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Dark but gripping drama of a venomous predator on the hippy trail


THE SERPENT, (BBC 1, Sunday nights 9pm).

My goodness, you have to keep your wits about you when you're watching The Serpent, writes PETER WALTERS. Blink at the wrong moment and you'll find yourself wondering where the narrative went, as you lurch between flashback and fast forward.

It's a virus infecting a lot of television drama these days, as if writers automatically reach for the time shift when they can't get out of an impasse in the plot, and The Serpent has it worse than most.

Which is a pity, because in general I'm a fan of this dark tale of a predator stalking his prey among the lush tropical heat of 1970s Thailand. Sadly, keeping their wits about them was the last thing on the minds of many of the young Westerners who followed the hippy trail East in those years, and they were perfect fare for Charles Sobhraj, who stole their passports and money and then their lives without a twinge of remorse. French actor Tahar Rahim (pictured) is compelling as Sobhraj, a terrifying figure of quiet menace and bonhomie, while Billy Howle offers a stark contrast as the splenetic Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg, who knows that he has a serial killer in his sights, if only he could convince everybody else.

Happily, the violence is largely kept off-screen, but the fear that Sobhraj generates, not least among his closest associates, his increasingly terrified girlfriend Marie-Andree Leclerc (Jenna Coleman, pictured) and sidekick Ajay Chowdhury (Amesh Edireweera), feels very real. For me, though, The Serpent's greatest strength is its mastery of time and place, the way it captures the style of the early 1970s and that sixties hangover, the heedless, who-cares-about-tomorrow lifestyle. For quite a few of Sobhraj's young victims, there would be no tomorrow.