If you’re one of the thousands of Britons who won’t, as usual, be getting away to the beaches of South East Asia this winter, you can travel via your television.
The Serpent is a stylishly lush crime drama starring Jenna Coleman and set in 1970s Thailand. Shot largely on location and side-stepping any signs of 21st-century mass tourism, the eight-part series is as visually alluring as you would expect. “We filmed in amazing locations,” says the Victoria star, who traded crinolines and corsets for flares and statement blouses for the year-long shoot that was, inevitably, interrupted by the global pandemic. “We went to Hua Hin [a fashionable Thai beach resort] and a remarkable national park for a lake scene. It was absolutely stunning there.”
Yet behind the beauty and artfully re-created costumes, the drama tells the story of a series of dreadful crimes.
The Serpent unfolds against a backdrop of the 1970s “hippy trail” when thousands of Western backpackers arrived in search of perfect beaches, plentiful sex and dope and a dose of Far Eastern spirituality. This, unfortunately, made some vulnerable to unscrupulous predators such as the notorious killer Charles Sobhraj (French actor Tahar Rahim in The Serpent cast) – the Serpent of the title – and his accomplice Marie-Andrée Leclerc, played by Coleman.
In a fatal spree across southern Asia Sobhraj, a jewel thief, drug-dealer and, when it suited him, murderer, lured at least ten Western travellers to their deaths. Along with other women, the besotted French-Canadian Leclerc was a willing accomplice.
Sometimes the couple’s victims were told there was easy money to be made in a scam before they were killed. Others were poisoned, on a whim, for their passports. “It was not an easy piece to play because how can you portray someone who has no empathy?” says Coleman. “I don’t know what it is [to be that way] and I think it is impossible for people like us to know.”
Although Leclerc was equally complicit, it was Sobhraj, a super-confident borderline psychopath with a deep dislike of the hippy-trail counterculture, who handled the murders. “He did awful things,” says Rahim, who came to fame as a fictional cross-border criminal in the 2009 film A Prophet. “I’m not glorifying him, but it’s fascinating to study the psychology of those people. Even if you’re not an actor you come to realise when he was a child, he was a street kid who had been abandoned by his father, by his country, mistreated by his mum. One step after the other, he fell into this terrible thing – killing people.”
The killings often had a performative, attention-seeking dimension. The bodies of his female victims in Thailand (there were more in other countries) were separately found dumped in brightly patterned bikinis, earning Sobhraj his other nickname in Thailand, the Bikini Killer. “It’s horrifying and at the same time it’s fascinating,” says Rahim. “People feel repulsion and fascination when they think of Leclerc and Sobhraj.”
If Rahim’s portrayal of Sobhraj in the fashions of the day makes a very bad man look very good – part of the initial appeal to his victims, after all – it comes from diligent teamwork. “The costume designer did a lot of research on the fashion of the period,” says Rahim. “And the pictures that we had of Charles and Marie-Andrée, they tried as much as they could to copy their style.”
That style, it must be said, heavily relies on sunglasses. “The shades were pretty amazing,” says Coleman. “We had such a selection – I should have borrowed some from the set.” (“I did take some!” says Rahim.)
Coleman went well beyond the look of her character, losing herself in Leclerc’s diaries, covering both the period of the murders and before. “The way she lived was completely delusional,” Coleman says. “It was all about squashing all of it away and not letting the truth in. She had an obsessive nature and was incredibly emotional. I think she was depressive and certainly unstable at times. She lived in this conflicted state, not acknowledging the murders that were going on. In her subconscious it was all about putting the truth away.”
Could Sobhraj’s attractiveness, intense though it is as played by Rahim, have been enough to mesmerise Leclerc? “I know,” says Coleman. “Why did she not walk away? How could she stay? What was it about Charles? I think Charles had this power over women. Women seemed not only to be in love with him, but to be fanatical about him. In her earlier life Leclerc was religious and the way she writes in her diary, it felt like this obsessive devotion to Charles. The way she pivots on what Charles does and how Charles treats her – it’s like her every waking thought is this complete addiction to him. She’s completely connected to him. No matter what he does, even to the extent of murder.”
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.
You can also find out more about The Serpent true story here.