The Serpent is the name given to French fraudster Charles Sobhraj (Tahir Rahim), who the opening text tells us was tracked down by an American news crew in Paris, in 1997, where he was living as a free man, and a clearly unrepentant piece of crap.
Following a brief snippet of that interview (well, re-recorded for this drama), we go back to November 27th 1975, where he’s with his girlfriend, Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman), seemingly throwing a party but what’s at stake won’t be apparent until later in the episode. It helped that I rewatched the start of the episode after I’d watched it, in order to get a better handle on things.
Using some passport-altering skills, they’re off to Hong Kong, selling dodgy gems to make some easy cash, before we see them doing what they do best when we learn, early on, how they can screw people over, starting with Dutch tourist Willem Bloem (Armand Rosbak) buying a ring for his girlfriend, Helena Dekker (Ellie De Lange). Charles and Marie work well as a couple, conning gullible individuals out of their money, often with the promise that they’ll make plenty more. It starts with working together in order to charm the marks before deciding how best to flatter them, in order to achieve the aim, which can change depending on what those marks have going for them, i.e. have they got ready cash on them which can be taken for a quick steal, or can they be exploited later on as well?
Either way, don’t expect too many complaints to the police because as the billing confirms, not all of their targets live to tell the tale…
But if all that sounds straight forward, now I’ve picked the episode apart in my mind, what follows could be confusing if I was to go into it in as full detail as I made my own notes. Yes, I had to make notes while watching it, just to keep up!
I’ll describe how it goes… as the action heads to “two months later” (Jan 1976 – make your own notes, but I’ll come back to that), in the Dutch Embassy of Bangkok, as junior diplomat Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) has to deal with the case of these aforementioned Dutch backpackers, who have gone missing. And then we get a flashback to how the tourists DID actually arrive, but were diverted with the help of one of Charles and Marie’s friends, Ajay (Amesh Edireweera).
Then move forward two more months (to March 1976 – yes, another note), and we’re in Bangkok, with the trail having gone cold on Willem and Helena. But…
Then we time-travel back to November 1975 as Ajay locks on two female backpackers, Teresa Knowlton (Alice Englert) and Celia Wilson (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis), the former of whom is planning one last big trip before she goes to live the rest of her life in a Buddhist nunnery, so who’s best to help her achieve her hedonistic goals than Ajay?
Then, it’s on to March 1976 where the authorities get the news about two Australian backpackers (unseen to us) who have met a grisly end at the hands of our leads; before going back to January 1976 where Charles and Marie are still up to no good, then forward to March 1976 where Herman’s lead takes him and his wife, Angela (Ellie Bamber), to the police station where they get to see the evidence of the killer’s actions for themselves.
Oh, and before the hour is up, it’s back to November 1975 one last time to check the outcome for both Teresa and Celia. Confused, much?
Put aside the dodgy French accents from Ms Coleman, and The Serpent is certainly interesting, but the back-and-forth in the timeline is a bit crazy. I’m in agreement with one tweet I saw, which suggested just putting specific months/years onscreen. As I mentioned, I had to keep track by making notes as I watched it, going from November 1975, to January 1976, then March 1976, then back a bit, then forward a bit, then back some more, then take away the first number you thought of… and so on, because the text onscreen just said “Two months later”, “Four months earlier”, “Two months earlier” and so on. If you weren’t keeping track, you’d get completely lost.
One thing that never wavered, however, is how this drama made me angry for how Charles and Marie treated their fellow human beings… but then these two are barely human.
As for exactly what happened to the original pair, I can see I’ll be having to research that for myself, as the episode opened with: “This drama is inspired by real events. Some names and circumstances have been changed for dramatic purposes and out of respects for the victims and their families. All dialogue is imagined.”
One major plus in all of this is that it’s one of those dramas where every episode is now online, so you don’t have to wait to watch the rest. I will definitely get a second episode in of this, and I hope it makes more sense.
Finally, for now, a BBC trailer for several 2020 shows, released in January last year, showed how The Serpent was intended as a 2020 drama, so this was all filmed in 2019. Soon, the drama will run out, as BBC1’s buy-in of Traces shows.
UPDATE: I have now seen the whole series, and it certainly does improve as it goes on, with less of the time-jumping, although I’d like to think that the production company eventually change the captions to dates, rather than just say, for example: 3 months later, four months earlier, 5 months later… sort of thing. Annoyed everyone commenting online about it.
I also enjoyed Tim McInnerny as Paul Siemons, working for the Belgian Foreign Service. Nothing can change the rather dodgy accents from him and some other people. I’d rather they’d gone the same route as the lacklustre The Great, where everyone in that just kept to their normal accent rather than pretending to play a different nationality.
The Serpent isn’t yet available to pre-order on Blu-ray or DVD. However, you can watch the entire series on the BBC iPlayer.
Episode 1 Score: 7/10
Episode 2 Score: 7/10
Episode 3 Score: 7.5/10
Episode 4 Score: 7.5/10
Episode 5 Score: 8/10
Episode 6 Score: 8/10
Episode 7 Score: 8/10
Episode 8 Score: 8/10
Series Directors: Hans Herbots, Tom Shankland
Producer: Stephen Smallwood
Writers: Toby Finlay, Richard Warlow
Additional material from: Bad Blood: The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj, by Richard Neville and Julie Clarke
Music: Dominik Scherrer
Charles Sobhraj: Tahar Rahim
Marie-Andrée Leclerc: Jenna Coleman
Herman Knippenberg: Billy Howle
Angela Knippenberg: Ellie Bamber
Teresa Knowlton: Alice Englert
Celia Wilson: Ruby Ashbourne Serkis
Ajay Chowdhury: Amesh Edireweera
Paul Siemons: Tim McInnerny
Willem Bloem: Armand Rosbak
Helena Dekker: Ellie De Lange
Hans Van Dongen: William Brand
Dagmar Boeder: Nicole Beutler
Lawana: Apasiri Kulthanan
Nadine Gires: Mathilde Warnier
Remi Gires: Gregoire Isvarine
Vitali Hakim: Ilker Kaleli
Moira Callaghan: Lucy Newman-Williams
Yotin: Kenneth Won
Ambassador van Dongen: William Brand
Mrs van Dongen: Nandhini ‘Noi’ Sirisinha
Dominique Renelleau: Fabien Frankel
Laver: Damon Herriman
Count Michel-Andre Jurion: Raphael Roger Levy
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.