How accurate is ITV’s Des?: We asked a detective who was there
They actually did find a boiled head in the kitchen
ITV’s Des is a chilling drama based on the investigation into the murders of Dennis Nilsen, one of the UK’s most prolific serial killers. He was charged with murdering at least 12 young men between 1978 and 1983.
The three-part miniseries shows a team of detectives, including DCI Peter Jay, DI Steve McCusker, and DC Brian Lodge, as they aim to identify Nilsen’s victims. Nilsen, played by David Tennant, is consistently disturbing and the team of police have to grapple with his unusual personality to unravel the case.
With so many gory details and interesting characters, which parts of the show stay true to the case, and which have been altered or fabricated for the show? The Tab spoke to DC Brian Lodge, portrayed by Ben Bailey Smith and who featured as an extra in the miniseries, to find out.
He said there were bound to be inaccuracies
Despite the production team working closely with those involved in the real case, Lodge was sure some inaccuracies would arise due to the need to fit a large amount of information into a short series, and having to dramatise events for television. He said: “Having been involved, it was obvious I would find many faults, and I expect any police officer who was working at that time would also find faults with what was shown.
“It is impossible to put a four months or so enquiry into a three hour long programme, and much was dramatised”.
The German dental plate detail was accurate
In the series, Lodge discovered a victim’s dental plate originated in Germany, but the lead was not followed.
He told The Tab: “It’s true I established that dental plate was made in Germany; in fact I had 3, and I still believe that if this had been pursued, and enquiries made with dental laboratories in Germany, perhaps one or more victims could have been identified.”
It showed Nilsen as what he really was
Nilsen is portrayed as nonchalant and chilling in the drama, and Lodge says this it true to real life: “It certainly gave the viewers a realistic sight of what Nilsen was. In fact, many people have contacted me and told me what an enjoyable series it was and how it showed Nilsen as being what he was and to a certain extent the investigation itself.”
Gory details about bodies in the house were true
It is true they found a boiled head in a pot in the kitchen, and that the smell in the house was unbearable. Lodge detailed one incident which proved the gruesome series was reflective of real events: “I remember lifting the upturned drawer in the bathroom and seeing a pair of legs sticking out of a black bin liner.”
Lodge actually did have to bag up over 1000 pieces of evidence from the killer’s two North London addresses including, bones, body parts, and murder weapons. It is also true that Nilsen stored body parts under the floorboards, in kitchen cupboards, around the houses, and in his gardens.
“I don’t agree with the aggression towards the team from Peter Jay”
DCI Peter Jay headed up the investigation, however his loss of temper was entirely fictionalised for the series. Lodge told The Tab: “Peter Jay’s portrayal was very well done, with the exception that I don’t agree with his shouting and aggression towards the team.
“Yes he did get frustrated, as we all did at times, but I don’t remember him shouting when his frustrations or anger got the better of him.”
What about the rest of the casting?
Overall, Lodge was impressed with the casting. He told The Tab David Tenant’s portrayal of Nilsen was particularly accurate, and he made sure Bailey Smith smoked rollies and drank Guinness in order to play Lodge most accurately: “I think the casting was well done, Tenant was absolutely brilliant as Nilsen. And the bloke playing me? Not bad. I did have to tell him prior to filming to grow a moustache, drink Guinness and smoke roll up cigarettes.
“The series main thrust wasn’t to show what Nilsen had done by portraying the gruesome and horrific side of it, but to give viewers some insight into the investigation and the difficulties faced during it.”
Police procedure was off
Whilst it is true the police took a soft approach to talking to Nilsen, who actually did offer Peter Jay a cigarette in their first interview, much of the police procedure on the show was not accurate: “When Peter Jay arrested Nilsen, he gave the wrong caution; this did annoy me because on my first visit to production offices, I told them to be sure they had the correct caution because the caution nowadays is different to that in 1983. They told me they would get it right, but it was wrong in the episode.
In the show, the investigating officers are seen to confront Nilsen in his cell about the murder of Stephen Sinclair. Apparently this did not happen. “In the programme, after discovering Stephen Sinclair’s name, the three senior officers went to Nilsen’s cell, Geoff Chambers told Nilsen he was charging him with the murder of Sinclair. That was not the correct procedure; he would have been taken to a charge room and all would have been recorded and then charged.
As well as this, the series shows detectives executing fingerprint examinations at the station, but this did not happen in real life. “Fingerprints weren’t examined at the police stations by investigating officers, this task was undertaken by specialist fingerprint branch at Scotland Yard.”
Kentucky Fried Chicken
Nilsen was carrying out murders for five years without being a suspect in any disappearances. In the series, the first time Police were directed towards him was after a man found bones blocking a drainpipe. It is true that Nilsen claimed the human bones found in his drain pipes were the remnants of a KFC meal. However, Lodge found the wording in the series irritating: “I seem to remember KFC being mentioned, I’m sure it was never called that at that time. It was always known as Kentucky Fried.”
They missed out loads of the investigation
Whilst the investigation was shown to be gruelling and intensive in the series, the true scale of it was not shown. One that particularly stuck out to Lodge was visiting murdered Martin Duffy’s family to identify his belongings and inform the family of his death. “Enquiries made with the families of identified victims were left out; I went to Liverpool and showed the family of Martin Duffy the knives they had bought him when he left for London to seek work as a chef. They identified them as his. Even though I had in the past informed families or friends that a relative had died, that was different. That was a dreadful thing to have to break to a family.”
Lodge says nights around London interviewing young men with similar profiles to those murdered about was a significant part of the investigation, but was not included on TV: “Not everything could be put in, especially in respect of all the enquiries that were done by the team led by Steve McCusker. These included trawling around London pubs and asking questions of people similar to known victims”.
Lodge has a recurring nightmare about the case
He publicly said: “I’m in a room, green, smoky, foggy haze in the room. Dead bodies are hanging from the ceiling. I keep trying to leave and I can’t because I’m slipping on bits of guts all over the floor, I can’t get out and I’m stuck in that room. It’s all to do with that inquiry.” Lodge told told The Tab that “the dream is real”.
He believes there would be more emotional support for police these days
Lodge reminded us of the impact this case had on the officers investigating it. He told The Tab the case is still overwhelming for him, and he is still devastated for families who will never know if their missing relatives are one of the few bodies never identified. He went on to say they were left with no emotional support after the traumatic events of the case.
“My lasting memories are the magnitude of the whole thing, dealing with such a large number of murders without bodies or known victims and the amount of effort and time that was used attempting to identify them.
“There will be many families, not just in The UK, but probably Worldwide, not knowing whether their missing husband, brother, son or any other male member of their family was a victim of Nilsen. I doubt if they will ever know”.
We wanted to know how the traumatic case affected those investigating the case, so asked what support was like in the aftermath. Lodge told The Tab: “If this case had happened in the past 10 years or so, certainly me and a number of the enquiry team would have been ordered to see a psychiatrist or similar. In those days though, nothing at all, no assistance. It was a job and we did it.”
Featured image credit: ITV