation in the early 1980s, but tabloid media coverage influenced public perceptions of his victims at the time - and those misconceptions have largely remained ever since.

It was those misconceptions that led to writer Luke Neal's approach to this script - he wanted to rewrite the wrongs of history.

“I became very interested by how wrong people’s perceptions of this case are," he explained.

"For instance, the amount of people I have spoken to about it over the years all say ‘he was the one who killed gay people’. To say that Nilsen killed someone because of their sexual orientation is so narrow in its scope. 

“The majority of the people he killed were homeless on the streets of London. Some had turned to sex working because of their situation but it wasn’t because of sexual orientation, it was because of the economic situation that these people found themselves in.”

Neal and director Arnold felt this was an important story to tell because the current economic and political landscape is starkly similar to how it was at the time of Nilsen’s murders.

“The more we researched, the more we felt that ‘Des’ was a very relevant story to tell now," said Arnold.

"If you look at 1983, we were under a Thatcher government, with homelessness on the rise and unemployment at an all-time high. 

“Young people were moving to London in order to seek opportunities and were being left without either a job or basic shelter. This made them vulnerable to people like Dennis Nilsen, whose actions went undetected for five years.

“In 2020, we have a similar situation with people on a global scale becoming displaced and seeking opportunities in the capital. Homelessness in London has definitely become more visible now compared to when I first moved to the capital in 2010.”

Neal and Arnold hope that the parallels between the two time periods will resonate with viewers, and make them realise that we haven’t actually come as far as people may think.

Arnold says: “These people [now] are finding themselves in very similar, vulnerable positions as the victims of Dennis Nilsen. So it’s very feasible to imagine that someone like Nilsen could be preying on this community now in 2020, with society none the wiser. I think we believe we have moved on from the 1980s. But when you examine it, we haven’t made the massive strides forward we’d like to believe.”

Telling the story from a different perspective

Lewis Arnold, director of Des, on set Lewis Arnold / Twitter (picture by Robert Viglasky)
Lewis Arnold, director of Des, on set

Since Nilsen’s crimes, there have been many documentaries that focused on his story. But Neal and Arnold didn’t want to focus on Nilsen - they wanted to focus on his victims, the victims’ families, the police officers involved, and Nilsen's biographer Brian Masters.

“The more research I did, the more fascinated I was with the people who were involved in the case," Neal revealed.

"It then became important to me to explore the ripple effect of Nilsen’s crimes, and not to just tell the story of Nilsen himself… Anybody who came into contact with Nilsen almost automatically became one of his victims. That suddenly became really interesting to me.”

Arnold says that the pair’s aim with the drama was not to focus on the crimes themselves, which aren't shown on-screen, but to challenge perceptions around Nilsen - that he was the ‘kindly killer’ for example - and showing parts of his personality, his ego and narcissistic tendencies, that are often ignored. 

“In short, we both felt it was important to try and show what this man was really like, through the eyes of the various characters who had come into contact with him in 1983," Arnold said.

Neal, who wrote the first two episodes of Des, with Kelly Jones writing episode three,  said it was important to take the narrative away from Nilsen.

“When you watch documentaries on the case, there is no doubt that the loudest voice is Dennis Nilsen’s. With our drama, he is understandably a huge part of the story. But I didn’t want him to be the whole story. Peter Jay and Brian Masters are the story for us.”

Police Detective Peter Jay is a key part of the drama, with Jay’s investigation into Nilsen personal than just police work. The case became everything to him as he desperately tried not only to make a case against Nilsen, but to identify his victims who Nilsen couldn’t remember the names of.

Neal says that despite the case making him famous, Jay felt that he had failed Nilsen’s victims until his dying day. 

“I wanted to show the pain that Peter felt from feeling that he had failed the victims and their families. When we spoke to Peter’s family, they said that he carried that pain with him until his dying day," he said.

DCI Peter Jay passed away recently but the show's creators were put in touch with his wife Linda and son, Simon, who were kind enough to give them their time so they could build a picture of Peter during the time of the Nilsen case. 

