Charles Sobhraj and Marie-Andrée Leclerc in Paris

The Serpent – a review

in Reviews

Pissed-off Toff reviews The Serpent, a BBC mini-series which he enjoyed so much that he watched it all over again.

Among my father’s various peculiarities was his inability to follow the plot of any but the simplest of films. He could just about cope with The Colditz Story, in which the English are good and the Germans are bad. He could more or less get the gist of The Day of the Jackal, in which you have only to understand that Edward Fox is trying to assassinate de Gaulle. But with anything more subtle – a Le Carré spy thriller, for example – he was lost.

I fear that I have inherited this characteristic. The other day I sat through two hours of an action thriller without understanding anything apart from the fact that lots of people were being killed. And if any of the actors in any film look at all like each other, I get hopelessly muddled.

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Which brings us to the subject of the present review: The Serpent, an eight-episode BBC-Netflix co-production which had me hooked from the first moment. However, there was a great deal about it that I didn’t understand, so having binge-watched the whole series the first time round, I watched it again, pen and paper to hand and pause button at the ready on the remote. I was determined to unravel the plot. And in the end I got there.

Based on fact, the story is simple enough. The central events take place in late 1975 and early 1976 in Thailand, where a gem dealer called Charles Sobhraj and his accomplice Ajay Chowdhury drug and then murder a number of young westerners on the hippy trail in order to steal their passports and money. Together with Sobhraj’s lover Marie-Andrée Leclerc, they then go on an extended criminal tour of Asia, murder a couple more hippies, and return to Bangkok, much the richer. 

However, during their absence, an attaché at the Dutch embassy in Bangkok called Herman Knippenberg and a French woman called Nadine living in the same condominium as Sobhraj, get onto the case, and on his return to Thailand in March 1976, Charles Sobhraj, his lover Marie-Andrée and his accomplice Ajay are arrested.

But Sobhraj is not to be had so easily. Bribing a Thai official, he escapes with the two others and flees to Karachi. Having dumped the devilish Ajay in the middle of nowhere in Pakistan, Sobhraj next goes to Paris with Marie-Andrée, intending to set himself up there in the gem business. By now – and largely thanks to the unstoppable Knippenberg – there is an international arrest warrant out for them, so in June 1976 they flee to India, where an increasingly desperate Sobhraj returns to his old ways, this time attempting to drug a group of thirty German students. 

But it’s a trick too far, and it’s off to prison for both of them. Critically ill with cancer, Marie-Andrée is later allowed to go home to die. Sobhraj spends twenty-odd years inside; and when his sentence in India is over, in 1997, the statute of limitations for his murders in Bangkok has expired, so he cannot be deported to Thailand to face the death penalty. A few years later, however, he returns to Nepal, the scene of two of his other murders. And here, thanks again to Knippenberg, he is caught and sentenced to life imprisonment. 

As I write, he remains alive in a Khatmandu prison. Marie-Andrée is dead. And the evil Ajay has never been found.

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Explained in linear fashion, this sounds clear. Except that it’s not, because throughout the eight episodes of the series, the story constantly jumps backwards and forwards in time, from one country to another, with an endless succession of captions reading “six months earlier,” “nine months later,” “two years later,” “Paris 1973,” “Delhi 1976,” et cetera et cetera. Not only this, but we often revisit the same scene from a slightly different point of view. Oh, and there are also frequent tightly intercut sequences.

The purpose, presumably, is that like Knippenberg, whose pursuit of Sobhraj is the central theme of the series, the viewer pieces the story together, bit by bit, thus replicating the experience of the Dutch attaché and his band. This is perhaps a perfectly valid narrative device. But it is also hideously confusing … and the confusion is only aggravated by the fact that the producers regularly neglect to put the necessary time-related captions on the screen when the story jumps backwards or forwards. It was therefore only as a result of an extended forensic exercise that I managed to work out the timeline of events, as summarised above.

All of which might put you off watching this series. But no: you must watch it. It is gripping. It’s addictive. And it’s all there on BBC iPlayer.

