Saturday, 9 October 2021

TV review: Des, ITV (2020)

David Tennant is good in this creepy true-life psychodrama about a serial killer. There’s a happy lack of suspense at the beginning as Des (Tennant) is apprehended by Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay (Daniel Mays) outside his home after human remains had been found in a drain by a plumber. The mystery then becomes the identities of the victims, with Jay and Detective Superintendent Geoff Chambers (Ron Cook) interviewing Des at length in order to be able to know who’s been killed. At least one name is what’s needed so that the police can charge Des with a crime.

A writer named Brian Masters (Jason Watkins) gets involved, like Truman Capote interviewing the perpetrators of the Herbert Clutter family killings. Masters keeps Des supplied with cigarettes – everyone seems to be constantly smoking in this drama, as though punters in the 1980s always had a fag hanging off the side of their mouths – and presses him with questions while endeavouring to convince Des that he’s, himself, trustworthy.

An undercurrent of unease tracking through the production is helped by good casting, Tennant making a fine villain by sensing that Des must be half sympathetic in order to succeed. Episode 1 screened on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) main channel on 24 September, replacing a rerun of ‘Midsomer Murders’, which is a show I like to catch on Friday nights. The 2020 procedural offers a very different experience because, unlike the older show, it’s trying for verisimilitude. ‘Midsomer Murders’ knows about its own lack of credibility – a murder every week in a small town in a remote part of rural England being examined by a sympathetic policeman with a clever wife and a humorous neglect of his offsider’s dignity – while ‘Des’ wants you to feel what it was like to be alive in Thatcher’s England with police offhand about investigating crimes committed against the most vulnerable members of the community – when London, a magnet for other parts of the kingdom, drew in more people than it could adequately care for. Some fell through the cracks, and in ‘Des’ they reappear as a list of people the killer, for some reason, decided must die.

What motivates Des is another mystery that needs resolution. Episode 2, which aired in Australia on 1 October is equally odd, offering a plot twist that’s suitably subdued in a way that cannot break the delicate fabric of the show’s poetic. Its strangeness enhanced by calm dialogue considering that Des, even when he loses his temper, never loses his cool, demonstrating an ability to exact cold revenge on the police he must’ve – you imagine – come to hate because he once worked there. 

Des is a piece of work without a model, quite different from the regular TV crim who makes an appearance in an interview room – plain metal table, bare walls, recording device – to be cajoled or threatened by investigating officers. He has attitude but there is no posturing. He’s sui generis. And ‘Des’ is “about” more than just the identity of a single killer, seeming rather to be talking about an entire generation, one I knew because it belonged to my parents, my uncle, my aunt. 

I had no criminals in my family, and in fact the clan had been more sinned against than sinning. An exceptional record of police involvement being in the case of my grandmother, who went missing in Adelaide at the time she was working as a governess, in the 20s (of last century), and then ended up in a Melbourne boarding house where she met my grandfather. She’d had a daughter but I never found out who my aunt’s father was and, in fact, my cousins are still trying to identify him. This is a story of displacement and some sort of hidden injustice, for whatever happened to my grandmother she was sufficiently wary of the possibility of shame that she never revealed the man’s name, but it is one that contains traces of the same feelings that animate ‘Des’, where nameless men end up buried in a nondescript suburban backyard. 

I might also reflect on the case of Molly Dean who was killed in the 20s on the streets of Melbourne and who was my grandfather’s cousin. Poor girl ended up dead too.

The final instalment of ‘Des’ screened on the night of 8 October to wrap up in three episodes an entertaining show that avoids overdoing the pathos. The writing is economical and secondary characters are given just enough time on-screen to deliver a boost to the plot without unnecessarily complicating the story. This is a quality production.

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