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This review of "The Real Serpent" examines the actions of a serial killer and compares it to the fruitfulness of seeking straightforward answers from a Member of Parliament.
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This review of “The Real Serpent” examines the actions of a serial killer and compares it to the fruitfulness of seeking straightforward answers from a Member of Parliament.


If you were not aware of the books, articles, and documentaries about him, in addition to the portrayal in the 2021 BBC drama The Serpent, it should be known that Charles Sobhraj was found guilty of murdering two individuals. However, it is believed that he may have committed a multitude of other killings during a rampage in the 1970s. He would gain the trust of unsuspecting tourists who were on the “hippy trail” in South Asia, then drug them and steal their passports and money.

Sobhraj has admitted to drugging and stealing from his victims, but he denies that he would often proceed to murder them. However, he did confess to this during an interview with Richard Neville for a co-authored biography with Julie Clarke, which was a popular bestseller in 1979. Despite being accused of numerous killings in Thailand, Sobhraj has yet to be tried in that country. He has, however, been incarcerated for homicide in both India and Nepal.

The latter sentence ended on 23 December 2022, which means Sobhraj is at large, and he’s available for interview. The Real Serpent: Investigating a Serial Killer sees director David Howard spend several months circling Sobhraj, getting to know him. In his effort to prise open the notoriously disarming and evasive career criminal, Howard calls in reinforcements: former Metropolitan police detective Jackie Malton and forensic psychologist Paul Britton each sit down with Sobhraj, respectively probing for facts and digging for motivation.

This section of the true-crime documentary could be referred to as the “crack a nut” show. Shows that have successfully interviewed a suspected killer have a distinct feel compared to those that simply tell the story. The pioneers of this genre are The Jinx, where Robert Durst confessed to the crime in the last episode, and The Staircase, where Michael Peterson – who was found guilty of his wife’s manslaughter but maintains his innocence – remained extremely confident and seemed to be directing the program itself.

Despite its unpleasant nature, the success of The Real Serpent relies heavily on the showmanship qualities of Sobhraj as the villain. The visual elements are impactful, as seen in a peculiar early scene where the show temporarily disguises him to roam London unnoticed. It is revealed that the fake beard is new, but the seemingly absurd wig is actually either Sobhraj’s real hair or a constant part of his look. As a result, the majority of the series revolves around interrogations with a man who sports a hairstyle resembling Michael Fabricant or a 1970s Coronation Street “barmaid”.

The first episode’s questioning is both frustrating and confusing. Malton aggressively pushes for confessions in the Neville book from Sobhraj, who weakly argues that he was framed. However, he does not fully clarify what he means by this, as he constantly interrupts Malton and accuses her of interrupting him. This causes Malton to become irritated.

Britton, the psychologist, appears to be a more promising option, as his patient’s speech is almost melodic – precise, confident, and somewhat fatherly – indicating that he has dealt with many dangerous individuals. He seeks out vulnerabilities, inquiring about Sobhraj’s mother. Sobhraj responds with, “A very selfish woman. I cannot bring myself to forgive her.” Convinced that he has made a breakthrough, Britton sets an empty chair beside Sobhraj and instructs him to envision it as his mother, asking what he would like to say to her. However, this clever tactic has a small flaw: Sobhraj declines, stating that it’s a private matter.

The Real Serpent diligently gathers evidence against Sobhraj, much of which is new and highly convincing, leaving little room for doubt that he has committed multiple murders. However, this only adds to the frustration during the interviews, as viewers experience a sense of helpless anger similar to when watching contemporary political interviews. Like a politician who sticks to a scripted response despite facts or arguments presented, Sobhraj has realized that confidently claiming that black is white and up is down can go a long way in a one-on-one scenario without a judge or jury to determine the truth.

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The main issue for The Real Serpent is that Sobhraj, who is 79 years old, is not as clever and elusive as he believes himself to be. He also lacks the complexity and unpredictability that a show like this requires. Once you become accustomed to his calm demeanor and avoidance of meaningful interaction with interviewers, there is not much else he is willing to reveal. His methods of manipulation are effective but lack sophistication, which is uninteresting. In a true crime show that promises excitement and intrigue, this is unacceptable.

  • A documentary called “The Real Serpent” about a notorious serial killer was shown on Channel 4 and can be accessed through online streaming.

Source: theguardian.com