"It was about trying to get to Peter's humanity... he was completely bruised by the end of it."
If you're yet to watch Des on ITV then where have you been? It's the drama everyone has been talking about this week, with viewers deservedly heaping praise on the show's three leads; David Tennant, Daniel Mays and Jason Watkins, as they told the chilling story of the investigation into prolific serial killer Dennis Nilsen.
From 1978 until his arrest in February 1983, Nilsen murdered 15 young men he'd befriend in Soho and invite back to his North London flat. With no apparent motive, inconclusive forensic evidence and most of Nilsen’s victims living off-grid, the police began the biggest manhunt investigation in UK history - this time not for the murderer, but for the murdered.
The three-part drama is told through the prism of three isolated men; Nilsen, played by David Tennant, his biographer Brian Masters, played by Jason Watkins and the detective leading the investigation, DCI Peter Jay who was played brilliantly by Daniel Mays and was the much-needed heart and soul of the drama.
Des is a modern television masterpiece, with everyone involved raising their game to deliver an acting masterclass which gripped viewers night after night, becoming ITV's most successful drama launch since 2019's Cleaning Up.
Over the years, running I Talk Telly has given me the opportunity to interview many of people I admire on television and there are few actors I admire more than Daniel Mays. So when I was offered the chance to chat to one of the hardest working actors in television just days after Des had ended on ITV, who was I to decline?
Mays was so generous with his time as we discussed the reaction to the series (including people's fascination with the smoking), the way in which he prepared for the role and why his standout scene mighy not be the one you think.
He also spoke about what it was like to work with David Tennant on Des and reveals how speaking to Peter's son brought up something in his character's past which he jokes could lend itself to a follow-up series.
First of all, congratulations on Des, what a reaction...
Thank you. We're all a bit on cloud nine to be honest. I've been tweeting and instagramming away like billy-o really because I'm just so proud of it.
It's obviously such a controversial case, a controversial moment in history and when you think it's been five years in the making for Luke Neal (writer), for it to land the way it did, the audience reaction, and the critics, and your good self, it's just incredibly gratifying really that it seems to have hit the mark.
Were you expecting that reaction?
Do you know what, twenty years acting, I've tried to stop guessing what will work and what won't. I obviously knew it had unbelievable pedigree and that the script was told with such respect and sensitivity for the subject matter.
The cast that they had assembled - you've got David Tennant leading it, who for my money is giving the performance of his career. Jason Watkins just goes from strength to strength with every role that he takes on. So to sit opposite those two was a real privilege. I don't want to sound pretentious when I say that but it was a real honour to work with actors of that calibre.
Not only that, but what Lewis Arnold (director) did brilliantly was then saturate the ensemble with some of the best in the business. I've been fortunate enough to work with people like Ron Cook and Jay Simpson before, but then I hadn't previously worked with Ben Bailey Smith, Barry Ward and the female actors - Bronagh Waugh, Chanel Cresswell, Faye McKeever.
Everyone brought their 'A' game. Because of the subject matter, you have an honour to the victims to get something like this absolutely right. There's that responsibility that comes with it. But I think honestly, all of the actors really honed in to the quality of the writing.
With Lewis directing superbly from the front, we had a real opportunity to create a really special piece of television.
Can you remember when you were offered the part?
I was doing the night shoot on White Lines so I was in Mallorca filming that very long dinner scene, where my character has a complete and utter breakdown. It was one of the toughest night shoots I'd ever done because I didn't stop talking in that scene - it was a joy to perform.
Then when I got back to the trailer I opened up an email from my agent and it was literally a straight offer. A three-part ITV drama, the Dennis Nilsen story with David Tennant as the lead. It's never lost on me when I get an offer out of the blue, the fact that I don't have to go through that whole process of auditioning. So it was just a case of reading the script - but actually as soon as I read that breakdown I pretty much knew I wanted to do it.
And then I met such a kindred spirit in Lewis Arnold, our brilliant young director. He is for me, one of - and I don't say this lightly - the most talented young directors I've worked with in the last twenty years. I think his knowledge for his subject matter, his ability to conjure up really three-dimensional performances from his actors is phenomenal. All of the crew love him.
He leads from the front, he's astute, intelligent and has an absolute passion for what he does. When you're in and around someone who is so infectious like that, it only forces you to bring your 'A' game. I can't wait to work with Lewis again.
Des is ITV's biggest drama launch since Cleaning Up, which was also directed by Lewis Arnold and his next drama Time stars Stephen Graham, who you're working with at the moment...
I know! He's got the Midas touch. I've been chatting to Steve about how great Lewis is and the combination of Sean Bean, Stephen Graham re-teaming on a Jimmy McGovern drama, being directed by Lewis - I'm already there. That's fantastic.
