01 January 2021 12:35
BBC's tense true-crime drama, The Serpent is a thrilling tale of a serial killer on the run. Starring the likes of Jenna Coleman and Ellie Bamber, the new series delves into the crimes of murderer Charles Sobhraj, his romantic relationship with an accomplice, and his eventual capture. But, what else is there to discover about the gripping story, and what happened to The Serpent in real life? Per the Radio Times, the BBC's latest offering centres on the case of real-life French serial killer Charles Sobhraj, who became the chief suspect in a murder spree which targeted Western travellers in South Asia throughout the 1970s. He was nicknamed The Serpent due to his evasiveness.
As the Independent reports, Sobhraj was eventually caught by authorities in 1976 and sentenced to 12 years in jail. A decade later, the notorious killer managed to escape from prison after drugging prison guards. However, he was eventually recaptured and sentenced to a further 10 years in prison. In 1997, when Sobhraj was released from jail he profited from his notoriety by giving interviews in exchange for money. However, after travelling to Nepal in 2003 — a country in which he could still face criminal charges — Sobhraj was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Per the Express, Sobhraj, who is reported to be in poor health, remains in the Kathmandu prison to this very day and has appealed his conviction on numerous occasions. Most recently in 2017, when the convicted killer petitioned a Nepalese court to adhere to the guidelines of Nepal's Jail Manual, which guarantees the automatic release of prisoners over the age of 72. French actor Tahar Rahim, of A Prophet and The Looming Tower fame, stars in BBC's The Serpent as Sobhraj and is joined in the drama by Victoria's Jenna Coleman and MotherFatherSon's Billy Howle, who portray Sobhraj's partner and accomplice Marie-Andrée Leclerc, and the Dutch junior diplomat Herman Knippenberg, respectively. As the Radio Times reports, the cast of the true-crime thriller also includes Ellie Bamber, Alice Englert, Mathilde Warnier, Gregoire Isvarine, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Fabien Frankel, Chicha Amatayakul, among others. The Serpent begins on Friday, Jan. 1 at 9 p.m. on BBC One. If you're one of the thousands of Britons who won't, as usual, be getting away to the beaches of South East Asia this winter, you can travel via your television. The Serpent is a stylishly lush crime drama starring Jenna Coleman and set in 1970s Thailand. Shot largely on location and side-stepping any signs of 21st-century mass tourism, the eight-part series is as visually alluring as you would expect. "We filmed in amazing locations," says the Victoria star, who traded crinolines and corsets for flares and statement blouses for the year-long shoot that was, inevitably, interrupted by the global pandemic. "We went to Hua Hin [a fashionable Thai beach resort] and a remarkable national park for a lake scene. Yet behind the beauty and artfully re-created costumes, the drama tells the story of a series of dreadful crimes. Get the latest TV and entertainment news direct to your inbox Thanks! You can unsubscribe at any time. The Serpent unfolds against a backdrop of the 1970s "hippy trail" when thousands of Western backpackers arrived in search of perfect beaches, plentiful sex and dope and a dose of Far Eastern spirituality. This, unfortunately, made some vulnerable to unscrupulous predators such as the notorious killer Charles Sobhraj (French actor Tahar Rahim) – the Serpent of the title – and his accomplice Marie-Andrée Leclerc, played by Coleman. In a fatal spree across southern Asia Sobhraj, a jewel thief, drug-dealer and, when it suited him, murderer, lured at least ten Western travellers to their deaths. Along with other women, the besotted French-Canadian Leclerc was a willing accomplice. Sometimes the couple's victims were told there was easy money to be made in a scam before they were killed. "It was not an easy piece to play because how can you portray someone who has no empathy?" says Coleman. "I don't know what it is [to be that way] and I think it is impossible for people like us to know." BBC Although Leclerc was equally complicit, it was Sobhraj, a super-confident borderline psychopath with a deep dislike of the hippy-trail counterculture, who handled the murders. "He did awful things," says Rahim, who came to fame as a fictional cross-border criminal in the 2009 film A Prophet. "I'm not glorifying him, but it's fascinating to study the psychology of those people. Even if you're not an actor you come to realise when he was a child, he was a street kid who had been abandoned by his father, by his country, mistreated by his mum. One step after the other, he fell into this terrible thing – killing people." The bodies of his female victims in Thailand (there were more in other countries) were separately found dumped in brightly patterned bikinis, earning Sobhraj his other nickname in Thailand, the Bikini Killer. "It's horrifying and at the same time it's fascinating," says Rahim. "People feel repulsion and fascination when they think of Leclerc and Sobhraj." If Rahim's portrayal of Sobhraj in the fashions of the day makes a very bad man look very good – part of the initial appeal to his victims, after all – it comes from diligent teamwork. "The costume designer did a lot of research on the fashion of the period," says Rahim. "And the pictures that we had of Charles and Marie-Andrée, they tried as much as they could to copy their style." "The shades were pretty amazing," says Coleman. "We had such a selection – I should have borrowed some from the set." ("I did take some!" says Rahim.) Coleman went well beyond the look of her character, losing herself in Leclerc's diaries, covering both the period of the murders and before. "The way she lived was completely delusional," Coleman says. "It was all about squashing all of it away and not letting the truth in. I think she was depressive and certainly unstable at times. She lived in this conflicted state, not acknowledging the murders that were going on. In her subconscious it was all about putting the truth away." Could Sobhraj's attractiveness, intense though it is as played by Rahim, have been enough to mesmerise Leclerc? "I know," says Coleman. "Why did she not walk away? What was it about Charles? I think Charles had this power over women. In her earlier life Leclerc was religious and the way she writes in her diary, it felt like this obsessive devotion to Charles. The way she pivots on what Charles does and how Charles treats her – it's like her every waking thought is this complete addiction to him. No matter what he does, even to the extent of murder." This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy. The Serpent airs tonight on BBC One. If you're looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.