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Former ‘Doctor Who’ actor David Tennant, 49, has received wide-acclaim for his portrayal of the brutal mass murderer who killed at least 15 men in London. ‘Des’ achieved record viewing figures for ITV this year after 5.4 million people tuned into the first episode of the three-part series. It’s based on Dennis Nilsen, the vicious killer who strangled, butchered and burned some of his victims – others he cut into small pieces and flushed down the toilet. The dramatised version of the heinous crimes have gripped audiences but accounts from those who knew the Muswell Hill Murderer reveal a slightly different story. In one damning alteration, Nilsen’s true brutality is revealed after he made a subtle facial expression when quizzed about the killings.
Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay headed the team that brought the serial killer to justice in 1983 – when he was sentenced to life imprisonment for six counts of murders and two attempted murders.
He remembered the first day he met Nilsen, hours after putrid human remains were discovered blocked in the sewerage system below his Cranley Gardens flat.
The retired police inspector explained: “I’ll always remember it was bitterly cold, it had been snowing, we stood outside this awful house and then looked down the pit where the drains were.
“He showed me four little pieces of flesh each about three inches by half-an-inch, maybe an-inch, and also three bones with a knuckle at each end.
“My first thought when I saw them was that they were from a human hand.”
They noticed that the drains, which were attached to the building’s outer wall, were “blocked over halfway” and recognised that the remains must have originated from the “very top” flat.
DCI Jay continued: “We had no idea what we were going to find, we knew we had a killer but we didn’t know what he had done.
“Nilsen walked in bang-on cue at 5.30pm and leading up to that I had been thinking for two or three hours about what I was going to face.
“I knew that for someone to have flushed a dead body down the loo in small pieces it was going to be somebody a little bit different.”
DCI Jay decided to be “very lighthearted” when he met Nilsen at the door of his flat and told him: “I’ve come about your drains.”
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In a breakaway from real events, David Tennant in the TV show portrayed Nilson as shocked and surprised – but the true killer revealed himself after that question, eager for recognition.
DCI Jay recalled: “A little smirk came across his face and he said, ‘Since when have police been interested in blocked drains?’
“I said, ‘Well you take me up in your flats and I’ll tell you all about it.’”
The “little smirk” could have indicated Nilson’s desire to be caught and for the press and public to know about him – as shown when the killer requested newspapers while he was in custody.
The real DCI Jay recalled being able to smell “decomposing flesh” when he walked into the flat and told Nilsen: “I’m here because your drains were blocked with human remains.
“And he said, ‘Oh my god, how awful!’ and I just got a little bit closer to him, face-to-face, looked him straight in the eyes and said, ‘Dont mess me about, where’s the rest of the body?’
“And he just paused momentarily and he said, ‘In plastic bags in the other room.’”
Nilsen was immediately arrested and when quizzed by DCI Jay’s colleague in the police car about whether it was “one body or maybe two”, he gave a chilling reply.
He recalled: “Nilsen said, ‘Neither, I think it’s 16’… I can remember the steering wheel in my car sort of shaking in my hands.”
The killer later claimed to have murdered 15 people in total but police believed it could have been more.
Brian Masters, Nilsen’s biographer, described: “The police could hardly believe their ears because this was all said in a very matter of fact voice. Very dispassionate.
“Why dispassionate? Because this is a man without passion, his only passion came when he was in the murderous impulse when he was overtaken by the other self.”
Nilsen died in 2018 from complications related to a blood clot.
The final episode of ‘Des’ airs tonight on ITV at 9pm.
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