Jenna Coleman's new BBC crime thriller The Serpent is based on a true story

Naomi Gordon
·3-min read
Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

From Harper's BAZAAR

Jenna Coleman's prestige crime drama The Serpent will welcome us into the New Year when it airs on on New Year's Day on BBC One.

Set in the mid '70s and inspired by real events, the thriller follows the extraordinary story of how conman and serial killer Charles Sobhraj (played by acclaimed French actor Tahar Rahim) was brought to justice.

Coleman plays Marie-Andrée Leclerc, the Canadian girlfriend of Sobhraj, who he subjugated and manipulated to become his accomplice.

Speaking about the role recently, the Victoria actress told TV mag: "It's definitely one of the most terrifying jobs I've done! I knew I was going to be walking on set with Tahar Rahim, who plays Charles, and other French actors as well.

"Plus, Marie-Andrée is actually from Quebec, and the French-Canadian accent is so specific!"

The crimes of Charles Sobhraj

Posing as a gem dealer, French-Vietnamese Sobhraj and Leclerc travelled across Thailand, Nepal and India in 1975 and 1976, carrying out a spree of crimes on the Asian 'Hippie Trail', and becoming the chief suspects in a series of murders of young Western travellers.

Sobhraj was nicknamed the Bikini Killer, as that was the attire many of his victims were wearing before he murdered them, and The Serpent, due to his slippery ability to elude police.

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

As Sobhraj evaded authorities around the world - he was at one point Interpol's most-wanted man - a junior diplomat named Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) at the Dutch Embassy in Bangkok inadvertently entered his intricate web of crime.

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

How Sobhraj was caught

Herman Knippenberg began looking into the case of two missing Dutch travellers called Henk Bintanja and Cornelia Hemker. He remembered reading an article about two murdered Australian backpackers, and after some investigative work he soon worked out that the burnt bodies had been misidentified, and were in fact the bodies of the missing Dutch couple.

Sobhraj was eventually caught in 1976, and was jailed in New Delhi for 12 years, initially for the manslaughter of two tourists. A decade later, after befriending the prison guards, Sobhraj managed to drug them and escape for a month before being recaptured. He was subsequently jailed for another 10 years.

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

He was released in 1997, and returned to Nepal in 2003, where he could still be arrested, which he was, before being sentenced to life imprisonment in a Nepalese jail. This is where he still remains, aged 76.

Meanwhile, Marie-Andrée Leclerc was convicted of the murder of Avoni Jacob in 1980, but in 1983, suffering from ovarian cancer, she was allowed to return to her native Canada. Leclerc died in 1984 of ovarian cancer aged 38.

The cast also includes Ellie Bamber, Amesh Edireweera, Mathilde Warnier, Grégoire Isvarine and Tim McInnerny.

The Serpent will air on BBC One on January 1st at 9pm.

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