“They also gave us access to an unpublished book Peter had written about his time as a policeman," Arnold recalled.

"It was incredibly useful in giving us a direct insight into Peter Jay’s thoughts and feelings during the time of the case.”

Working with Dennis Nilsen’s biographer Brian Masters

Des Brian Masters ITV
Jason Watkins as Brian Masters in Des

Des is based on material from the book Killing For Company by Brian Masters. Masters, one of the three main characters in the drama, is played by Jason Watkins.

Masters was also involved in the making of the series, and met with both writer Neal and director Arnold to share his stories of conversations with Nilsen.

“We were able to speak to him directly about his own experiences and emotions during his time interviewing and befriending Nilsen," said Arnold.

"He spoke to us very candidly about his reasons for wanting to write the book and gave us an insight into what he was going through in 1983."

Neal says it was important to have Brian Masters contribute to this drama because Masters was openly gay, and saw what was happening in the tabloid newspapers who were focusing on the sexual orientation of Nilsen’s victims. His input, he says, was invaluable.

“He was amazing. I first met him in 2013 and found there was so much of the story he had left out of the book because it was more anecdotal, so he helped me establish some of those things. He also helped me to understand Nilsen as a person," said Neal.

“Brian was incredibly useful about Nilsen because he would only give us what he thought we wanted, or what he wanted us to want. A lot of the 20 people we were trying to speak to were also sadly no longer with us, so it was really interesting to get first-hand knowledge of what was happening at the time and how the press went after [him].”

Honouring the legacy of the victims

Lewis Arnold on the set of Des with Daniel Mays as DCI Peter Jay Lewis Arnold / Twitter (picture by Robert Viglasky)
Lewis Arnold on the set of Des with Daniel Mays as DCI Peter Jay

As well as working with Brian Masters,and the family of DCI Peter Jay, Neal and Arnold also spoke to some of the families of Nilsen's victims.

“We had to be very careful about the victims and their families," Neal explained.

"We wrote to them and gave them a chance to talk to us, but understandably there was trepidation because this story has been told so badly before. 

“There’s also the element of bereavement, because they’ve lost a member of their family and in many cases have been made to feel ashamed because of the way that it was reported at the time.

"We were very sensitive and as far as we could made sure that people knew this was happening. 

“I hope that we’ve done something good here and been respectful. Essentially, we don’t want this to be solely about Nilsen and his own story. We want this to be about all the other people involved.”

Arnold agrees. “Given we spend a lot of the drama interrogating and observing Nilsen through the eyes of Brian and Peter Jay, it was really important for us to keep reminding the audience of the cost of Dennis Nilsen’s actions," he said.

"We didn’t want this to become a sensationalist drama about his crimes and we felt that the only way we could do this was to include the direct impact his crimes had on his victims and their families.”

One of Nilsen’s victims whose story is explored in the drama is Carl Stottor. Stottor survived an attack by Nilsen in May 1982 when Nilsen tried to strangle him with a sleeping bag before attempting to drown him in the bath. 

When Carl regained consciousness, Nilsen looked after him and walked him to the tube station. Believing that his flashbacks were false memories, Carl suppressed the memory of the attack until the police mentioned a sleeping bag a year later and it all came flooding back. 

Carl was brave enough to appear as a witness at the Old Bailey trial to maximise the chance of finding justice for his other victims, which is shown in episode 3 of the drama.

“When we see Carl giving his account in episode 3, the barrister destroys him and makes him feel horrendous," Neal explained.

"Carl leaves and someone shouts, ‘He should have killed you, you queer’ - which actually happened and is just so horrific. 

“This man is going to have to deal with this immense trauma inflicted by Nilsen for the rest of his life and he doesn’t even get the sympathy of his fellow human.”

Director Arnold adds: “Through his tragic story, we could visually show the audience the human cost of Nilsen’s actions on screen... Laurie Kynaston's haunting performance captures the emotional turmoil that Carl faced on discovering his dreams were in fact supressed memories of his encounter with Nilsen.”

Des starts on Monday, September 14 on ITV.