The Serpent · The Pembrokeshire Murders · Dosa King
Hope you've got room in your ears for some podcasts
|Best Evidence||Jan 21||3||2|
During the hazy 1970s, tourists who flocked to Southeast Asia’s “hippie trail” were targeted by French conman, jewel thief, and serial killer Charles Sobhraj. His accomplice was Marie-Andrée Leclerc, a young Quebecois tourist who posed as his wife while assisting in drugging their victims. After years of dodging authorities and engineering prison escapes Sobhraj became known as “The Serpent”, notorious for chasing publicity even as he was pursued by Interpol.
Like the nightmare of every worried parent who has seen their child don a kaftan and head off on the backpacker trail, the BBC’s glossy eight-part series The Serpent sends a stream of optimistic young hippies off to meet their doom. Doom, in the Asian paradise of cheap travel, plentiful drugs, and sexual liberation, came in the form of Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim). Sobhraj seemed like the perfect friend to a lonely traveller: a cosmopolitan smoothie who knew everyone and everything. He was even generous enough to let people stay, share meals and drinks, and look after them when they got sick.
A lot of people got sick. His main method was drugging victims, getting them to hand over their valuables, then abandoning or killing them. Sometimes he kept victims on hand as domestic servants, steadily feeding them enough poison to dull their senses.
Episode 1 starts off with the story of two winsome Dutch travelers who disappear after staying in Sobhraj’s Bangkok apartment. When their anonymous bodies are found after being burned alive, they attract the attention of a meek diplomat from the Netherlands called Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle).
Tahar Rahim is brilliant as Charles, a scheming seducer who can switch to ice-cold killer in a moment. The series understands that what’s interesting about Sobhraj isn’t his interiority but his ever-changing surfaces. Unfortunately, it has less of a handle on the dorky Knippenberg. Howle’s ropy accent aside, it never rings true that his boss would be so angry at him for finding out who killed two Dutch nationals. Frankly, I’d be happier thinking my country’s international representatives would want my murderer arrested, but his stuffy boss screams the house down over it. Knippenberg’s various seedy expat associates keep saying he’s committing diplomatic career suicide, but it’s all about as convincing as their range of dialects, which includes one of the direst Aussie stereotypes committed onscreen.
Jenna Colman is the third lead, playing Marie-Andrée. She looks smashing in the ’70s threads, and does the best she can with material that has her switch abruptly from a shy tourist to a complicit femme fatale after a quick thigh rub from Charles in the back of a boat.
Colman’s outfits do help keep the narrative straight (the darker the sunglasses, the bigger the crimes), as every episode bounces back and forth in time a dizzying amount. Seven years earlier, two days later, three months before, now it’s Kathmandu, oh wait, it’s back to Bangkok. It’s hard to keep track of which exact set of suspiciously clean-looking hippies — they look more like Neutrogena ads than unwashed longhairs — are in trouble. Over eight episodes this disjointedness aggravates the thin characterization of Knippenberg and his wife Angela (Ellie Bamber), whose marital woes take up far too much screen time.
If you’re after true crime with eye candy landscapes and some jaw-dropping criminal audacity, The Serpent is passable. But if it had a tighter edit, less on Dutch diplomatic etiquette, and no more than two, maybe three, flashbacks, it could’ve been unmissable. — Margaret Howie
The Serpent is currently available on BBC One, and rumor has it that it’ll land on U.S. Netflix some time this year.
Our paid subscribers are why we can run reviews like the above (and below). When free readers convert to paid subscriptions (which start at just $5/month) we can afford to work with freelance writers like Margaret Howie — and that means you get to enjoy perspectives beyond mine and Sarah’s. So, by supporting BE, you help pay writers, and make this publication that much better!
Pembrokeshire is a quiet county in Wales where two brutal double murders in the 1980s remained unsolved for almost two decades. English tourists Peter and Gwenda Dixon were shot to death there on a hiking trip in 1989. Four years earlier, siblings Richard and Helen Thomas were similarly killed, right before the farmhouse they were attacked in was burned to the ground. In 1996 a masked man held a group of teenagers at gunpoint and sexually assaulted them. It would take a cold case review in 2006 to uncover evidence, including a TV game show appearance, that connected all three crimes to one assailant.
Within the first five minutes of ITV’s The Pembrokeshire Murders, the lead character of Detective Superintendent Steve Wilkins is established as meticulous, understated, and a bit off-puttingly earnest. Wilkins is back in Wales after a spell in London, and prompted by a news report on the unsolved murders of the Dixons, he reopens their case. Fifteen minutes in and he learns of a likely suspect, and that the same person is also the probable perpetrator of several other serious crimes. The rest of the three-part miniseries is about Wilkins and his team pursuing the killer. There’s no mystery behind the identity of the murderer, John Cooper, or of his location, in prison for armed robbery. The only question is, how do they get him?