There are some people who questioned the need to bring Nilsen's case to public attention again. What are your thoughts on that?
If we'd have gone into this trying to sensationalise Dennis Nilsen and depict him as the most notorious serial killer on the planet, then of course that would have been in bad taste. It's not gratuitous, there's no violence and you don't see any of the killings. It's much more of a psychological take on things.
For me, it was always a cautionary tale. When it's placed in the context of the early eighties and the unemployment and high number of vulnerable and homeless on the streets - we are, unfortunately sliding in to the abyss in many ways with what we're going though with Covid-19.
There's lots of unemployment happening now and there's going to be a lot of lonely vulnerable individuals out there. It's our job as a society to keep communicating with one another and making sure that no one like Dennis Nilsen can ever be given credence again.
It definitely feels that it's been made for the right reasons.
How did you then go about preparing for the role of DCI Peter Jay?
The fact that this is a true story means you're kind of halfway there with it. You then just have to plough yourself into the research. There are countless documentaries on YouTube of the Dennis Nilsen case and Peter Jay actually seems to be in absolutely every one of them!
So I did all that. I read Killing for Company. I did all the homework possible to immerse myself in the world of the case.
But then also, Peter's widow Linda and his son from his second marriage Simon, were involved from the off and I had an amazing lunch with them out in Hertfordshire and they just filled in the blanks.
We sat down, chewed the fat, talked about their memories of their husband and father because he unfortunately died back in 2018 so it's quite recent for them.
When you're sitting across from them, you just think to yourself that you want to make sure that you honour his memory. That was the key driving force of my performance.
At the end of the lunch I really felt like I would have got on like a house on fire with Peter himself.
He was a really astute, dedicated, grounded policeman who had worked his way up through the force - he was a detective in Soho and Westminster, so he'd definitely seen some action, so he'd dealt with murders before - but nothing could have prepared him for this case.
The eyes of the media were on them, the hierarchy at the Metropolitan Police, him and his team were under a huge amount of pressure to identify the victims, to get closure for the families and ultimately seek justice.
You've played real people before in drama and a number of policeman too! How did DCI Peter Jay compare?
It was a wonderful character to bring to life. A lot of the time with these true crime dramas, they're so infamous and so controversial and I've had experience with that type of drama in the past.
I've done Colin Parry for Mother's Day, we did The Interrogation of Tony Martin and then going back all the way to Mrs Biggs. Even with Mrs Biggs it was from Charmian and Ronnie's point of view and with Des, it was from the point of view of Brian Masters, Nilsen's biographer and Peter Jay - and Nilsen is at the centre of that and they have to somehow get around him. Which brings Brian and Peter into conflict somewhat as well which were amazing scenes to play with Jason (Watkins).
More than anything, with Peter Jay I recognised that it was a wonderful role. We joke about the fact that I've played so many policeman but it really did make me feel that there wasn't a more qualified actor in the country to bring this character to life! It definitely helped me that I have played many policeman, it meant I was comfortable. The prospect of playing a policeman doesn't really bring me much fear.
Nevertheless it was about trying to get to Peter's humanity, trying to understand how this case affected him, because he was completely bruised by the end of it and left two years after the case.
Why do you think he left the police force?
One suspects that he had had enough of it and could never really top the Nilsen case. It had definitely left its scars on him. I think the bureaucracy in the police was ultimately what made him leave.
He went on to be a private investigator and Simon, his son, was an extra on the set with us and told us that when his father left the police force he'd actually latched onto the crimes of Harold Shipman and went to the CPS and tried to break that up.
They dismissed it. They just ignored it. And then he (Shipman) went on to kill countless people. I kept saying to Lewis - "There's our follow-up drama if there ever was one!"
It just goes to show you that he was such an incredible policeman and wanted to fight the fight and bring justice wherever he went. In a way, he's a complete unsung hero of the Nilsen case.
Lewis Arnold always said to me "Peter Jay is the heart and soul of it. He's the emotional heartbeat of it and you need to the audience on your side so they live and breathe every moment with him".
Des is also a brilliant investigation into how the police functioned at that time and how that would affect them. They didn't have counselling at that time, men of the eighties weren't opening up to their wives or whatever, they were down the pub having a pint and just getting over it that way. It took a huge toll on all of them.
Can you recall the first moment you saw David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen?
The first image that they released of David, I was in that room when that picture was taken.
Robert Viglasky our photographer, had his laptop all set up so he took it and then downloaded it and there were a few of us looking at the screen and it popped up and we all just looked at one another and went "Wow."
