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Finding justice: True-crime series ‘Des’ looks at one of the most infamous criminal cases in UK history

David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen in “Des.” (Courtesy of Sundance Now)

After months of staying at home, Daniel Mays isn’t wasting any time.

He just wrapped filming on one project and is already on set for another.

“I’m going back to back,” he says in a recent interview from England. “Having not acted for seven months, when you finally do go back, you realize how much stamina is needed. It hits you like a train.”

Mays is also celebrating the release of the series “Des,” available to stream on Sundance Now. The series debuted in England earlier this year and became the highest rated series.

“Des” is a true-crime drama focusing on one of the most infamous criminal cases in UK history – Dennis Nilsen. Known as the “kindly killer,” Nilsen, played by David Tennant was a local civil servant who spent five years murdering boys and young men he met on the streets of London’s Soho from 1978 to 1983. He would meet and befriend these men before offering them food or lodgings for the evening back at his North London flat. His victims were often homeless or living off-grid, having slipped through the cracks of 1980s British society, and were, therefore, welcoming of this stranger’s apparent generosity.

When he was finally caught on Feb. 9, 1983, Nilsen had murdered a total of 15 men over five years, making him Britain’s most prolific serial killer of the time.

A scene from the series “Des” on Sundance Now. (Courtesy of Sundance Now)

After his arrest, Nilsen was astonishing in his honesty: admitting outright to all 15 murders in the police car outside his flat. But infuriatingly for the investigating detectives, he couldn’t remember any of his victims’ names. With no apparent motive, inconclusive forensic evidence, and most of Nilsen’s victims living off-grid, the police started the biggest manhunt in UK history. This time not for the murderer, but for the murdered.

The story is told through the eyes of three isolated men – a detective, a biographer and Nilsen himself.

Detective Peter Jay, played by Daniel Mays, and the attempt to get justice for as many victims as possible provide the narrative and emotional spine, and the relationship between Nilsen and biographer Brian Masters, played by Jason Watkins, allows viewers to delve into Nilsen’s mind.

“It’s a mind-boggling story,” Mays says. “It’s about the psychological aspect of it all.”

Mays went into the role of Jay knowing that he was the heart and soul of the series.

“He’s the meat and bones of it all,” Mays says. “Peter is the investigating officer, and he shoulders a lot of the stress and pain. It was my job as an actor to gain the trust of the audience with empathy.”

Mays says there was something incredibly particular about the police officers in London during the 1980s.

David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen in “Des.”(Courtesy of Sundance Now)

“There was no counseling,” he says of officers in the 1980s. “Peter had to go through this ordeal. He worked his way up through the force and saw a significant amount of horror. I had to take a step back and internalize everything. Peter’s responsibility is to the victim and he will carry that burden until it’s figured out.”

Mays says one of the hardest elements of portraying Jay was all the smoking he had to do.

“The challenge was to encapsulate the embodiment of Peter,” he says. “It was a brilliantly written role. Peter had a failed marriage and four boys. As he began to find out who the victims were, that’s when his personal life starting going downhill.”

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