In its grim drama about serial killer Dennis Nilsen, ITV has not shied away from the grisly details of his horrific crimes.
But some viewers of Des were struck by the depiction of a more mundane form of antisocial behaviour – the amount of smoking shown on screen.
Both David Tennant, who played the mass murderer, and Daniel Mays, as the detective who snared him, were rarely seen without a lit cigarette in their hands.
Some viewers of Des were struck by the depiction of a more mundane form of antisocial behaviour – the amount of smoking shown on screen
In fact, cigarettes featured in 46 scenes, taking up 13 minutes 47 seconds of screen time during the acclaimed three-part series. Viewers wondered if that was a record for a contemporary drama.
Set in 1983, more than 25 years before smoking was banned in UK workplaces, the acclaimed programme depicted Tennant smoking 14 cigarettes as Nilsen.
Line Of Duty star Mays, who played DCI Peter Jay, lit up 23 cigarettes, beginning within five minutes of the series starting.
Before the show aired, Mays said it had been important for him to present a fully rounded picture of Jay, who died of cancer at the age of 79 in 2018. ‘When I met Peter’s widow, she said he was on 50 to 60 cigarettes a day so he was a really, really heavy smoker,’ he said.
‘One can really imagine he was smoking even more under the pressures of that police investigation and with the eyes of the media on him. That was definitely a conscious choice I made to not be afraid of smoking on screen.’
On camera, the actor smoked not tobacco but ‘horrible herbal things’, and was presented with an award for ‘most cigarettes smoked on screen’ by the series’ director.
As Nilsen, former Doctor Who Tennant chain-smoked his way through a series of police interrogations and meetings with his biographer Brian Masters, played by W1A’s Jason Watkins, who was shown smoking eight cigarettes.
John Sutherland, an English professor at University College London, noted how DCI Jay ‘took up smoking as a stress aid while Nilson smoked as something stylish, and then to assert dominance – and, one suspects, to cover the smell of rotting corpses’.
As Nilsen, former Doctor Who Tennant chain-smoked his way through a series of police interrogations and meetings with his biographer Brian Masters, played by W1A’s Jason Watkins (pictured), who was shown smoking eight cigarettes
But Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, defended the depiction of smoking in the series.
He said: ‘Smoking was excessive at that time. I grew up as a non-smoker and you expected to be enveloped in other people’s smoke if you went into a restaurant or sat on an aeroplane. Every film in a cinema was watched through a curtain of smoke. Looking back, I don’t know how we could stand it, but we had no choice. The non-smoker was the odd one out.’
Others wrote ‘They can get gritty without the characters smoking in every scene’, and ‘Just wondered if it’s been sponsored by Benson and Hedges. The only one not smoking is Nilsen’s dog’.