Why do we treat serial killers’ gay victims as dramatically disposable?

Des, ITV's new three-part drama starring David Tennant as the 1980s murderer Dennis Nilsen, offsets his murder spree through the prism of his police interrogation. Still, it yet again spotlights the predator and scarcely dignifies his prey – many of them already marginalised gay men. Can we do better?

18 September 2020

By Alex Davidson

Des (2020)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ Des is available on ITV Hub

Des, an ITV drama series starring David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen, a man who, in 1983, was convicted of killing several men, has come to a close. Tennant’s performance has received great acclaim, with one reviewer noting it is so strong that viewers would want to “spend more time with one of Britain’s most notorious murderers”. The victims themselves have received rather less attention.

As the series begins with his arrest and does not use flashbacks, we do not see any of the men he murdered depicted on screen. Some men who survived murder attempts by Nilsen do feature (in one case prominently, in the latter half of the final episode), but this is essentially a three-hander featuring Nilsen; Peter Jay (Daniel Mays), the Detective Chief Inspector who arrested Nilsen; and Brian Masters (Jason Watkins), the writer who interviewed Nilsen for his book Killing for Company, on which much of Des is based.

Watkins plays Masters as an intelligent man who is nevertheless naïve and easily manipulated by Nilsen. The gay author, when challenged by his partner, somewhat defensively justifies his writing of the book on the grounds that “someone who knows our world, our community, needs to write this.” A noble statement, yet Des barely explores the role homophobia played in the tragedy. Masters’ book goes into great depth about how pervasive homophobia may have impacted the development of Nilsen, who was gay. But the fact that many men could simply go missing or be attacked without immediate repercussion is intrinsically linked with the marginalisation of gay men.

Des (2020)

Des starts very strongly, with documentary footage showing the increasing number of rough sleepers on London’s streets in the early 1980s, with a brief excerpt of speech from Margaret Thatcher implicitly linking government policy failing vulnerable people. Many of Nilsen’s victims, not all of whom were gay, did not go back to his house for sex, but because they simply wanted a bed for the night. However, the political and social background of the murders is then neglected.

Notwithstanding that some reviewers have praised the series’ compassion towards the victims and their situation, the truth is we learn very little about the men. One was addicted to drugs. One had a young son. Some are mourned by parents and ex-partners, but almost all are defined purely by their status as victims, and nothing more.

One exception is the portrayal of Carl Stottor. Nilsen unsuccessfully tried to strangle Stottor; when the young man recovered, he was persuaded that his neck injuries were caused by being caught in his sleeping bag. Stotter, sensitively played by Laurie Kynaston, emerges as a vulnerable, sympathetic human being, and we witness the homophobic slurs he faces as he leaves court after testifying (the drama does not include the shocking detail from Killing for Company, which reports prosecuting counsel referring to Stotter as “a rather pathetic young man”).

Cold Light of Day (1989)

Des does at least avoid lingering on the most extreme aspects of the Nilsen case. It is considerably more sensitive than a previous representation of Nilsen. Fhiona-Louise’s Cold Light of Day (1989), released six years after Nilsen’s sentencing, is a curious, chilling film. The protagonist, Jorden March, is clearly based on Nilsen, from his appearance to the nature of his crimes. Unlike Des, it depicts a couple of the murder victims, but does not establish their characters. They are essentially in the film so we can watch them be strangled, see their naked corpses on the floor and witness the disposal of their bodies.

Although the film is not without merit, it’s not immediately clear why it was made. It’s too loose with the facts for true crime fanatics. A shocking appearance of a severed head notwithstanding, it’s not gory enough for horror fans. It is not particularly interested in political or social commentary. An upcoming, typically lavish Arrow Blu-ray release, featuring plentiful extra features, may yield some answers.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (2018)

The last few years have seen a high number of TV series and films about killers of gay men. The best of these, the nine-part series The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (2018), introduces us to all of the men Andrew Cunanan murdered, establishing them all as interesting, flawed people who had lives before their deaths (with the exception of the man whom Cucanan killed in order to steal his truck, who is given a brief, standard wrong-place-at-the-wrong depiction). Although, of the dead men, Édgar Ramírez’s Gianni Versace is given the most screen time, the stories of David Madson, Lee Miglin and Jeff Trail are each allocated their own episodes. The series brilliantly shows how homophobia is directly linked, in different ways, to the deaths of all three men, a connection Des only very tentatively suggests when referring to Nilsen’s gay victims. The Assassination of Gianni Versace remains the best project Ryan Murphy has worked on – and the central involvement of a gay man in the creative process may explain the show’s unflinching depiction of the consequences of homophobia.

Five Daughters (2010)

An upcoming BBC drama about Stephen Port, who killed at least four men he met on Grindr, will hopefully take the time to portray the lives of his victims. Early signs weren’t promising, with a big name being cast as the killer, in this case Stephen Merchant, best known for his work with Ricky Gervais, whose move into darker territory will likely be a key point of interest. Writer Neil McKay’s previous two-part dramas about The Moors Murders (See No Evil: The Moors Murders, 2006) and the Wests (Appropriate Adult, 2011) also put the killers, rather than those they killed, at centre stage.

The decision to change the title from The Barking Murders to Four Lives may yet promise a more thorough representation of the victims, echoing the name of Stephen Butchard’s miniseries Five Daughters (2010), which focused on women murdered by Steve Wright.

A broadcast date for Four Lives has yet to be announced. Hopefully, when it is shown, we will see that it has avoided the flaws of Des.