- Brian Donaldson
- 5 January 2021
Gorgeously compelling eight-parter about a smooth and sadistic serial killer
Over the past year, we've had major TV documentaries about Peter Sutcliffe, Beverley Allitt and Harold Shipman plus a highly acclaimed drama in which David Tennant transformed into Dennis Nilsen. In terms of modern notoriety, perhaps only Fred and Rosemary West were left without their own mainstream show (no doubt something on the Gloucester murderers existed in the murkier segments of today's streaming providers). Despite his long list of serial killing activities, Charles Sobhraj is far from a household name on these shores, no doubt due to the lack of a British name within his catalogue of victims.
During the 1970s, Saigon-born and Paris-raised Sobhraj (under the camouflage of a pseudonym or two) stalked the so-called 'hippie trail' trekked by young westerners across Southeast Asia, India and Nepal. Charming a way into the confidence of his prey, he would drug and poison them before eventually killing his victims in a variety of terrible ways. None of this could have been achieved on his own, so Sobhraj coerced two accomplices, his French-Canadian partner Marie-Andrée Leclerc and an Indian right-hand thug Ajay Chowdhury, into committing acts of subterfuge and kidnapping before they were able to comprehend the full gravity of their deeds.
Eight-part drama The Serpent (penned by Richard Warlow) paints this despicable world of Sobhraj (played with a chilling brilliance by Tahar Rahim), with impressive detail, the filmmakers utilising grainy stock footage from that era before dissolving into sharper cinematographic focus. Jenna Coleman and Amesh Edireweera are both excellent as Leclerc and Chowdury (the former Time Lord assistant in particular nailing her broken English without ever veering into 'Allo 'Allo! territory), while the good guy comes in the form of Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle), an ambitious young civil servant working in Bangkok's Dutch embassy who stumbles upon the case of two missing tourists, investigating further despite the stern disapproval of his superiors. Howle is superb in portraying the chain-smoking and permanently perspiring Knippenberg whose desperation and nervy determination to seek justice for the mounting number of missing youngsters, marks a dramatic contrast to the smooth, manipulative operator that is Sobhraj, whose large shades, larger collars and gem-stealing ways couldn't be more 1970s.
For a primetime BBC One drama, there's an admirable respect for foreign tongues with Dutch, Thai and French all competing for our ears (the sole misstep is the young Karachi beggar who appears to have more than a conversational grasp on English). With many dramas of our times, little damage would have been caused by trimming off an episode or two, but ultimately you'll be compelled to binge on the gorgeous glamour of The Serpent while recoiling in horror and disgust at its ghastly true story.
BBC One, Sundays, 9pm; all episodes available now on BBC iPlayer.