The how proves to be fascinating, as the makers manage to avoid falling into any of the serial-killer-pursuit clichés without ever dragging the show into tedium. It’s crisply made but not too formulaic, a relief after the bagginess of The Serpent, a similar story stretched into eight hours that veered between shrill and boring.
The Pembrokeshire Murders plays things straight: while two ridiculous portrait photographs of Cooper and his wife and the fact that a cheesy eighties game show provide important clues could’ve been camped up for laughs, they never are. The tone is set by Wilkins, as played by the Hugh Jackman Venn Diagram filler action hero/musical theatre star/thirst trap poster Luke Evans, who leads with understated gravitas.
Cooper is portrayed by Brit tabloid regular Keith Allen, father of Lily and Alfie. I was gritting my teeth ahead of his appearance, thinking it’d be a slice of smoked ham, but he’s deeply effective as a bully and narcissist. The third lead is Alexandria Riley as DCI Ella Richards, Wilkins’ right hand and possessor of a first rate “Are you shitting me?” facial expression.
As Wilkins and his team chip away at the case against Cooper, they are struck by a series of limitations, including Cooper’s upcoming parole and the dysfunctional family unit of Cooper’s enabling wife Pat (Caroline Berry, excellent) and scarred son Andrew (Oliver Ryan). Then there’s the processing of decades-old clues. It’s refreshing to see police struggle with budget restrictions and getting to grips with forensic science, instead of “the lab” being treated as a magical plot-solving wishing well.
The path to justice leads Wilkins’ team to a long interrogation scene to determine the origin of several key pieces of evidence. That’s where the show gets to deploy Allen, playing the truculent, petty Cooper, against Riley’s sharp operator. It’s a gripping psychological battle that helps move the story from procedural investigation towards a chilling courtroom climax.
A rare Welsh true crime property, The Pembrokeshire Murders is unshowy but enthralling. It’s proof that there’s wisdom in sticking to doing a job well without big flourishes. — Margaret Howie
The Pembrokeshire Murders is currently streaming on ITV Hub for viewers in the UK. BritBox will distribute the show internationally, but has yet to announce a premiere date.
Hoo, boy, there are so many new true-crime podcasts dropping these days! I’m just going to bullet you a roundup, and we can talk more about which ones we actually got into later. — EB
Catching Melanie's Killer This podcast from ITV is focused on the 1984 slaying of Melanie Road, a 17-year-old found stabbed to death on a Bath street, and the cold case detectives who solved the crime decades later. Its eight episodes will be released two-at-a-time from Jan 12-February 2. Subscribe here.
Late Edition: Crime Beat Chronicles “Journalists from regional newspapers around America” are behind this show, starting with Tulsa World reporters who in a long investigation (you can read it here) unearthed new details on 1977’s Camp Scott Girl Scout murders, which left three children dead. The show kicked off on January 4 and is three episodes in, catch up here.
The Big Shots: Dosa King South Indian restauranteur P Rajagopal is the founder of vegetarian chain Saravana Bhavan, a spot known for its dosa (those crispy, fermented pancakes typically stuffed with vegetables or paneer). His life took a turn in 2009, when he was convicted of murder at age 72, with prosecutors saying he murdered an employee in hopes of wooing his wife. According to a press release, the podcast is as much about the murder as it is about “the entire south-Indian vegetarian food industry,” so if you need takeout recommendations to enjoy as you listen, I can probably hook you up. The Spotify-only show is ongoing, with seven episodes in the can already.
Where Is George Gibney? This BBC podcast actually wrapped up its run last December, but the New York Times reports that since the show on Gibney, an alleged child molester and former Olympic swimming coach, hit the podwaves, new victims have stepped forward. Gibney is Irish but lives in Florida, and the tale of that move is a story in and of itself. Now Irish police are reportedly mulling extradition proceedings, which means that the podcast might have reason for more episodes soon. You can catch up on the show here.
Anything for Selena NPR Boston (that’s WBUR) is behind this show on the legacy of slain star Selena Quintanilla-Pérez. It’s from the perspective of host Maria Garcia, who says that she “is on a quest to understand what it means to love, mourn and remember Selena.” The podcast, which is available in English and Spanish, can be subscribed to here.
Friday on Best Evidence: The end of an era vulgaris.