Dennis ‘Des’ Nilsen is Far From David Tennant’s First Psychopath Role

The star of ITV’s serial killer drama Des, David Tennant has been playing evildoers ever since a 1995 episode of The Bill

David Tennant in ITV Des
Photo: ITV

David Tennant’s transformation into serial killer Dennis Nilsen for ITV’s Des was unsettlingly convincing. It wasn’t just the physical resemblance, though under that hairstyle and behind those 1980s glasses frames, the similarity was remarkable. It was also the posture, the unwavering eye contact, and the voice; mumbling and unconcerned, listing the terrible details of Nilsen’s crimes as if reciting a recipe instead of multiple brutal murders. 

As Nilsen, Tennant pulled off what every actor hopes to in a real-life role – a disappearing trick. He slid clean inside the role, leaving no trace of The Doctor, or Simon from There She Goes, or the demon Crowley, or Alec Hardy, or his funny, self-deprecating public persona. For those three hours on screen, he was nothing but Nilsen.   

The role is one in a long line of on-screen psychopaths for Tennant. He might be best loved around these parts as excitable, convivial romantic hero the Tenth Doctor (who, as noted below, also had his villainous moments), but David Tennant has been playing bad guys for decades, starting with a 1995 episode of ITV police procedural The Bill

Steven Clemens in The Bill, ‘Deadline’ (1995)

In his early 20s, David Tennant went through a rite of passage for the UK acting profession: he landed a part in The Bill And not just any old part on The Bill, this one was a peach. Tennant wasn’t cast as some kid DC Carver caught snatching a granny’s handbag – he played psychopathic kidnapper and murderer Steven Clemens.

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When 15-year-old schoolgirl Lucy Dean (an early role for Honeysuckle Weeks) was abducted after receiving threatening phone calls, the caretaker from her school was brought in for questioning. What followed was a high-stakes game of Blink between Tennant’s character and Sun Hill Station’s finest. Clemens toyed with the police, first denying responsibility and then refusing to tell them where he’d stashed Lucy. It’s a big performance, as suits the soap-like context, but even then Tennant made a good villain, revelling in his evildoing. Clemens came a cropper eventually when Lucy was found alive and the investigation linked him to the kidnap and murder of another schoolgirl. Watch the whole episode here

Barty Crouch Jr. in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Skipping forward a decade, Tennant’s most mainstream cinematic baddie to date is Death Eater Barty Crouch Jr. in the fourth Harry Potter film. Crouch Jr. was the Voldemort supporter who engineered Harry’s entry into the Triwizard Tournament, and turned the winning trophy into a portkey that delivered Potter straight into Voldemort’s waiting arms (well, Voldemort was sort of soup at that point, but bit of magic and voila – arms!).

Crouch Jr. did all this while magically disguised as Brendan Gleeson’s character Mad-Eye Moody, so Tennant’s actual screen time in the film is pretty limited. In his few short appearances though – in a flashback to his Ministry of Magic trial and after his disguise is rumbled – Tennant makes a real impression as the unhinged, tongue-flicking baddie.

The Time Lord Victorious in Doctor Who ‘Waters of Mars’ (2009)

The majority of the time, the Tenth Doctor was a sweetie – big grin, lots of enthusiasm, two hearts full of frivolity and love. Every so often though, Ten’s genocidal, survivor-guilt past rose to the surface. Never cruel, never cowardly, no, but sometimes a bit… murdery and drunk on power. 

One such occasion was his brutal extermination of the Racnoss children in Christmas special ‘The Runaway Bride’, and another was his Time Lord Victorious trip at the end of ‘Waters of Mars’. In the special, Ten changes the events of a fixed point in time to save the lives of Captain Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan) and her surviving crew, bringing them back to Earth in the TARDIS instead of leaving them to die. Realising the serious ramifications of his timeline meddling, Brooke confronts the Doctor about his arrogance, and puts the mistake right. It doesn’t take Ten long to come back to his senses, drop the god act, and realise he’s gone too far, and it’s David Tennant’s ability to convincingly play both the power-crazed god and the devastated man that makes him one of the best in the business. 

Kilgrave in Jessica Jones (2015)

David Tennant played a bonafide demon from actual hell in Good Omens, the TV adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s 1990 novel, but Crowley still had nothing on his Jessica Jones character.

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The first series of Marvel’s Jessica Jones on Netflix won acclaim for its depiction of a coercive, abusive relationship through a comic book fantasy lens. David Tennant was Kilgrave, a villain with the power of mind control following experiments conducted during his childhood. Instead of using his power for good (convincing people to pick up litter, be kind to animals, etc.), Kilgrave exerted his will on the world at large, bending those around him to his sick desires. When he stumbled upon super-powered private investigator Jones, he didn’t stop at using her super-strength for his own ends. Kilgrave also used his powers to keep Jones hostage and manipulate her into coerced sex. Jones’ battle to escape Kilgrave was powerfully acted by Krysten Ritter and David Tennant, who had the range to show Kilgrave’s ‘charm’ as well as his chilling megalomania. 

Cale Erendreich in Bad Samaritan (2018)

Director Dean Devlin followed up weather-disaster flick Geostorm with Bad Samaritan, a dark psychological thriller about a small-time crook who gets into the bad books of a wealthy sicko when he stumbles upon his dark secrets while burgling his house. Misfits’ Robert Sheehan plays the burglar, and David Tennant plays the loaded psycho whose obsession with technology earned him the nickname ‘Evil Bruce Wayne’. Cale Erendreich is a Patrick Bateman-like moneybags psycho with a sick taste in torture. Overall, the film itself isn’t a huge amount of cop, but boy, does Tennant commit.

Dr Edgar Fallon in Criminal ‘Edgar’ (2019)

Netflix’s multi-lingual European series Criminal takes the best bit of Line of Duty – the police interview scenes – and strips away everything else. Every episode has a new case, a new interviewee, a new lead actor, and a team of cops trying to break them within a limited time frame. 

Kicking it all off with the first UK episode of series one (a second run is available to stream now) was David Tennant as Dr Edgar Fallon. You’ll have to watch the 42-minute episode to know whether or not Fallon is guilty of the crime about which he’s being interviewed (the rape and murder of his 14-year-old step-daughter), but Tennant is chilling and magnetic enough as the well-spoken English doctor to keep you guessing.

Dr Tom Kendrick in Deadwater Fell (2020)

When a tragedy occurs in a Scottish village, suspicion falls on those closest to the victims. David Tennant plays local GP Tom in Channel 4 drama Deadwater Fell, a four-part series available to stream on All 4, about how a small community responds to a terrible event. Is Tom really the perfect family man he appears to be, or is there something else under the surface? Without giving anything away in terms of plot, Tennant moves fluently between the roles of victim and villain in the audience’s mind as this empathetic, clever miniseries twists and turns. 

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Dennis Nilsen in Des (2020)

David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen in ITV's Des

This starring role is the culmination of years spent clocking up experience on how to unsettle on screen. As real-life Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen, David Tennant is chillingly perfect. It’s both an on-point impersonation and a disquieting performance that conjures up this peculiarly banal killer. Tennant is ably aided by co-stars Daniel Mays and Jason Watkins as, respectively, Nilsen’s arresting officer DCI Peter Jay and biographer Brian Masters. It’s a triangle of excellent actors at their best, making for a compelling three-parter.