David Tennant is ‘relieved’ gay serial killer Dennis Nilsen died before new drama about his depraved crimes airs

David Tennant as gay serial killer Dennis Nilsen in Des

David Tennant, who will play gay serial killer Dennis Nilsen in the new ITV dramatisation Des, has said the last thing he wants to do is glorify the murderer and necrophile.

Nilsen was jailed for life in 1983 after a horrific six-year spree which saw him kill at least 12 men and boys and attempt to kill seven others, most of whom were gay or homeless.

Living in North London, Nilsen lured his victims into his home with offers of food, alcohol and shelter, before strangling and drowning them. He then completed a ritual in which he bathed their bodies, dressed them and lived with them for weeks, sometimes months, before dismembering and disposing of them. He also admitted that he engaged in sex acts with the bodies.

Tennant plays Nilsen in Des, the new three-part ITV drama which will explore the gay serial killer’s life and the investigation which led to his capture.

The actor bears an eerie resemblance to Nilsen, and he said he spent “a lot of time studying him, listening to his voice, trying to think myself into that space” for the role.

Dennis Nilsen. (Full Sutton Prison)

Nilsen died in prison in 2018, at the age of 72, from cancer. Tennant explained that the series began development before his death, but admitted he is “relieved” that the killer is not alive to see its release.

“I would hate for this to go out and for him to be in his cell imagining that we were in any way glorifying him,” he told The Sun.

“I’m sure he would have complained about everything we said and everything we did, but at the same time would have been rather smugly pleased that he was on television.”

Tennant said that he wouldn’t have gotten involved in the project if it glorified the gay serial killer in any way.

“I might have had ­reservations if we were presenting it as some sort of gothic horror piece. But we weren’t.

“After he was arrested, one of the things that Dennis Nilsen became obsessed with was ‘the legend of Des’. Even in prison, whenever he slipped out of public consciousness there was a sense that he wanted to get back into it.”

Nilsen conducted his murder spree between 1978 and 1983, and it only ended when police found bones and human tissue clogging the drains outside his house. He immediately confessed, and initially claimed to have murder 16 people, although he did not identify all of them.

Although his motives for the murders are unclear, it has been suggested that he murdered the men and kept their bodies in order to have male company.

Growing up in rural Scotland, Nilsen’s sexuality was a huge source of shame. The serial killer realised he was gay when he was 14, in the late 1950s when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK. 

In Des, it becomes clear that the investigation was initially was dismissed as the murders were considered “gay crimes”.

Tennant said: “There is a story to be told about the victims and why people fall through the cracks of society. Plus, how Nilsen could murder so many men without being noticed.

“He shouldn’t have been allowed to murder all those people. Somebody should have noticed what was going on a lot earlier than they did.

“As a society we have try to understand why this happened and how to not have it happen again.”

Des begins on September 14 on ITV.