NICKNAMED the Bikini Killer, Charles Sobhraj robbed, bludgeoned and choked holidaymakers in India, Nepal and Thailand throughout the Seventies.
And by the side of the outwardly charming gem expert during his killing spree was his French Canadian girlfriend Marie-Andree Leclerc, who began their passionate affair after Sobhraj poisoned her male friend to get him out of the way.
Now their story is being told in new BBC thriller The Serpent, another of his nicknames, starring Jenna Coleman as Leclerc. And the role fascinated her.
On playing the mysterious Leclerc — who in one harrowing scene turns up the radio as her boyfriend bludgeons a couple close to death — the former Doctor Who actress, 34, said: “There are a thousand ‘Whys?’.
“Why did you stay? Why didn’t you go away? There are all those questions. There was a thousand possibilities — and that always draws you in.
“For me, it was about squashing the truth. She was not accepting the reality of what was actually going on. She was almost living her own movie star life in her mind, which made it complicated in a great way.”
In the drama, which starts on New Year’s Day, naive 30-year-old Marie arrives in India in 1975 and is thrilled to meet enigmatic Sobhraj, played by Tahar Rahim, 39.
‘It’s like she is living in her own delusion’
After returning home to Quebec in Canada, she reunites with him in Bangkok and begins to realise how unscrupulous he can be.
Sobhraj uses his knowledge of gems and the area to lure tourists into their circle of friends. If they have money or refuse to help in financial scams, he poisons them.
One of the first victims Leclerc learns of is Teresa Knowlton, a 21-year-old American hippie whose bikini-clad body was found floating lifeless in the sea in October 1975.
Sobhraj and his henchman Ajay Chowdhury drug then drown her to steal the thousands of dollars in travellers’ cheques she is carrying. Instead of fleeing, Leclerc willingly poses as the dead woman to get the cheques cashed.
Then when Dutch students Henk Bintanja, 29, and his 25-year-old fiancée Cornelia Hemker refuse to help with one of their scams, they poison the couple to incapacitate them.
Viewers then see Leclerc turn up the radio to mask the sounds of Chowdhury and Sobhraj strangling and bludgeoning the pair before burning them alive.
Jenna said: “It’s almost like she created her own narrative and she’s living in her own delusion.
“Is she a victim or not? How much of her was brainwashed by him? How much was a choice to be there and a choice to live in the delusion?”
Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg (played by Billy Howle, 31) and his girlfriend Angela (Ellie Bamber, 23) take up the investigation into the couple’s murder.
An undeniable aura of glamour
But Sobhraj — called The Serpent due to his ability to slither away from trouble — moves through Malaysia and back into India, continuing to kill.
In July 1976 he got over-ambitious and tried to drug a whole group of French students in New Delhi. One realised what Sobhraj was doing, overpowered him and had him arrested.
But even after being convicted, his wealth allowed him to live a life of luxury in his Indian jail. He also became a global celebrity, providing interviews to journalists from around the world.
Leclerc, meanwhile, maintained her innocence right up to her death of ovarian cancer in 1984.
She was jailed in India for murder, though was later allowed to return to Canada following her diagnosis — on the condition that she would return when her health permitted. She died aged 38. Jenna said: “I’d have liked to have met her.”
When the Thai authorities tried to extradite Sobhraj — and almost certainly would have had him face the death penalty — he threw a big party for inmates and guards and knocked them all out with sleeping pills before walking out of prison.
That offence earned him another ten years behinds bars in India. He was freed in 1997 and returned to France, where he revelled in his fame and is believed to have been given millions for the film rights to his life.
But in 2003 he made the mistake of visiting Nepal, where he was spotted, arrested and jailed for life — using evidence provided by diplomat Knippenberg almost two decades earlier.
He is still inside to this day. Despite the dark subject matter, The Serpent has an undeniable aura of glamour — one in which Jenna undeniably shines.
The Blackpool-born actress also speaks in a French-Canadian accent, which she found particularly challenging as the actor playing Sobhraj is French.
Jenna said: “I remember that first week in particular, when I just landed in Bangkok.
“A lot of the people I was working with are French, and to get Quebecois in particular, which is a kind of English and French, it felt very precise. It was daunting and very hard.”
After ending her role as Doctor Who sidekick Clara Oswald in 2015, Jenna became best known for her lead role in ITV royal drama Victoria.
Now she has ditched the 19th century monarch’s corsets and bonnets for sizzling bikinis, giant shades and flares from the 1970s.
And Jenna reckons filming in Thailand helped make the series feel sexy. Jenna said: “There was something about the energy of Bangkok, the frenziedness, the heat.
“It was trying to capture that kind of Seventies hippie vibe, the parties. It really felt as if we were running on some form of energy. Everyone was just so involved and up for it.”
- The Serpent begins on BBC1 at 9pm on New Year’s Day.
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