By Mairéad McCarthy
New Year’s Day saw a total of 5.5 million people tune into BBC One to watch the first episode of The Serpent. This eight-episode mini-series racked up a total of 31 million views across TV and the BBC iPlayer, making it the most streamed show across all genres since our very own Normal People aired in the midst of lockdown one last year. The show was available to binge from start to finish on the iPlayer, however for those of us watching outside the UK, hour long episodes every Sunday had to suffice. Thankfully, Netflix have agreed to bring The Serpent to screens worldwide from the 2nd of April. Viewers will get to stream all eight episodes uninterrupted.
This true-crime mini-series tells the true story of the infamous murderer and master of deceit, Charles Sobhraj, and the killing spree he carried out on the Asian hippie trail in the ‘70s. I myself will certainly be streaming the show right through from start to finish. The weekly episodes on television in the New Year left me on the edge of my seat with burning anticipation for the following weeks’ episode. This one is most definitely for a true-crime obsessed audience, but also those, like myself, who are obsessed with the music and fashion of the 1970s.
The Serpent stars Tahar Rahim as the cold-blooded killer Charles Sobhraj and Jenna Coleman as his lover and accomplice Marie-Andrée Leclerc. The two are accompanied by Sobhraj’s right hand man Ajay Chowdhury, played by Amesh Edireweera. The dynamic between these three characters is a sub-plot in itself. The French Sobhraj, born in Saigon, had been branded the serpent because of his ability to slither his way out of prison and weasel his way to escaping punishment for the myriad of crimes he had committed. Posing as a gem dealer, he preyed on innocent young travellers from across the globe who had come to embark on the famous Asian
hippie trail. The disappearance of a Dutch couple at the beginning, catches the attention of Dutch Diplomat Herman Knippenberg, played by Billy Howle, and his German wife Angela Knippenberg, played by Ellie Bamber. The series focuses on the extensive detective work carried out by the Knippenbergs in order to catch the slippery Sobhraj and ultimately bring him to justice. The real-life Herman Knippenberg has made sure his files on Sobhraj containing all of the information he has collected over the years stays open and updated.
The jumping timeline can be at times confusing. The series jumps between months and decades, so it is best to be wary of the dates and keep the timeline in the back of your mind (or just rewind!). The Serpent teeters on the edge of a glamourous portrayal of one of the world’s most twisted criminals while also paying respect to those who fell victim to his heinous crimes. The names of victims are changed out of respect to the families and to protect their privacy. While some poetic license is to be expected, the show does a brilliant job of capturing that ‘70s vibe and the blood-curdling nature of Sobhraj. As for casting, much of the cast are doubles for their real-life counterparts and bear striking resemblances, in particular Rahim who hides Sobhraj’s evil eyes behind yellow tinted aviators. While a lot of the scenes were shot on location in Bangkok, filming for the show had been interrupted by the onset of the pandemic and the cast found themselves using a town in Hertfordshire in England as a double for Thailand.
The music chosen for the soundtrack is comprised of French; UK; US; Thai and Dutch rock and disco music from the 1970s. Music from Serge Gainsbourg, The Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell and Boney M. accompany some of the most intense and emotional scenes of the series. The sensational soundtrack of some famous and some underground tunes from this era, along with the outfits worn by the characters, truly encapsulates the pure essence of the 1970s. It is available to stream from the BBC Sounds app currently, and many playlists have been made by fans on Spotify also.
Currently, Charles Sobhraj is serving a life sentence in prison in Nepal. He previously escaped prison twice before finally becoming incarcerated in Nepal in 2004 after he brazenly returned to Kathmandu a year earlier. He was imprisoned yet again and finally sent down after evidence uncovered by Herman Knippenberg came to the fore yet again and aided police in their arrest of Sobhraj. The series is a must watch for all fans of true crime, but also for anyone who loves a concise mini-series like myself. This one is jam packed and intense. It was undoubtedly hard to portray a series of events which occurred over decades in just eight episodes, but the show managed to do this and wrap it up quite well in the last episode. I would recommend streaming this series as soon as it becomes available on Netflix, you will be reeled in by the chilling Sobhraj and his accomplices and left hanging on the edge of your seat.