British TV viewers have recently had the chance to see a typically serious drama about serial killer Dennis Nilsen, the much-acclaimed Des, which – like most British TV dramas dealing with unsavoury criminals – was almost hand-wringingly ‘responsible’ and only dealt with the aftermath of his crimes, lest it be accused of sensationalism. Unlike American TV and filmmakers – where barely accurate movies about serial killers are made as soon as they are convicted (and sometimes before they are even arrested) – British TV producers fret continually about being seen as exploitative, even though no one is forcing them to make these dramas about notorious real-life murderers to begin with. Frankly, there’s something rather more honest about the US approach, which unashamedly revels in the fascination that there is for true crime, the more grotesque and horrifying the better.
True crime drama these days plays second fiddle to a seemingly endless stream of breathless documentaries about serial killers mass murderers and sex criminals – there are entire channels that seem to show little else, complete with leering reconstructions and cod-psychoanalysis by fame-hungry psychologists who probably hadn’t even heard of the killer in question before the show producers got in touch. And then there are the mind-bogglingly crass variations – as I write this, some bottom-of-the-barrel UK TV channel is showing some breathless ghost hunting show taking place in Ted Bundy‘s old house, which is suggesting that Ted had performed Satanic rites and was possessed by a demon when committing his crimes.
With all that in mind, it’s hard to believe that in 1993, absolute outrage and legal action greeted the ITV documentary Viewpoint ’93: Murder in Mind, thanks to the inclusion of a video interview with Nilsen. For those unfamiliar with Nilsen, think of him as a British Jeffrey Dahmer: a repressed and socially awkward gay man who handled rejection badly, killing the young men he brought home for one night stands once they tried to leave, mutilating, cannibalising and possibly having sex with their corpses. One of the worst people ever to live in Muswell Hill, Nilsen was – like Dahmer – clearly insane, but judged responsible for his actions by the legal system. He was also highly intelligent, and had a rare level of insight into his crimes, while still being arrogant and defiant – think of a pompous version of Ed Kemper and you might be close. Clearly, an interview with him could provide a fascinating insight into the mind of a serial killer, and while the public might not actually need that insight, there’s no denying that it had a public interest that went beyond the prurient.
Lots of people have interviewed American serial killers, but the British authorities have long had a very different attitude – the belief that allowing interviews with murderers will cause distress to their victims’ families, which may be true, but seems more an excuse than anything. Anyway, the footage of Nilsen in the documentary caused quite the kerfuffle, as it clearly went against Home Office rules. The interview had been shot by clinical psychologist Paul Britton, who saw himself as an FBI-style criminal profiler and would soon reach infamy as the man who told the police how to frame Colin Stagg for the murder of Rachel Nickell in 1992. In a move that might have alerted the authorities to his reliability, Britton claimed that the three-and-a-half-hour interview was for police training purposes, but along for the ride was Viewpoint ’93 producer Mike Morley, whose career has otherwise consisted of shouty Friday night debate show Central Weekend and the ludicrous Cook Report.
Viewpoint ’93 was a low-rent current affairs show with a taste for sensationalism and moralising – I recall seeing a typically fretful episode about the dangers of porn. Murder in Mind was the show’s bid for the big time, a much-hyped episode that would establish it in the current affairs big leagues. And central to it was the Nilsen interview. The documentary – exploring the motivations of serial killers and the law enforcement efforts to stop them. in included interviews with American killers Arthur Shawcross and Robert Berdella, both of which included some pretty brutal descriptions of their crimes, but nothing we hadn’t seen before. Nilsen was the ace in the hole, the money shot – outside the Moors Murderers and Peter Sutcliffe, he was Britain’s most notorious killer. Unfortunately for Central Television, the Home Office took out an injunction against the show in January 1993, a week before it was due to be broadcast. This meant that the documentary was previewed to the press without the Nilsen interview included, very much the serial killer documentary equivalent of a cable TV version of a hardcore porn movie, with the only scenes that anyone was interested in seeing conspicuously missing. The Home Office claimed, intriguingly, that the footage was a breach of copyright. Central TV, on the other hand, claimed that they had permission to film the interview (what it was to be used for was neither here nor there), did so openly and so had every right to broadcast it. In one of those cliff-hanging moments that is guaranteed to boost ratings, the injunction was overturned on the day of the broadcast, and an eager public tuned in to be horrified by Nilsen’s confessions.
The case didn’t exactly set a precedent – the Home Office and prisons became a lot more careful about who was allowed to film murderers, and (mainstream) television producers became a lot more sensitive about the whole idea of exploiting violent crime. Not adverse to doing so, obviously, but a touch more circumspect in the way they did it. Murder in Mind, meanwhile, was released on VHS and spawned a paperback tie-in – the only episode of the series to do so, you’ll be unsurprised to hear. The Nilsen footage has been seen several times since, in pretty much every documentary about Nilsen – and is now acknowledged as one of the best insights into the mind of a murderer, proving its value after all.