The story behind The Serpent's glamorous '70s hippie trail costumes

Costume designer Rachel Walsh tells how the real Angela Knippenberg helped with the research

Jenna Coleman as Marie-Andrée Leclerc in The Serpent
Jenna Coleman as Marie-Andrée Leclerc and Tahar Rahim as Charles Sobhraj in The Serpent

As anyone who is currently binge-watching BBC One’s The Serpent will know, Tahar Rahim’s portrayal of the 1970s serial killer Charles Sobhraj is sophisticated and dark. Sobhraj was a master of disguise and it was his magnetism that typically drew vulnerable and impressionable young travellers on South East Asia’s 'hippie trail' into his traps.

When recreating the real-life events for the new television drama, British costume designer Rachel Walsh had her work cut out.

Sobhraj and his accomplice Marie-Andrée Leclerc (played by Jenna Coleman) enthralled their victims by putting on a glamorous facade - he pretended he was a gem dealer, and a celebrated war photographer, she a fashion model. The clothes they wore served to validate their false identities, a fact which became a starting point for Walsh.

“You always collate massive mood boards of imagery ,” Walsh explains. “But for these two principle characters, I was thinking about who these people [want to] look like. With Tahar it was Serge Gainsbourg and Alain Delon because when you read about Charles Sobhraj everyone says he had this mesmerising aura. Then with Jenna, the real Marie-Andrée was always reading Vogue and Paris Match, so it was the iconic, cool people to copy at the time, Catherine Deneuve, Bianca Jagger and Jane Birkin.”

Jenna Coleman as Marie-Andrée Leclerc in The Serpent Credit: BBC

For Sobhraj, Walsh chose to define him via one distinct silhouette throughout the eight-part series; high waisted jeans and linen suit trousers, with a wide collar shirt tucked in. “He’s a great chameleon, this look is how he assimilated into any environment - he could walk into any jeweller's shop, and pull it off.”

Jenna Coleman’s Leclerc, however, goes through a more noticeable transformation. Her style changes completely as she collects more clothes over time, getting deeper into her pretend life.

“She starts off as a plain Jane character, a secretary from Quebec, and she transforms into this beautiful woman who looks like something off the front of Paris Match,” Walsh notes. "She wants to lose herself in this dream world Charles has created. She’s a caricature in a way - you don’t really believe that when she’s wearing these clothes she believes who she is.”

Coleman’s costumes were mostly replicas of original 1970s vintage pieces which Walsh sourced. For the purpose of stunts, and scene continuity, the wardrobe department needed to create, say, six pairs of the same flare jeans for her to wear. On a few special occasions, though, Coleman does wear the originals - Walsh cites a jade green 1970s wool cape, which is worn in the Paris scenes, as a favourite. The costume designer bought it on eBay.

“I sourced a lot of vintage in the UK before filming began, then also in Bangkok there is an amazing flea market called Chatuchak, which is boiling hot,” she explains. “I got amazing pieces there, like Celine bags, for around £50.”

Both characters are fully-loaded with accessories as part of their facade. “Jenna had over 10 pairs of sunglasses [including vintage Van Cleef and Arpels styles] and Tahar had 8. Some of them were original pairs, some we had copied. The bags and belts were all part of the finishing authentic detail.”

Jenna Coleman as Marie-Andrée Leclerc in The Serpent

Contrasting with the ‘70s glamour of Sobhraj and Leclerc, Walsh also needed to dress dozens of extras, representing the tourists on the ‘hippie trail’ and the Thai locals.

“To give it integrity and realism you have to remember you’re representing real people,” she notes. “Backpackers might have rinsed their clothes in the sink in a hostel.”

The other world Walsh needed to render was the expat lifestyle of Herman and Angela Knippenberg, the Dutch diplomat and his German wife, who ultimately helped to uncover Sobhraj’s crimes.

“Herman and Angela’s world was set in embassies, it was very Keeping Up With The Joneses. But those are the layers to the story and these people all collide,” she says.

Ellie Bamber and Billy Howle as Angela and Herman Knippenberg

The real Herman Knippenberg visited the set in Bangkok when filming took place in January 2020, while Angela lent actress Ellie Bamber her personal diaries from the time and helped Walsh with costume research.

“We had [access to] the real people, which was fascinating,” she explains. “Angela would keep finding more pictures and then email them to us, so a lot of the clothes Ellie wore I copied directly. The real Angela loved living in Thailand, she told us she had a local seamstress and would take her pictures of anything she wanted made. She liked masculine clothes and matter of fact shirt dresses, as well as local shell necklaces. We did the same thing, we made jewellery, and we commissioned tailors and cutters in Thailand to recreate outfits for all the principle cast. There’s a famous picture of her in this evening dress which she wore to an embassy party, and we made it from scratch and copied it.”

Ellie Bamber as Angela Knippenberg, wearing a copy of her original embassy party dress

Producing The Serpent was undoubtedly a dream job for Walsh, who has previously designed costumes for The Royals and The Missing. After working on location in Thailand and Nepal, the production was almost completed before the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020, meaning the final ‘Parisian’ scenes were shot in Hertfordshire in August.

“A lot of the costumes got stuck in Thailand, and we had a lot of back and forth to get them over to the UK, but it all worked out in the end,” she says. Her work, for now, is secure, but perhaps less exotic for the beginning of 2021. “I think people are appreciating great television shows now more than ever.”