DES Episode 1 Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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DES Episode 1 Review

Tony’s been poking among the drains.

Des is a project forever balancing on a knife-edge.

On the one hand, Dennis Andrew Nilsen was a serial killer, seemingly uncertain of his own motivations, seemingly always willing to sacrifice anyone and anything for his own advancement.

And yet his story is divided into two horrible sides, the known and the unknown. There was no trail of bodies that led to Nilsen’s discovery. No national outcry, no terror on the streets because of his actions.

He was picked up calmly at home after himself reporting a blockage in the drains of the property he rented. He never made a protest of his innocence when he was arrested, but was garrulously helpful to the police. The quietest of egomaniacs, he was regarded as ordinary, boring, a bit of a chatterbox if you got him started. A full-on union rep and socialist in his day job, a gay man quietly cruising pubs in Camden at night.

A killer, who kept the bodies of his victims under floorboards, washed them, posed them, used them as avatars of living people until decay became too much. A killer who dissected them on his kitchen floor, boiled their heads to render them unrecognisable, flushed their body fat down the toilet and burned their bodies at the bottom of his garden.

It’s difficult, knowing all that, not to be fascinated by him as a human being. Not to want to know, to understand, to work out what made him do the things he did.

It’s especially difficult, knowing all that, not to be fascinated by him when he’s played by David Tennant in a performance that might actually manage to shift the Tenth Doctor off the first line of his eventual obituary.

If there was ever a role David Tennant was born to play, it’s probably this one as Dennis Nilsen, more even than the ebullient, oddly cockney chatterbox Doctor with the childlike grin and the one-chance dark side.

That’s the trick. That’s the knife-edge on which this whole drama balances. It’s the same knife-edge on which true crime fans have to balance every time they approach Nilsen’s life and crimes. He’s fascinating, but you never want to give him the satisfaction of finding him fascinating, because he would just love that. Such was the egotism of his nature.

He would love that you’re fascinated with him, that you want to know what makes him tick. Our interest in him is fundamentally the same reward as he got from killing the men whose lives he ended. The power. The power over their lives, deaths and bodies, the power over our fascination with his reasons and actions.

That’s why Des and dramas like it are always a gamble. They have to reach an accommodation between finding the killers fascinating, but honouring the victims, and those who brought the killers to justice.

In Episode 1, there’s some skillful plotting to the drama, recreating the out of the blue nature of the revelation of Nilsen’s crimes, and going in more with the life of Detective Chief Inspector Jay, played by Daniel Mays, than the life of Nilsen at 23 Cranleigh Gardens. A man with arguably underexplored family issues, but a good old-fashioned copper, Mays wins us over to Jay’s side early by bringing a familiar sense to bear. He’s a man used to encountering some impressive depths of depravity, but who nevertheless is scared he may be out of his depth when faced with the realities of Nilsen’s actions.

When we first meet Nilsen, we see him from behind, and the direction by Lewis Arnold shows some real nail-biting skill. Nilsen, from behind, sitting on the top deck of a London bus, is a moment of utter mundanity, but it’s given a power to intrigue by the way Arnold films it. Nilsen was, as far as the world was concerned, so utterly ordinary that reflecting that in that first shot of him is masterful.

Meanwhile Jay and his team have been investigating what might well be human remains in the drains at Cranleigh Gardens. The irony that it was Dennis Nilsen who reported the blockage of those drains is not lost on us, and gives us some early prickles – was he caught, or did he finally surrender to the idea of the narrative of his life being known?

When Nilsen returns home, he’s met by Jay and his team, who go upstairs to his flat and notice a revolting odour.

The simplicity is again a keynote of both the reality and the dramatization. Jay asks ‘Where’s the rest of the body?’ – and there’s no obfuscation from Nilsen, no ‘What body?’ tedium or innocence. ‘In the cupboard,’ he says – and sure enough, there are black bags full of body parts in the cupboard.

