The Serpent follows the life of Charles Sobhraj, a con man and a killer. In the gripping tale of identity theft and murder, one man stands out: Herman Knippenberg. The Dutch diplomat investigated the string of murders that were happening in Thailand, Nepal, and India during the 1970s. During his investigation, he uncovered major clues leading to Sobhraj. In BBC’s The Serpent, Herman is played by Billy Howle.
Knippenberg is the closest thing to a hero in The Serpent, seemingly driven purely by good-will and a sense of responsibility. In a DailyMail interview, he said, "These were Dutch citizens, and the parents had every right to think we would help. I’d been travelling in my 20s, and I knew that people like Henk and Cornelia would keep in touch.”
Speaking on Loose Women, the former diplomat remarked that Billy’s portrayal came ‘dangerously close’ to his lived experience. He said, "I think that Billy Howle did a fantastic job. It was so real at times, some of the scenes I saw. I was gripped myself and had to make up my mind whether indeed it was as Billy Howle played it or as I had experienced it, it came dangerously close."
In an earlier interview, Billy had talked about how much Knippenberg’s approval meant to him. “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,” he’d said.
After Knippenberg took his findings to the press, the story began to garner international attention, and Sobhraj was finally arrested in India in 1976 along with his girlfriend Marie-Andrée LeClerc. It seemed like all had worked out when he was sent to jail for 12 years and was to be extradited to Thailand. Before finishing his time, he escaped and spent 10 more years in jail, enough time for the statute of limitations to expire on his Thai murder cases.
Till 2003, Sobhraj was a free man, living in Paris. He denied ever visiting Nepal when the police caught him in 2003. Once again, Knippenberg found statements by Leclerc proving Sobhraj’s presence in Nepal. Wanted for over a dozen murders, Sobhraj was only convicted for two.
Now 76, Knippenberg has retired from his position as the Under-Secretary-General for Management in the United Nations. He and his wife Angela separated in 1989 and have both remarried since.
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