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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

The Serpent

reviewed by Ben Soton

The Serpent, TV mini-series (2021–). Currently showing on BBC1, Sundays at 9pm, also available on BBC iPlayer. Stars: Charles Sobhraj, Jenna Coleman, Tahar Rahim, Billy Howle, Ellie Bamber. Writer: Richard Warlow.

Maybe I am too old, maybe I was always boring, but I have never understood the attraction of wandering around Thailand with a rucksack, smoking soft drugs and claiming to be discovering myself. The Serpent, BBC1’s latest Sunday night drama, would put off the most hardened backpacker, however. It is the story of the fraudster and serial killer Charles Sobhraj, played by Tahir Rahman. Sobhraj, born in Saigon in 1944, was the son of a Vietnamese shop worker and Indian businessman. His early years were arguably a product of the French colonial rule in Indo-China.

By the mid-1970s Sobhraj lived in Thailand with his French-Canadian girlfriend Marie-Andrée Leclerc, played by Jenna Coleman. The duo financed their lavish lifestyle through diamond smuggling, with Sobhraj using his victims’ passports as part of their operation. He has been known both as the Bikini Killer, due to his victims’ attire, and The Serpent, as a result of his cunning.

The drama depicts an era, although almost 50 years ago, that is still recognisable today; a time of global travel, casual dress and casual sex. This lifestyle came to be known as ‘The Hippie Trail’, which still exists today, or existed before the COVID-19 pandemic. It was these young people, easily trusting, somewhat naïve and unworldly, who became Sobhraj’s victims. I have to ask myself, why would a complete stranger offer you free board and lodging, when in all likelihood you have sufficient monies of your own, and at the same time insist on ‘looking after’ your passport?

Although there were obvious similarities, this was an era when crime detection was still carried out using paperwork, communication was still done using letters, and even e-mail was unheard of. As regards crime-detection, the local police take little interest in the disappearances, perhaps more interested in the repression of their own population than hunting serial-killers. The only person who appears remotely interested is Herman Knippenberg, a Dutch diplomat, played by Billy Howle. Knippenberg, as well as encountering indifference on the part of the local police, is advised by his superiors not to interfere. He is assisted by his highly supportive wife and gets limited help from Paul Siemons, played by Tim McInnery. An example of well-paid functionaries more interested in attending cocktail parties than looking after their citizens travelling abroad.

The drama contains sufficient suspense to enable making it a potentially successful crime thriller set in the past. A search on Wikipedia will inform you of Sobhraj’s fate, although the site will not tell you the fate of every character in the drama, giving added suspense to the drama.

The Serpent is an example of high-quality crime drama; it contains both suspense and an insight into the far-east in the 1970s. Meanwhile, if you are a parent and wish to discourage your children from going backpacking, I suggest you insist they watch it.