The Nilsen Tapes: The true story behind Netflix’s new documentary about Scottish serial killer

Dennis Nilsen confessed to having killed 15 young men and boys in the 1970s and 1980s

Clémence Michallon
New York City
Wednesday 11 August 2021 19:45
Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes trailer

Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes, a new true-crime documentary coming to Netflix, focuses on Dennis Nilsen, a Scottish serial killer who was active in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

When he was arrested in 1983, Nilsen confessed to having killed 15 young men and boys. Eight of his victims have been named; seven remain unidentified.

Born in 1945 in Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire, Nilsen joined the British Army as a teen and trained as a cook. He left the Army in 1972 after 11 years and, as reported by The Herald, worked as a security guard, then as a civil servant at a job centre.

In 1978, there began a five-year period during which Nilsen, as summarised by Netflix in a synopsis for Memories of a Murderer, “picked up vulnerable young men, lured them back to his home and strangled them, before disposing of their bodies under the floorboards”.

One of the homes of British serial killer Dennis Nilsen at 23 Cranley Gardens in Muswell Hill, London

Nilsen’s eight identified victims have been listed as: Stephen Holmes, 14 (who was Nilsen’s first victim in 1978); Kenneth Ockenden, 23 (1979); Martyn Duffey, 16 (1980); William Sutherland, 26 (1980); Malcolm Barlow, 23 (1981); John Howlett, 23 (1982); Graham Allen, 27 (1982); and Stephen Sinclair, 20 (1983).

Nilsen was arrested on 9 February 1983 after human remains were discovered in the drains at his residence in Cranley Gardens, Muswell Hill, in north London. When speaking with detectives, Nilsen is said to have confessed his crimes quickly. His trial on six counts of murder began in October 1983; Nilsen was convicted on all six counts in November of that year.

Nilsen was sentenced to life in prison. He died in custody on 12 May 2018 at the age of 72.

‘Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes’ airs on Netflix on 18 August

Netflix’s 84-minute documentary is “set against the backdrop of 1980s Britain, when mass unemployment drew young men to London in search of their fortunes, only to find themselves destitute and easy prey”. It includes “interviews from police, journalists, survivors, bereaved families”, and Nilsen’s own recordings.

“The truth about how and why [Nilsen] killed has been the subject of much speculation in books and documentaries over the decades since,” Netflix noted in its description of the programme.

“Now, with unique access to a wealth of personal archive left in his cell after his death, including over 250 hours of never-before-published cassette tapes of his private recordings, this film will take us into Nilsen’s world. From a young boy growing up in a quiet Scottish fishing village to a cold-blooded murderer prowling the streets of London.”

Nilsen was portrayed by David Tennant in the miniseries Des, which aired in September 2020 on ITV.

Memories of a Murderer: The Nilsen Tapes airs on Netflix on 18 August in the UK and in the US.

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