REVIEW: ITV’s ‘Des’ is a masterpiece.

by | Sep 15, 2020 | All, Reviews

It can often be hard to pinpoint exactly what qualifies as ‘great television’. Most we watch or review is enjoyable, intriguing or exciting but a truly great show comes along less frequently. I believe ITV’s latest true crime adaptation Des stands head and shoulders with the greatest television of the last decade. Perhaps this is helped by the fact we know what we’re watching actually happened in the early eighties or perhaps it’s because the script from Luke Neal and Lewis Arnold is chillingly perfect. Maybe it’s because of the three lead performances from Daniel Mays as Detective Peter Jay, Jason Watkins as Brian Masters and David Tennant giving a career-best performance as serial killer Dennis Nilsen. Whatever the reason, Des is a masterpiece.

The story begins in 1983 when a plumber finds what he believes to be human remains in the drains that belong to Nilsen’s flat. Such an unusual and macabre discovery prompts Jay and his colleague to wait outside the flat until Nilsen, who works at the local jobcentre, returns home. 

When Neilsen does arrive home he invites them in. He’s a pale, waif of a man with glasses that dominate his face. When Jay asks where the ‘rest of the body is’ Neilsen stares at him for a few seconds and says, ‘in the cupboard.’ and Neilsen is arrested on suspicion of murder. On the way to the station, Neilsen calmly tells Jay and his colleague that there are fifteen or sixteen bodies for them to find.

David Tennant is captivating as Neilsen. Disappearing into the role entirely. This is Tennant’s fourth show of 2020 after Deadwater Fell, Staged and the second series of There She Goes and you don’t see any of semblance of those characters here. This is Tennant as we’ve never seen him before. At his most understated, calm and terrifying. From the way he slowly smokes his cigerette whilst relgaling the dumbstruck officers with his murders, to the way he casually and brutally describes the way he killed them. It impossible not to hang on every word and become immersed in Nilsen’s world. He describes disecting  the bodies as ‘purely for disposal’ and ‘the platter after the feast’ all the while remaining calm in his chair and taking another drag from his cigarette. The story is told with such confidence Jay and is reluctant to immediately charge him with the crimes in case he’s just trying to impress them with his lavish tales.

After a long time, the team finally jog Neilsen’s memory for the name of his final victim. Stephen Sinclair. A young homeless boy who he tells them he strangled to death after watching him experience The Who’s ‘Tommy’ for the first time. One of the many odd things about Neilsen, at least to hear him tell it, is that he genuinely appeared to like the men he would go on to kill. When he’s asked why he takes their lives he admits he hopes the detectives could shed some light on that for him.

As open and honest as his account appears Jay and his team do find somethings out that Neilsen has neglected to tell them. He worked for the police for a year in the seventies and whilst he admits to strangeling Sinclair to death, the team discover his lungs were full of water. When confronted by his team in the police, Neilsen puts his dismissal down to homophobia but again, he is proven to be lying when they learn he was let go after being caught masturbating in the morgue. There’s also the fact that Sinclair’s head has been boiled.

They are parells here between Neilsen and another serial killer that ITV has dramtised, Fred West. West (portrayed by Dominc West in 2011’s Appropriate Adult), took similar pleasure in telling his story to the stunned police officers that sat opposite him. Like Neislen, he appeared to be an open-book but left key details out for the officers to discover and Like Neilsen, West was unafraid and unapologetic for his actions. Neilsen takes this further by asking to see the newspaper articles that have been written about him while he sits in his cell. 

The revalations that Neilsen was ex-police and that he’d been killing for years sends Jay into a spin. How could this happen undetected for years. He also has to deal with a feroucus press pack who have learnt about Neilsen and his police connections causing Jay to worry there is someone on his team leaking information. Couple that with a young man who visits Jay to tell him he was close to becoming one of Neilsen victims but managed to escape but was told by the police at the time that they didn’t believe his story, and Jay finds himself unsure where to turn. 

We meet the third lead, Brian Masters (Jason Watkins) at home wth his partner. As a writer, he is intrigued by the news reports about Neilsen the dicotamy between the mild mannered civil servant his colleagues at the jobcentre describe him as, and the cold blooded killer he has become. 

When the pair meet in Neilsen’s prison to discuss Masters profiling him for a new book, Neilsen again has centre stage. He has read Brian’s last book, he questions his upbringing and pokes at him unsure of his intentions asking, ‘why would you do want to write a book about a monster like me?’ I’m not entirely sure Masters know why himself. He finds Neilsen a compelling character and even though he’s there to profile Neilsen it is the killer who is ultimately in charge.

On my social media I had questioned whether ITV were right in playing this three-part drama over three nights this week. This was initially supposed to be shown in May but the pandemic hit and ITV felt they needed to save a lot of their spring drama as the shows they’d slated for the autumn had their production abruptdly closed down. On the reflection, I think they’ve made a smart move here. The story is so compelling, and the performances so knock-out that I could have devoured the whole thing in one evening and it’s nice to know I have something to look forward to over the next two nights.

ITV do a lot of these true crime adaptions and to their credit most are worth watching but, Des is a masterpice. I adored every second of it and I can’t wait to see more. This will win awards, Tennant’s career evolve even further and so it should that’s before saying how good Mays and Watkins are. In a world of uncertainty, it’s reassuring that ITV hasn’t just delivered their best show in years but one of the best of the last ten years.

Des Continues Tuesday and Concludes Wednesday on ITV at 9.00pm 

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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