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THIS dramatised portrait of Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen opened with news footage of London’s homeless, and Margaret Thatcher being asked if she could offer any hope for the three million unemployed. She could not. It was 1983, the Tories were not working, there was no such thing as society. All that jazz. Only a blast of Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street could have made the scene more miserable.

It was in some ways an odd start. Thatcherism can be held responsible for many things, but Nilsen’s crimes are not among them.

Instead, placing the murders in the context of the times was a signal to the viewer that this was not going to be some shallow, exploitative, drive-by look at the horrific murders of at least 15 young men. This would be a careful whydunnit, not a howdunnit. As in Killing for Company, the Brian Masters’ biography on which it drew, Des would try to understand Nilsen.

It was a good six minutes – a relative eternity – before we saw Nilsen, played by David Tennant. He was shot from behind, on a bus, those now infamous specs catching the light. Then the Job Centre clerk was walking home to 23 Cranley Gardens – more infamy – where Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay (Daniel Mays) was waiting to talk to him about his drains. “Since when were the police interested in drains?” said Nilsen in his flat, Fraserburgh tones.

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From there it was into the house, the discovery of more remains, and on to the police station and the pathologist’s slab. Care was taken not to show the bodies, or what was left of them. The viewer knew enough about boiled heads and dissected corpses not to need such images, as when DCI Jay saw a pot on a stove and went to lift the lid. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you, guv,” advised an officer. It made a welcome change from dramas only too keen to show corpses, usually women, waiting for the scalpel.

As with the Netflix drama Mindhunter, which looked at the beginnings of criminal profiling, and ITV’s Appropriate Adult, about Fred West, Des looked as much at the people affected by Nilsen’s crimes as much as the man himself. DCI Jay, separated and missing his sons, would never sleep easily again, one feared. The cool writer, Masters (Jason Watkins), so confident that he would not be drawn into Nilsen’s orbit, soon found himself rattled by the psychopath’s taunting.

In a uniformly excellent cast it seems almost redundant to say Tennant was brilliant in the lead role. It is hard to find anything in which he has not shone, but this was outstanding. For an actor associated with lighter parts he made a thoroughly convincing prince of darkness.

His Nilsen was at once ordinary yet extraordinary. A boring, beige drone of a man who reeked of arrogance. A stone-hearted murderer who expressed pity for the way society treated his victims (the “bloody government” did nothing to help drug addicts, he ranted). Why did you kill, he was asked. “I don’t really know,” said Nilsen, blankly. “I was rather hoping you could tell me that.”

Whether the writers and Tennant can supply an answer to that question over the next two evenings matters perhaps less than might first appear. It may be there is no explanation. What came across loud and clear was Nilsen’s need to control people and events. In one terrific scene, DCI Jay offered Nilsen a cigarette, only to have the killer take the pack and reciprocate the gesture. He took Jay’s lighter too. The detective looked bewildered in a “How the hell did that happen?” way.

That was the question that ran through the first episode. As a reporter asked Jay, how could someone kill for five years, as Nilsen did, without the police knowing? Was it a simple case of vulnerable young men disappearing through the cracks in society and no-one caring enough to go looking for them?

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The late Nilsen may have his name in the title – he was known as “Des” to his colleagues – but he was not the one who mattered most here.

It will be an achievement indeed if Des can shift the focus away from the much-covered Nilsen and on to his victims and the families they left behind. In looking beyond him, the drama made his victims human, and important, again. That did not happen in 1983 and in the subsequent coverage of the trial.

Nilsen did not deserve respect, and this nuanced, moving drama saw to it he did not receive any.