Everyone is going on about the resemblance between the two of them and that's all great, make-up and costume is always there to help on that front, but it's nothing without the embodiment of the character and the studying of the mannerisms, how his physicality is and how his voice sounds and perfecting everything.
David Tennant was so engrossed in that role. He embodied it so much.
This scene wasn't in the end piece, but there was a moment where we had to film him signing his statement and that everything that he said was true and he (David Tennant) signed it - and I was sitting on the same side of the desk - and he got his phone out and said "What do you reckon Danny?" and it was absolutely identical to Nilsen's signature.
I was startled by it because it was just a little nugget, a little insight into how much preparation he had put in. David Tennant is a phenomenal actor, he's one of the best actors this country has ever produced and you could tell that he had meticulously researched it and done his homework.
You just want to work with people like that. I've been such an admirer of his and to work so up close and personal with someone like that - and Jason Watkins, was just an absolute treat.
What were those interrogation scenes like to film between you and Nilsen?
We had a great read-through and then a couple of days of rehearsals. Any rehearsal on a TV project is so beneficial because you don't normally get the time.
It was clear when David stepped out on set in character that he was very much separate from us. He was quiet and you just instinctively respect that as an actor. I think he's gone on to say that it would have somehow been disrespectful to sit there in Nilsen's clothes and joining in with some of the banter that was happening.
And there was a lot of that going on. I had a lot of bonding and camaraderie going on with the police because we all went out after the first rehearsal to Brewdog in Soho and got completely wasted. We just naturally had that bond as the police. It was great. And it's a testament to all the brilliant ensemble in that police force that that really comes across. Which again, I'm really proud of. I've been tweeting and instagramming all the actors that played those parts.
Often, with these tough subject matters, there has to be levity when the scenes aren't being run because it can get quite draining.
There's a common misconception that all of Nilsen's victims were gay, but that wasn't the case was it?
No. And everyone does seem to think that. But when you get the opportunity to delve beneath the headlines, you learn that a lot of them were just vagrants, homeless or vulnerable young men. And who knew that Dennis Nilsen's first victim was a 14-year-old? When you look at it in the context of that, it's pure evil.
As much as anything, with Killing for Company being such a huge influence for the script, it was a psychological examination looking at how this person came to be. Even Dennis Nilsen wasn't born evil. He was shaped and formed through his childhood and the incident with his grandfather who was a fisherman and died at sea.
You have to find the layers in it and I think Luke Neal's script definitely did that.
What were some of your favourite scenes?
I love the two pub scenes with Jason Watkins, particularly the first one - because it's like this very strange blind date that they've been set up. As people they're poles apart and I just loved the exchange of them meeting in a pub and Peter introducing himself and says "Drink?" to which Brian replies "No" and the look on my face is like, oh my God he's in a pub and refused a drink. There's then an amazing scene which follows that.
I obviously adored the interrogation scenes working closely with David but I particularly liked the storyline with Chanel Cresswell's character (Lesley Mead). I had a great phone call this week actually from my mate Dave Nath, the director who shot The Interrogation of Tony Martin, he loved Des and I guess why I love Dave so much is that he completely pinpointed my favourite scene in the show that I was involved in.
So my favourite scene, which he also picked out, was in episode three where I come out for a cigarette and I see her sitting there smoking and I say sorry to her. I just think it's a really lovely beautiful moment. There's not much that's said from my character, but nevertheless the torment and cost of this case is all there in that scene. I think that would have to be my standout scene.
Chanel was incredible to work with. I've loved her stuff since This is England so again, that was another example of the quality and depth in the ensemble.
It got a lot of people talking on Twitter so I have to bring it up. The smoking in Des. How many did you get through and are you surprised people picked up on it?
Well thankfully they were herbal cigarettes and they did have a filter in them. It wasn't as bad as everyone is making out. If they were real cigarettes I probably wouldn't be here talking to you now. It was in the hundreds, because as you can imagine with filming over and over you have to keep repeating it.
Peter was a heavy smoker, he was on 40-a-day or something stupid. A little bit of insight for you, when he lights his first cigarette in the show, after Jay Simpson's character (DS Chris Healey) comes in and tells him that remains have been found at Cranley Gardens, I said to Jay why don't you don't you say to me - "I thought you were giving up?" - and I'll say "I am" - and as it unfolds he keeps smoking more and more as the case intensifies.
So it was my idea to ad lib the line and I was secretly thrilled that Luke and Lewis decided to leave that little idea of mine in, so that added to it.
I think what's quite shocking about it in this day and age is that you did see people lighting up in the workplace or in a restaurant and I'm old enough to remember smoking in pubs. And you were able to smoke in the back carriage on the tube and on planes, so in 2020 when you see that it's mind boggling that we were allowed to do it.