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From the title sequence of the first episode, with its sinister imagery and theme music and its stylish typography, we know that we’re in for a treat … and the considerable combined resources of the BBC and Netflix duly transport us to the mid-1970s. In exotic locations across Asia and Europe, the world of my youth comes flooding back. The telephones with dials; the travellers cheques; the very earliest fax machines. And the clothes: broad lapels, white polo-neck sweaters, buttock-hugging trousers, huge dark glasses. And the Paris street scenes, complete with 1970s cars. How well I remember it. 

How do they manage to make something like this, today? Who knows? But the reconstruction of an increasingly distant past is a considerable achievement in its own right; and the costume and props departments must have had a field-day.

The action is set against the background of the diplomatic world in Bangkok, and the Asian hippy trail. It’s all perfectly recreated in every detail. Even though Herman Knippenberg is only the third secretary at the Dutch embassy in Bangkok, he and his German wife Angela live in a large and fully-staffed house, complete with a gardener. With its clubs, relaxed working hours and ample opportunities for fun of all sorts (episode 1), what was not to like about the expat life in those days? 

As for the hippy trail in Thailand, Khatmandu, Karachi, Delhi, Goa and elsewhere … it is again perfect in every last detail. Take, for example, the London-Nepal bus (episode 4) with its flower-power livery and cargo of young travellers smoking pot and playing guitars. “Shangri-La,” gasps one of the girls, shortly before the charabanc draws up outside the ‘Hashish Centre’ in Khatmandu, and as she looks out over the mountains where Charles Sobhraj is shortly to murder two of them.

Yes, in the days before smartphones and PayPal transfers, you could have a real gap year and a real adventure. How well I remember leaving London, in the spring of 1980, with a rucksack on my back and a thousand pounds in travellers cheques in my pocket, earned on a building site in the previous months …

What is so well suggested, however, is that the hippies who think they are rejecting western materialism and achieving spiritual enlightenment are doing nothing of the sort. So when, in episode 4, an American hippy girl goes to bed in Nepal with Sobhraj’s vile Indian accomplice Ajay, she persuades herself that it is a transcendental experience. “You are not a man and I am not a woman,” she intones. “We are one.” Whereas in fact she is being fucked by a lustful murderer in a foul cockroach-infested cell, and – little does she realise it – can think herself lucky to get away with her life, let alone her money and passport.

How naïve and vulnerable they were, so far from home … and what perfect prey for the likes of Sobhraj. But even when, back in Bangkok, the number of murdered young travellers becomes difficult to ignore, the authorities are not interested, and the diplomats even less so. “It’s not a diplomat’s job to go chasing after long-haired bums,” the Dutch ambassador tells his third secretary. And listen to this coarse young Australian attaché, sounding off in a Bangkok nightclub (episode 1): “Peace and love! They’re work-shy hobos, mate! […] Aussie hippy kids on their fucking hippy trip […] on some island living on coconuts and fishheads. Stupid fucking hippies.”

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This is one of the best and most memorable aspects of the series; because like the Aussie attaché, every single character is perfectly believable, perfectly cast, and perfectly acted. It is faultless.

As the decent and diligent Knippenberg, Billy Howle is ideal. So is Ellie Bamber as his German wife Angela, alluring in her white tennis skirt at the expat club; indeed, she looks like a sexier version of Renée Zellweger. And this is another thing that I so much like about this series: I’m fed up to the back teeth with Colin Firth and Julia Roberts and all the other smug super-stars too; and it’s a pleasure to see some new faces.

Tim McInnery, who acted the husband of the disabled woman in Notting Hill, is excellent as the dependable Belgian attaché Paul Siemons. “Your Dutch Reformist belief in progress has no place here,” he warns Knippenberg in episode 2. “There are a thousand murderers and scumbags in every city in the world,” he tells Angela in episode 7. “You can’t catch them all.” But the fundamentally decent Siemons nevertheless helps them, and with a will.

