Dennis Nilsen seemed so normal when I taught him, but serial killers can look and sound just like us 

During a seminar at Wakefield Prison, our writer came face to face with a bright and articulate man who had committed atrocities

Dennis Nilsen admitted killing at least 15 men and boys in the Seventies and Eighties
Dennis Nilsen admitted killing at least 15 men and boys in the Seventies and Eighties Credit: ITV

It is remarked more than once in the current ITV mini-series Des that the serial killer Dennis Nilsen seemed like such a normal bloke. When I met him, I thought the same thing.

It was the late Eighties, and he was incarcerated in Wakefield Prison, West Yorkshire, serving a life sentence for six counts of murder and two attempted murders. He had admitted killing at least 15 men and boys in the Seventies and Eighties, luring them back to his flat from various London bars. 

The much-publicised case had loomed large in my family’s horrified minds: the Cranley Gardens flat in Muswell Hill where some of the remains of Nilsen’s victims were discovered lay just down the road from the clothes shop my mother owned and ran in the area. The crimes had taken place so close to streets we knew well.

But as I sat in the passenger seat of the car that, years later, took me to Wakefield, I didn’t know I was about to encounter the man who had carried them out. 

I was a young lecturer in the French department at the University of Leeds at the time. A colleague in the Politics department used to travel to the prison once a week to teach inmates an adult education class.

“Perhaps you’d like to come and do a guest seminar?” he suggested one day. Without giving it much thought, I agreed.

He didn’t tell me who I’d be teaching, but when I entered the room at the high security prison - an unremarkable space resembling a sixth form college classroom - I knew the 10 men who sat in an expectant semi-circle before me must have done unspeakable things. It wasn’t my business that day to know what these were.

I had prepared a seminar on representations of race in the media, a subject I was then teaching, and felt no little trepidation about how it would be received. 

I needn’t have worried at all. All the prisoners dealt with the topic very sensitively indeed. They seemed interested and engaged throughout. 

David Tennant (pictured) plays Dennis Nilsen in the ITV mini-series Des Credit: ITV

One of them, however, stood out as being the most articulate and bright of the lot. He had a long scar down his face, which I later found out was where he’d been slashed by fellow inmates. Slouching back slightly in his chair, he displayed a real keenness to talk, and a thirst for discussing the subject, on which his views were quite liberal. 

It was a far more stimulating session, admittedly, than many I had sat through with young students at the university. These men didn’t have the same inhibitions, they just wanted to talk and to learn.

On the way back, in the car, the colleague who had brought me to the prison asked if I wanted to know who had been in the class. 

“All were murderers,” he told me. 

“And the really bright one with the scar?”

“That was Dennis Nilsen,” he said.

I still recall the shock I felt then, and my struggle to reconcile the intelligent, reflective man I’d just met with the utter barbarity of what it was he had done. 

The German political theorist Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” in an effort to make sense of the crimes of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann. Here was a bureaucrat who’d committed indescribable atrocities during the Holocaust. 

Nilsen was a bureaucrat too - a civil servant whose colleagues (according to the dramatisation, at least) initially denied the police access to his workplace without a warrant as they didn’t believe there was any way at all Nilsen could be guilty of anything. 

But evil people don’t have horns growing out of their heads. They can, like Nilsen, look and sound just like you and me. 

It was an unnerving experience: to come face to face with someone who seemed so ordinary, but who was, by his deeds, a monster.