The Serpent is a new BBC drama set in the 1970s which started on New Year’s Day and here’s an interview with one of its stars Billy Howle…
What is The Serpent?
The Serpent is a story about a killer in the mid-70s called Charles Sobhraj, and how a person working at the Dutch Embassy – the character I play, Herman Knippenberg – came to be embroiled in capturing him. Against all the odds, he ended up doing the work of many detectives to bring him to justice.
What was your reaction to the scripts?
I suppose I was morbidly fascinated and curious, as people often are about anything to do with murderers. I think we are drawn towards those stories, as I don’t think we can quite understand why someone might do something like that, because we want to understand people better. And I wanted to know more about Herman and what he did. He never should have found himself in these extraordinary circumstances, but he did and he pursued them with such great fervour. That for me was a very exciting tale.
I suppose I was slightly apprehensive by the notion of portraying someone who really put themselves through it, and rightly so, but at the same time I was excited by the prospect of telling the story.
Please tell us more about Herman.
He’s a real person who in the 1970s was posted at the Dutch embassy in Bangkok in Thailand, as a third secretary. Which was a pretty good posting for someone of his age, so he was clearly doing well for himself in the diplomatic world. He was married to his first wife Angela, played by Ellie Bamber, and they were living in Bangkok. Living a really great, busy life.
And then Herman comes across this letter from a very worried family back in Holland, because two Dutch people travelling on the hippie trail had gone missing and hadn’t been heard of for weeks. This was alarming to their families, and it was certainly alarming to Herman. It wasn’t within his remit to go exploring where they were, but as a human being with a sense of duty and propriety he felt that it was his job to try to find out where they were. That letter was the catalyst, and things began to snowball from there – as Herman soon discovers there were more missing people, and he discovers that Charles Sobhraj and his accomplices were the last people known to have seen them.
What was it like to meet the character you play?
I’d spoken to Herman previously on the phone and actually I felt I knew him quite well from watching a lot of his interviews and reading up on him, but I was quite apprehensive to meet the real man, having done all the research and preparation that I had.
Herman being Herman, he turned up on set before everyone else and was ready and waiting to see what this day of filming had on offer. I was blown away by how pleased he was with how the story was being approached and how we were telling it, and particularly the work I was doing. That was incredibly flattering. I didn’t want it to go to my head, but I feel like – if I need any sort of validation – it was from him, so that was a good feeling.