I’m not a big fan of ‘serial-killer’ movies, but I’ve been astounded by Arrow Films new BluRay release of the 1989 movie Cold Light of Day based on the case of Dennis Nilsen. It was written and directed by the-the 21-year-old Fhiona Louise, and is the only film she’s ever made. Regardless of the subject matter it is technically remarkably accomplished – as someone says on the commentaries says, “I couldn’t have done anything like that when I was 21.”

A highlight of this release is listening to Fhiona Louise explain on one of the commentaries how producer Richard Driscoll ‘blagged’ equipment and resources to make the movie ( most of the interiors were filmed on leftover sets just before the shutdown of Bray studios – possibly from the Denzel Washington movie For Queen and Country. The police interrogations were filmed in the canteen at Bray – apparently the scenes were so intense that Driscoll’s crew forgot to plug the freezer back in when they’d finished with the socket and ruined all the food. ). One irony of the extras is that Louise is filmed in a sunny Lockdown London for the location feature, and yet despite everyone having facemasks, the surroundings look much cheerier than the bleak London of 1989.

The movie stars Bob Flag (Big Brother in the John Hurt version of 1984) as “Jorden March” – an acknowledgement that this is not so much a film about Nilsen as a film inspired by Nilsen. It’s interesting that the main commentary is by Australian academics Dean Bradnum and Andrew Nette who see the film as part of a continuum with the austere Britain glimpsed in sitcoms like On The Buses and Rising Damp. They question the British establishment attitude towards true crime movies such as this and the 1977 film The Black Panther starring Donald Sumpter as Donald Neilson. They accurately identify the commercial risks of such films (neither is a laugh-a-minute) but also note that the mainstream media tended to close ranks against true crime movies. They raise an interesting point when they identify 10 Rillington Place as an exception to the rule – not only because it was made by a Hollywood director, but also because it had the intent to rehabilitate the reputation of Timothy Evans (John Hurt) who had been wrongly executed for Christie’s crimes.

It’s ironic that time seems to lend a distance, and Nilsen’s story was recently dramatised on ITV. Des, starring David Tennant as Nilsen, was the latest in a series of true crime dramas broadcast on the commercial channel. The different approaches of the two productions are interesting. Both movies start out from the moment when detectives arrive at Nilsen’s house to arrest him, but from then on the approach is different. For viewers who complained that the Tennant version didn’t show any murders, or depict what Nilsen had bubbling away in a large saucepan in the kitchen, Cold Light of Day is obviously a must-see. Des benefits from hindsight and making use of the interviews journalist Brian Masters conducted with Nilsen in prison (Masters is a character in the film played by Jason Watkins). Tennant gets to play Nilsen like Hannibal Lecter, teasing police as he tries to remember details of his victims. Daniel Mays also gives a more nuanced performance as the detective Peter Jay, humouring Nilsen in an attempt to identify the victims. This was, again, apparently true-to-life as Jay was a more cerebral, ex-Fraud Squad detective. However, it’s ironic how the facts tally with the current detective drama conventions (the cunning, charming psychopath versus the dogged detective).

By contrast, Cold Light of Day, is very much of its time. Bob Flag portrays “Jorden” as more passive than Tennant, and the extended interrogation scenes with Geoffrey Greenhill as Chief Inspector Simmons are much more aggressive, in line with Sean Connery in The Offence or John Thaw in The Sweeney. In short, it’s (obviously) how we would have imagined things to happen in the 1980’s. In light of the current Des-mania it would be interesting if the BBC could release the award-winning 1990 play Killing Time by Kevin Elyot (adapter of Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky and Poirot) which starred Pip Donaghy as another Nilsen figure. It probably wouldn’t add much to the sum of human understanding, but it would give us another insight into how we view our serial killers.