This first episode feels like it might be oversimplifying the story for dramatic effect, but it isn’t. Just as Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, was arrested originally on a driving infraction and then simply gave up and confessed to his history of murder and mayhem, so Nilsen, right from the start, slipped into his story with a simplicity – and, looked at one way, a monstrous egotism – that makes it sound like a dark fairy tale.

From the time you start to let David Tennant get his hands on large chunks of dialogue – or mostly monologue, as it is here – you cannot take your eyes and ears off him. And that’s also very much the case with the real Nilsen – ordinary to a fault when you simply looked at him, from the moment he started talking about his murders, he became an intriguing conundrum. The helpful, mostly mild-mannered civil servant who strangled people to death when they tried to leave him.

In this first episode, we take him from the discovery of human remains in the drains at Cranleigh Gardens through to his remand to face trial for the last, but first identified murder, that of Stephen Sinclair, aged 20.

It also introduces us to one of the most ghoulish aspects of the overall case of Dennis Nilsen – the fact that while he was on remand and on trial, he was being immortalised in biography by a famed non-fiction writer, Brian Masters. The resulting book, Killing For Company, eventually formed a lot of the background for Des itself, but Masters does not come off, in the portrayal by Jason Watkins, as especially a pleasant human being. As a portrayal of a real person’s mannerisms and vocal tics though, Watkins gives as good as he gets, and watching, and listening to Tennant and Watkins reproducing the voices of Nilsen and Masters, is something of a tutorial in reproducing reality with your own twist.

What becomes evident towards the end of Episode 1 is that while Nilsen has been as accommodating as possible with the police, giving them (eventually) the full name of his last victim so they can go ahead, find corroborating evidence of that particular crime and charge him, his way of interacting with the world was in very great part a performance, an exercise in taking control of situations and people, so he could, in his words, ‘know where I stand with people.’

While Watkins’ Masters is certain that when he goes to meet Nilsen he will on no account shake his hand, when Nilsen offers that intimacy, it’s impossible to refuse. In that sense, that moment is the bargain we make as viewers. We have our principles, we want to stand aloof from the hideous man that is Dennis Nilsen, but we’re hooked by the mystery of his life as much as by the tragedy of his victims, and the excellent police work of Jay and his team.

When you put David Tennant, working his actorly bum off, in the role of Nilsen, it has the power to invite us in, to corrupt us with a handshake, to go beyond the black-and-white of the case, the murderer and the civil servant, the two predominant sides of his full nature.

There’s some high class acting talent in Des, from Tennant, Mays and Watkins at the top of the bill through the likes of Ron Cook in a supporting role as DSI Geoff Chambers, and in later episodes, you’ll see stellar performances from Laurie Kynaston, Pip Torrens, Silas Carson and Ken Bones. But this first episode is mostly a power-duel between Mays and Tennant, between Jay and Nilsen as the horror of Nilsen’s actions are revealed, with Watkins’ Masters rising to the first wave of prominence at the end.

You’ll be gasping by the end of this episode. You may well already know that Tennant has a gift for darkness just as prolific and profound as his ability to swagger and grin and save the universe. But you’ve never seen him own the screen like this. This is a meeting of towering personalities – Nilsen’s own, and Tennant’s in service to the work.

It’s grim work, absolutely, for all the whole of Des shies away from any grisly re-enactments – you’ll never be shown Nilsen’s actions on those many godawful nights in this mini-series, which is something of a blessing and a sensitivity to his victims. But it may well be the best work you’ve ever seen Tennant do to date. Unnerving, compelling and mesmerising all in one, episode 1 makes you worry that Mays’ ‘good copper’ Jay may well be as out of his depth as he seems to feel when confronted by a complicated embodiment of evil on his patch. You’ll skip the credits in your haste to get to episode 2, but it’s a marker of the excellence of the balancing on display here that while you’re fascinated with Tennant’s unpredictable Nilsen, you’ll rush to episode 2 because you’ll want to see your faith in Jay vindicated. You’ll want to see him get his man. You’ll want to see Nilsen pay.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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