But it's atmospheric and it definitely adds to the tension. It just so happens that the three lead characters in this show were ridiculously heavy smokers, but that's how it was.
I know David Tennant has said he's pleased Nilsen wasn't around to see that an ITV drama about him was being made. Do you feel the same?
Totally. Having looked at Dennis Nilsen he would have probably been over the moon that David Tennant was playing him in a story of his life. What the show does brilliantly is show how narcissistic Nielsen was.
There's a great line in the drama where the reporter says "What's he like?" and I say "Unremarkable." He was unremarkable. A lot of the time we spoke to the police who actually worked on the case, they said that he just didn't stop talking. He incessantly talked about endless stuff over and over.
The crazy thing is that when the police arrived, it was a case of him then unburdening himself and telling them everything. He just didn't stop.
Why do you think people enjoy true crime and true crime dramas so much?
To quote the drama itself, David does have a line where he says that humans are fascinated by the macabre, they are always drawn to the dark compulsions of people. I guess that's why people slow down on a motorway to view a car accident, because we are fascinated with that element of things.
I also think anything that's a true story, and particularly with something like the Nilsen case, it's mind boggling, it's unfathomable that this guy was able to get away with this in a four-and-a-half year stretch. We're always going to be fascinated by that.
It's that thing of holding a mirror up to nature and thinking "I hope I never turn out like that" or never get involved in something like that in my life. That's the power of drama. We can always be there as actors to entertain and make people laugh, but sometimes the darker side of things and the bleak nature of things, you have to go to those stories and be as truthful and honest and open as you can.
I've really been enjoying all the behind-the-scenes pics you've been posting on social media...
You don't think it's too much do you? I've had a couple of actors go "Fucking hell Danny. Stop tweeting so much!"
Honestly, I am so aware of all the hard work that has gone into something that I just think, you know what, it's never going to be released again so just throw the kitchen sink at it.
There's no point making these shows if you don't get an audience to watch. It sort of defeats the purpose. The work is the work and that's really honourable and enjoyable and you get so much out of it, but if you don't find an audience, what's the point of it?
I never really wanted to go on social media but then I found out that certain actors I really respected were on it. I actually enjoy the endeavour of highlighting the work that I'm in and selling it to the audience.
Especially as some of the attention to detail can get missed on TV...
Yeah. They mocked up this beautiful police badge which I tweeted out, which was so meticulous, all the wording and even the photograph.
It was brilliantly done and it's great to allow the viewers to look behind the curtain once the show has come out. I mean, I love that. I love EPK interviews and seeing how this whole thing is created.
Other actors won't embrace it as much. David Tennant for example is not on social media and that's just how that guy rolls.
I'm a bit different! As my wife says, "Danny, you're an open book." But there you go. Twenty years ago, social media wasn't there. It's such a powerful tool to connect with your audience and get everybody on board. It's really gratifying that people can message you and express how much the show has meant to them. It's a great thing.
And I have to say, our stills photographer on Des, Robert Viglasky has done an absolutely incredible job so I've been name-checking him on all the pics that I've put out. He's a really really talented photographer, he's worked on Peaky Blinders and lots of other productions. They're beautiful photos to look at so I thought I'd big him up as well.
There's an amazing shot of David Tennant coming up out of the gallows in the court from behind - just his silhouette - which I think is a stunning picture.
What did you go on to film after Des?
Because I'd gone back-to-back, I'd filmed Temple, Code 404, White Lines - which was a massive undertaking, travelling back and forth to Spain - and then jumped straight into Des, I knew I wanted to not work for a bit. I wanted to just chill out and put my feet up and see what comes in next.
That basically then turned into seven months of lockdown! In a way it was amazing for me to have that proper time at home with my family. The benefits of that were incredible but it can sometimes be too much of a good thing and I was itching to get back to work.
Someone said to me that there are only ten productions shooting in London at the moment and Code 404 is one of them. We've got two weeks to go. We're really full guns blazing to be one of the first productions to make it through, to prove to the industry that it can be done.
It's two Covid tests a week, looking after yourself away from the set, not avoiding track and trace, being very sensible, washing your hands, social distancing, adhere to the rules - and you can get your productions made. It's vital that we carry on working.
After Code 404 you're filming series two of Temple, is that right?
Yeah, we've got to shoot a second series of Temple which is really exciting because there was a huge cliffhanger at the end of the first series. The Scandinavian series only did one series of that so we've now got the opportunity to completely open up the story.
Having read all the scripts, it's totally unlike anything that you'll imagine it's going to be so I'm really excited to start that.
Des is available to watch now on the ITV Hub