Des: How real is ITV's hit drama about serial killer Dennis Nilsen?

Des: How real is ITV's hit drama about serial killer Dennis Nilsen?

September 16, 2020

Des, ITV’s gripping three-part drama about London-based serial killer Dennis Nilsen, reached its epic conclusion on Wednesday.

The show saw the Muswell Hill murderer’s dramatic trial reach its end at the Old Bailey courthouse.

Viewers are predicting BAFTAs galore for David Tennant, who played Nilsen, and the rest of the cast.

And while hair, make-up and wardrobe certainly deserve recognition for recreating Nilsen’s likeness in Tennant, just how true-to life and accurate was the rest of show?

Here, we take a quick look at this fascinating but chilling tale of true crime.

How true is Des?

As unbelievable as elements of the show might seem, Des is indeed based on a true story, and has been praised for giving a studied and undramatic overview of Nilsen’s story. But elements of it are impossible to dramatise because they remain unknown.

For example, Des does underline during its final frames that out of the 15 men Nilsen initially claimed to have killed, only eight victims have been identified.

The show is furthermore adapted from author Brian Masters’ take on Nilsen, and his book Killing for Company: The Story of a Man Addicted to Murder.

What was Dennis Nilsen convicted of?

The finale saw Tennant’s Nilsen looking cool as a cucumber as he was convicted of six counts of murder and two of attempted murder and given life in prison.

The was indeed the real-life verdict, delivered on 4 November 1983.

What did the show leave out?

The show wasn’t able to tell the entire Nilsen story in just three episodes – although it padded things out with an epilogue.

It outlined how, in 2006 and using DNA evidence, Nilsen’s first victim was named as 14-year-old Stephen Holmes. It also clarified that Nilsen was never charged with the attempted murder of Carol Stotter or the murder or Graham Allen.

Does ITV have any other Des content planned?

A documentary can capture the reality of a situation in ways a dramatisation never can.

That’s why ITV is wisely filling in the blanks of the Des saga with its new documentary The Real Des: The Dennis Nilsen story.

It will air on Thursday 17 September, at 9pm on ITV.

When did Dennis Nilsen die?

The TV show in question was set firmly in the 80s – hence the mullets and all the smoking – but Nilsen actually lived for years after his conviction.

He died in 2018 in York hospital at the age of 72.

His cause of death was pulmonary embolism and retroperitoneal hemorrhage.

Des can be streamed on ITV Hub now.

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