Serial killer Dennis Nilsen inspires three-part ITV drama
Put aside the shirt, glasses and haircut, and actor David Tennant (pictured above right and left) is a long way from being serial killer Dennis Nilsen’s double. In fact the mass murderer, who died in May 2018, looks as if he’s the one wearing a wig.
That the image exists at all destroys the argument of those who said that the death of Nilsen in Full Sutton Prison near York would end the fascination for the former army chef, probationary police constable and civil servant.
While it would be inaccurate to say that interest now is as great as it was in 1983 when he confessed to 15 murders and was sentenced to life imprisonment in November, Nilsen is still a name known to those who weren’t born at the time. They may not remember his name, but they know about the killer who used his drains to dispose of human remains.
This is why later this year Scotsman Nilsen is to be the subject of a three-part ITV drama called ‘Des’ with the former ‘Dr Who’ David Tennant cast as the murderer, whose favored practices were strangulation by ligature or drowning in the bath.
The story will be told from the points of view of Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay, who arrested Nilsen and assembled the evidence used by the prosecution at the trial, and Brian Masters, who after a series of meetings with Nilsen after his arrest wrote a book called ‘Killing for Company’ on which the script is partly based. ‘Line of Duty’s’ Daniel Mays is cast as Jay, while Masters will be played by Jason Watkins, who was seen as prime minister Harold Wilson in ‘The Crown.’
While not all of Nilsen’s victims were homosexuals, his killing spree between 1978 and 1983 focused on the gay community and the pubs they frequented in Soho and Camden Town. Britain’s attitude towards the gay community is now more tolerant than it was in the 1980s.
When Nilsen was active there was evidence of homophobia in the police force. Had they followed up various complaints from intended victims who got away, the Metropolitan Police could have saved a number of lives by arresting him earlier.
But once he was in custody the murder inquiry was exemplary and owed a lot to the meticulous work of the pathologist, the late Professor David Bowen. Jay’s case was assembled without the benefit of DNA or security camera evidence which would be the case today.
What hasn’t changed is the problem all killers have of disposing of the body or bodies. Nilsen dug in the ashes from bonfires in his back garden at Melrose Avenue, but when he moved to Cranley Gardens he stored body parts in bin liners and flushed what he could down the lavatory, the practice that led to this discovery.Nilsen.
The case is not a new one for television. There have been a number of documentaries over the years, most recently by Emporium Productions for CBS Reality and Crackit Productions for Channel 4. There have been books, too, including the one I wrote with the late Brian McConnell which took most of my professional time from the day of Nilsen’s arrest until his trial.
Since Nilsen, more spectacular serial killers in terms of the number of victims have come to light, among the Greater Manchester family doctor Harold Shipman, convicted of 15, but probably responsible for 218 and possibly up to 250. He featured in the CBS series the week before Nilsen.
In the US, Gary Ridgway confessed to murdering 71 women; American gay killers include John Wayne Gacy with 33 victims, and Jeffery Lionel Dahmer who, with 17, is frequently compared to Nilsen. Andrei Chikatilo, the Butcher of Rostov or the Red Ripper, was convicted of murdering 33 women. Currently at the top of the list in terms of quantity with 138, however, is Luis Alfredo Garavito, or La Bestia, who largely targeted street children in Colombia. He was originally sentenced for 1,853 years in prison, reduced to 22 after he helped police with their inquiries.
Ridgway was spared the death penalty in a plea bargain in which he revealed the whereabouts of still-missing women. Gacy and Chikatilo were both executed in 1994, the same year in which Dahmer was beaten to death by a fellow inmate in the Columbia Correctional Institution. Given the way he helped detectives at Hornsey, it would have been interesting to know Nilsen’s view on the reduction of Garavito’s sentence.