Portraying the human side of a serial killer – like David Tennant achieves in ‘Des’ – does not mean you are glamourising their actions

Victoria Selman
·4-min read
David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen in ITV's 'Des' (ITV)
David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen in ITV's 'Des' (ITV)

Des is the new three part true-crime drama series currently airing on ITV and smashing rating records for the network.

Taking its title from the nickname of Dennis Nilsen, the programme documents the arrest and trial of the man who killed at least fifteen young men between 1978 and 1983.

In a high-impact opening, police show up at Nielsen’s flat after a plumber discovers his drains packed with bone and human tissue.

Horrific, is an understatement though as a writer of criminal profiler/serial killer thrillers, I’m as interested in the psychology of the perpetrator as the crime itself. Possibly that’s why I’m so intrigued by Nilsen’s case. As David Tennant, the actor playing the murderer says:

"It certainly would seem that those who worked with him at the job office found him pleasant enough. Sometimes he would drone on a little, but there was certainly nothing extraordinary, apparently, about this man.”

To me, it’s this aspect that makes the show so compelling. All too often, serial killers are portrayed as bogeymen; monsters, somehow "other". But the truth is, even the most apparently senseless violence has meaning to the perpetrator. Serial killers are people too; humans who do inhuman things.

Delving into these "inhuman" crimes has naturally been an important part of the programme and has consequently raised the criticism that the show’s producers have somehow glorified Nielsen’s actions. While not seeking to diminish the pain Nielsen has caused, I believe the criticism is unfair. Simply portraying or interrogating a crime on screen is a world away from glorifying it.

Unlike Thomas Harris’ baroque depiction of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Des is almost mundane, down to its bleak lighting and dour costumes. And just as putting racist words in the mouth of a character doesn’t make an author racist, a TV producer who shows a killer revelling in his crimes, isn’t saying murder is a good thing. It borders on patronising to suggest people can’t tell the difference.

Another criticism levelled at the show is that Nielsen has been given a human face. To my mind though, it’s his very humanity that makes him so fascinating. Des handles it well by focusing not on "who" but rather "why-dunnit". It seeks to understand how a person can be so normal on the outside and yet have bodies rotting under his floorboards.

In my novel, Snakes and Ladders, I ask: What makes a person murder someone they’ve never met? What makes them kill stranger after stranger until they’re stopped?

It’s a theme the show explores well in a way viewers can understand, without overstepping the line into the grotesque whilst also focusing as much on the impact on the victims’ families as the murders themselves.

At no point do the producers attempt to win viewers over to Nilsen’s perspective. This isn’t a series that presents the killer in a tragic light or that shows him struggling with his inner demons. Rather it aims to understand Nielsen’s mindset, which is not at all the same as condoning his actions.

Although it can be more emotionally palatable to see them as two dimensional, serial killers are not black and white horror film villains. They are men and women who look just like us, with friends, families and next-door neighbours.

Highlighting this has nothing to do with idolisation though clearly any portrayal (especially on true crime shows) needs to be handled sensitively. And in fact, done well, programmes like Des can become cautionary tales.

This is borne out by the fact women, who are statistically more likely than men to be the victims of violent crime, are the primary consumers of true crime books and shows – 70 per cent of the total audience according to a recent study.

I would argue this is because as women we want to learn how to better protect ourselves. Or to use a phrase we’ve all heard rather a lot lately, to stay vigilant.

Victoria Selman is the bestselling author of a serial killer thriller series featuring ex-special forces criminal profiler, Ziba MacKenzie. Her first novel, 'Blood for Blood’ was shortlisted for the Debut Dagger Award

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