Sobhraj’s French neighbour Nadine and her dim husband Remi are also well done, by French actors … though it took me ages to understand that this couple are not intended victims of the murderer, but his neighbours in a condominium called Kanit House; and that dim Remi is not a hippy, but a chef, presumably in one of Bangkok’s grander international hotels.

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Then the villians. The bilingual Tahar Rahim – unknown to me before this, and oddly similar to Pierce Brosnan in looks – is faultless as a sinister, menacing Charles Sobhraj. The producers have been criticised for glamorising him. But whilst he does have an enviable physique and nerves of steel, he is hardly a role model. In episode 6, we learn that he spent time in prison in both India and Afghanistan, back in 1971-1972. And yes, he cleverly escapes custody in Bangkok, but subsequently spends twenty years locked up in India, and finally, in episode 8, is sentenced to life imprisonment in Nepal.

Not exactly glamourous, I’d say. Nevertheless, Sobhraj remains convinced, throughout, that he can outwit the authorities. “Rien ne peut nous arrêter,” he says to Marie-Andrée in episode 5, as he plans their escape from custody in Bangkok. “I have things under control.” Later, in Paris (episode 7), his mother warns him to be careful. “Jesus Christ died when he was 33,” she says (i.e. at around your age). “I’m smarter than Christ,” he replies … vanity being, ultimately, his weakest point.

But as a criminal who serves multiple more or less extended spells in prison, he must be considered a failure. With his talents as a forger, manipulator and gem dealer, he could surely find something half-legitimate to do. One can only conclude that Sobhraj is a compulsive liar and cheat. As his mother tells Marie-Andrée in Paris in episode 7: “Charles lies. He lies, always.”

Closely related to Sobhraj’s vanity is the thrill of the chase – the catch-me-if-you-can aspect. Why, otherwise, would he return to Nepal, where he murdered a young American couple, and advertise the fact? “Let’s make sure they know where I am,” he says in episode 8, as a photographer takes a picture of him standing in front of a Nepalese tourist poster. Thinking that he has outwitted them, he taunts the police. But this time they get him, in a way that he could never have foreseen.

Entirely amoral though he is, Sobhraj has nevertheless constructed a narrative to justify his murders to himself. “From the age of fifteen there was no-one and nothing that wanted me,” he tells Marie-Andrée in episode 2; and later says that at school in France he was bullied for being un petit métis (a little half-caste). So he is taking revenge on a world that has victimised him. Plus, he despises hippies. “Why do you think these white childen deny the comfort and wealth of the life they were given, to come to a place like this … worship the same gods, wear the same rags, live in the same filth?” he says to his accomplice Ajay in episode 4.

None of this will wash, of course. Sobhraj is, simply, a monster. The personification of evil, perhaps. As is his Indian accomplice Ajay, an entirely repellant Caliban figure, perfectly captured by Amesh Edireweera.

The evil Ajay

And what of Marie-Andrée, faultlessly acted by Jenna Coleman … though I do wish that her retroussé nose didn’t remind me so much of the ghastly Meghan Markle. In Kashmir (episode 2), she shows Sobhraj a scar on her thigh which, she says, means that no man will touch her. Granted attractions which include cupid lips, luscious hair and lovely olive-green eyes, this is hardly believable. But the point is that she’s needy. Sobhraj sees it, and he wants a presentable female companion of white Caucasian origin, the better to carry out his various crimes.

Marie-Andrée in Thailand

Slowly she is sucked in, and when it’s too late, she realises that she is trapped, and that she has thrown her life away for nothing. In prison in Delhi she repents; and one of the most powerful scenes in the whole series is when, with terminal cancer, she sees Sobhraj for the last time (episode 8). “You will be free and I will be back in Quebec, under the earth,” she says. “A stupid … little … dead … québécoise.”

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Then there are the poor young travellers they kill … and this brings me back to my earlier comments about how confusing this series can be. Granted that the narrative constantly jumps backwards and forwards, and granted that one bearded hippy in a flowery shirt looks very much like another, I became hopelessly confused about who was who, and about the sequence of events.

