If you didn’t know it was a true story, you’d have trouble believing it. On New Year’s Day, in a slightly grim start to 2021 if I’m honest, BBC One kicks off its new eight-part series The Serpent. It tells the story of one Charles Sobhraj, a full-on psychopath who terrorised the Hippy Trail – a now largely inaccessible route between Europe and Southeast Asia once taken by young travellers – with a series of brutal murders in the mid-1970s.
Posing as a photographer or a gem dealer, he would charm his victims, drug them so that they thought they had dysentery, pretend to care for them and then rob them and dispose of them by means including strangulation, stabbing, drowning and in the case of two young Dutch backpackers, burning them alive. The series is twisty, turny and unbearably tense. By the end of episode three, my heart was going so fast I thought I needed a Covid test.
It’s not such a well-known story here, but in Southeast Asia, Sobhraj (played chillingly in the series by A Prophet actor Tahar Rahim) was headline news as recently as 2014, when he was convicted in a Nepalese court – while already serving one life sentence – of a murder he had committed nearly 40 years previously. The series director, Tom Shankland, though, heard of him many years before, while trekking in Nepal aged 18.
“You’re sort of looking out over the silhouetted Annapurna range, with the canopy of stars above your head, and just thinking, wow, this is so wonderful,” he tells me, “And then somebody, I think an Aussie I had just met, said, ‘Yeah, but you know, you’ve got to be careful, there’s this guy, him and his girlfriend, they meet you and they make friends with you, then they drug you and they kill you. And he’s in jail, but he always gets out. So, you know, don’t trust everyone.’” Shankland admits that, with the optimism of youth, his perturbation didn’t last long, but the story stayed in his mind until a few years ago, when he started idly wondering about making a thriller.
Though Sobhraj earned the moniker “the bikini killer” because two of his ten known victims were found wearing them, this isn’t a litany of dead women – he loathed them all, male and female, deeming them privileged white idiots (he was of Vietnamese and Indian origin, and was bullied for it at school in France). The drama does not glamourise him: from the four episodes I’ve seen, it’s been carefully calibrated to avoid making a star of its central, highly manipulative, narcissistic character. Instead, the narrative deliberately focuses on the people with whom he surrounds himself – and the people soon on his trail.
It’s entirely deliberate, says the series’ writer, Richard Warlow. “Sobhraj is the awful, dark anti-matter at the heart of the story that everything kind of pulls towards,” he says. Through the series, we sort of peel away a few layers and get inside, I suppose, a version of the truth of him.” One can never know, he concedes, what drives such a man, “but I think that seeing him the way others saw him is very important”.
The most fascinating of these others is Sobhraj’s lover, Marie-Andrée Leclerc, known as Monique (to Charles’s ‘Alain’), played brilliantly here by Jenna Coleman. “I enjoyed writing her more than perhaps anyone,” Warlow admits, “that trajectory is so interesting. You read about her upbringing in suburban Quebec, and how sad and lonely her life was. And then this man comes into it and offers himself as the alluring glamorous, eroticised cure for all of that. I think you can really see why she went on that journey and never stopped, because I think that the power of what he brought to her life was so great. I do believe it’s as mundane as: I was a drab, ugly, uninteresting young woman who became gorgeous and loved, at the centre of all parties and fun, and then desperate adventure and life lived in an extreme way. And he was the reason.”
Leclerc died in Quebec of cancer in 1984, so Warlow and Shankland never had to make the decision as to whether to speak to her. They did, however, spend time with many of the characters you see on screen, including Dominique Rennelleau, a man who Sobhraj and Leclerc adopted as a sort of general dogsbody under the guise of taking care of him while he was sick (no prizes for guessing how); Nadine Gires, the couple’s neighbour, who was the first to become suspicious of their activities, and Sompol Suthimai, the Thai Interpol officer who gets involved in the second half of the series.
Their most important source though was Herman Knippenberg, who in 1975 was an unassuming, very junior, honestly quite square Dutch diplomat (played here by Billy Howle) working at the embassy in Bangkok. He stumbled upon the case when the parents of a young Dutch tourist wrote to the Ambassador asking for help in locating their daughter and her boyfriend, who had seemingly disappeared. Again, no prizes for guessing what happened to them. Knippenberg was told to leave it alone by his superiors, but he couldn’t quite let it go, noting down reports and rumours until he found himself tracing the silken threads of Sobhraj’s complex web of lies.
“Herman is a very smart, very passionate, engaged guy, and he’s got the most unbelievable memory for everything,” marvels Shankland. It was Knippenberg’s evidence that helped convict Sobhraj the first time (he served 20 years in Tihar prison in New Delhi until 1997) and his prodigious memory for detail and meticulous record keeping meant he was able to draw on it again in 2004, by which time most of the warrants and evidence held by various authorities was lost. In the series, he emerges as the unlikely star, plodding along in his awful short-sleeved shirt, treading on the coat-tails of a murderer.
The one person the production team decided not to contact was Sobhraj, still in Nepal. “He’s a rampant self-publicist,” says Warlow, firmly. “I didn’t want to do anything that fed that, and also there’s zero chance of getting anything insightful or true out of him.” Sobhraj, who has a history of charging for interviews and negotiating lucrative deals for film rights, is adept, Warlow says, at “monetising his notoriety, and I was very, very keen for that to not ever even surface as a possibility.”
Shankland agrees, citing Sobhraj’s “large level of narcissism and vanity and also a large level of bullshit” as reasons not to fan those flames. “This is absolutely in no way a Charles Sobhraj biopic. It’s about a time and a place and about people, and the many twisty turny ways that this man ended up being part of other people’s journeys.”
Many of those journeys ended horribly, of course, and yet most victims were dismissed over the years by police, press and public as somehow not important. For Shankland and Warlow, this is one of the reasons to make the series. “It’s a long time ago now, but not so long,” Warlow says. “There’s a lot of people close to them who are still around.”
“Sobhraj was somehow almost rehabilitated in the court of public opinion in later years,” Shankland adds. “He convinced everyone that these people who he ‘might or might not’ have murdered, these victims, were subhuman in some way – drug addicts, drug dealers. Not worth our compassion.” Some of the victims’ families were unwilling to be in contact, he says, “I think because a lot of the tellings of this story have slightly leant into that narrative.
“For me, for all of us, and especially Herman, that’s important – the idea that we can say: no, they weren’t, they were just young people, some of them were slightly up to no good but no one deserves what happened to them,” Shankland says. “They all had lives and people they loved and who loved them and who they were lost to. The ability to reclaim the truth of those victims’ lives has been an important one.”
The series’ depiction of Sobhraj’s first victim, Teresa Knowlton, bears this out. A young woman en route to a monastery to study Buddhism, she meets Sobhraj and his sidekick Ajay Chowdhury on her last night of freedom, a night of saying yes to everything. It backfires, of course, but not before she twigs that she’s been drugged – too late to coherently ask for help. It’s heartbreaking, all the more so for the time spent earlier in the episode establishing her open heart and sincere faith.
Sobhraj always knew what he was doing when he chose his victims, Warlow thinks. “There’s a sort of snake charmer vibe about him… I do confidently feel that that anybody who was balanced and mature enough to see the world for what it is, wouldn’t have been seduced by him. He chose people who were seduceable and suggestible, and didn’t waste his time with anybody who wasn’t. I think in many ways, he saw what people needed – he understood what people were lacking in their lives and presented himself as the means by which that absence might be filled.” Hopefully this series will serve as a reminder of what those lives could have been.