The first to be killed, I eventually worked out, is a girl from San Francisco called Theresa, murdered around mid-October 1975. Then a drug-smuggler referred to as ‘the Turk’, some time in November. Then, in December, his French girlfriend Stéphane, who comes out from Paris looking from him. And lastly, a Dutch couple called Bim and Lena, burnt alive on 16 December 1975. Immediately afterwards, Sobhraj, Ajay and Marie-Andrée leave for Nepal, where the former two proceed to murder a young American couple. So this is not, as I first thought, a number of murders over an extended period, but a killing spree of the most depraved kind.

To understand the series better, it is useful to bear in mind that the main events take place in a relatively short space of time, as follows. Between October and December 1975, Sobhraj kills a number of victims in Bangkok, before leaving on an extended tour of Asia. It is only during his three-month absence that Knippenberg gets onto his case. Then, from March 1976, Sobhraj and Marie-Andrée are essentially on the run. Quite a lot also happens before and after this central period. But if you have a clear idea of the events that lie at the heart of this series, everything is easier.

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What else? Oh yes … I do like the way that the producers stick, most of the time, to the modern convention of using the original voices and languages, with subtitles where necessary. On the whole, this is well done. Best of all are the Dutchman Herman Knippenberg and his German wife Angela, who speak English to each other, this being the language they share. Billie Howle (as Knippenberg) and Ellie Bamber (as his wife) get their accents absolutely spot-on; so much so that I googled them to find out if they were in fact Dutch and German.

Then Tahar Rahim, as Sobhraj, is bilingual in any case. Otherwise, they get French actors to act the French characters … except for Jenna Coleman, acting the French-Canadian Marie-Andrée. But she’s made an effort with her French, and only a fussy linguist such as myself might cavil at the shortcomings. Oh, and in episode 5 there is one rather hilarious moment when Tim McInnery, as the Belgian attaché, sounds exactly like Bertie Wooster attempting to speak French while on holiday in Nice.

Otherwise, I much like the way that the squalor of the hippy trail is laid bare as the series proceeds. In the earlier episodes, the Bangkok experience looks quite fun. In episode 4, however, there is a revealing scene in which the American girl whom Sobhraj is planning to murder has a hot shower in his comfortable hotel room. The first in months, she says, clearly relieved by this brief return to civilisation. Later, when Sobhraj and Marie-Andrée are on the run in India, the filth and degradation of the hippy scene, as well as the sheer boredom of it, are entirely apparent.

It all reminds me of my own time spent in squalid dives such as we see here, when I was ‘travelling’ in Greece in 1980 before going up to Oxford. The main preoccupation – a constant worry – was to avoid having my money and passport stolen by the bums I ended up sharing cheap rooms with. Luckily, the names of parents of school friends were waiting for me in an envelope at the Athens Poste Restante, and having made just one telephone call, I found myself installed in a large flat overlooking the Parthenon; eating by the swimming pool at the Hilton; waterski-ing with a charming godson of the Queen who did everything, at the wheel of his powerful speed-boat, to topple me into the water … but failed; and staying in a large and beautiful nineteenth-century villa on the island of Euboea. It was heaven.

My principal host of that perfect time – a man called John Leatham – died of cancer before I knew about it; otherwise I would have flown out on the spot to say goodbye. May he, too, rest in heaven.

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All of which reminds me that the main appeal of this series – engrossing despite its awful central theme – is that it takes us back to a past happily remembered, but now gone for ever. 

There’s no non-stop preaching, here, about ‘diversity’ or ‘inclusion’ or ‘man-made climate change’ or ‘carbon emissions’ or ‘trans rights’ or ‘racism’ or the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. There is no wall-to-wall piety. As for the almost entirely fictitious Coronavirus scare, which has reduced our whole nation to a state of servitude unimaginable until now … there’s none of that either.

Watching this series, we are reminded that we have created for ourselves a new world that is dark, ugly and oppressive. To be delivered from it, even temporarily, is a blessed relief.

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