THE events featured in The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe are so barmy that if they hadn’t really happened, this drama would be billed under the category ‘fantasy’.
A faked death, an insurance scam, hiding within plain sight, a romantic journey to the other side of the world and a surprising return; the story of ‘canoe man’ John Darwin and his wife Anne garnered lots of press when it happened 15 years ago but, for the first time, the true and even more incredible story is being told in this brilliant four-part ITV drama.
Starring Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan as John and Anne Darwin, it’s relayed, unusually, through her eyes giving us a very different perspective to a normal crime drama. An unreliable narrator, she voices the beginning and end of chapters – and points out mistakes made throughout the episodes – as she describes the madness of her husband’s audacious plan and the devastating aftermath.
While the well-executed drama is told with a light and often humorous touch, it also doesn’t shy away from the way the crime deeply hurt the people John and Anne loved most. That gives the second half of the series a real dramatic heft. It is tough to get that balance right and needed someone with the confidence of Unforgotten writer Chris Lang who has already more than proved to be a master in finding the funny in tragic.
Lang, said of the drama,
“In many ways, John Darwin is a relatively easy character to understand – classic narcissist – but Anne is much more complex,’ says Chris. ‘I can’t imagine a greater betrayal that a mum telling you your dad is dead when she knows he is actually alive. Pretending to be grieving for five years – allowing them to grieve for five years. What would possess a parent to do that?
‘To try to understand how a mother could have committed such a heinous crime, I decided to place her at the centre of the piece and then create a device which allowed us to hear her inner monologue.”
The result is utterly compelling as you see a woman pushed along, do something she hates but still agrees with because of her love of a man she resents but also can’t break free from. Monica – who will surely be nominated for a slew of awards for her subtle take on an emotionally battered woman – says she felt low level stress just playing the role: ‘Dealing with a fantasist on a day-to-day basis must take all sorts of psychological gymnastics,’ she says. ‘They used to have a clandestine signal for when he was out; if the curtains were tied back that would mean it was safe for him to come into her part of the house. I can’t imagine living with the stress every minute of the day – it was incredibly stressful to play her; she was stressed all the time.
‘One thing which really struck me was when the prosecution in court asked, ‘What were you scared would happen if you didn’t ring the police?’ She replied, ‘I was frightened he might leave me.’’
The first most of the world knew about ‘Canoe man’ John Darwin was when, in December 2007, he walked into a London police station claiming to have no memory. It emerged that he had disappeared five years earlier when he went out in a canoe near his home in Seaton Carew in County Durham.
The story that unravelled was even more extraordinary. Having taken out mortgages on more than a dozen homes which he let out as bedsits, ambitious prison warden John had found himself with mounting debts.
Yet this was a man who drove a Range Rover with personalised number plates; he refused to declare himself bankrupt so John decided the only way out was to fake his own death so that Anne could cash in on the life insurance.
Everyone, even – cruelly – the couple’s two grown up sons, believed John to be dead while in actual fact he was back in Seaton Carew living in a bedsit the couple owned next door to their main house. He could come and go between the houses via a false wall built in a cupboard. Incredibly, armed with just a beard he had grown, John would still walk around the streets he was supposed to have vanished from.
Eddie, 53, says he realised the sheer audacity of the plan when they started filming in Seaton Carew, at a house a few streets away from the Darwin’s’ real home.
‘I was shocked at how small it was,’ he says. ‘His disappearance in 2002 must have been the biggest thing to happen there in years and yet two weeks later he was walking up and down the street. It is incredible.’
One of the astonishing things is how John and Anne nearly got away with it. Things only started to go wrong for the couple when John decided to do an outrageous U-turn. Travelling under a fake passport using the name of John Jones, a child from Sunderland who had died and whose name he found in public records, he and Anne moved to Panama to set up a wellness centre, spending £200,000 on land.
You can see the appeal in the series as the constant dreary rain of Seaton Carew is replaced by incredible sunshine and sandy beaches – although the production only got as far as Portugal rather than flying all the way to Panama.
It was only after the purchase that he learned that he would have to prove his identity; and so then came up with the even madder idea of returning home and pretending he’d lost his memory. That was his great mis step which was both hilarious and tragic.
A photograph taken with Anne at a Panama real estate office, which was put on the internet, which was to prove their undoing. It showed the depth of their deception and that Anne had been in on it from the start; she had no choice but to confess.
After she did, their sons Antony and Mark, played with brilliant understatement by Mark Stanley and Dominic Applewhite, issued a joint statement saying they wanted ‘no further contact’ with either of their parents.
The producers reached out to all of the Darwin family but they declined to take part. After going to prison John, who wrote his own biography which was never published, moved to the Philippines and remarried; bizarrely, his second wife Mercy Mae Avila Darwin claimed he was ‘on his way’ to fight in Ukraine when his home was tracked down by journalists last month.
Meanwhile, Anne reconciled with her two boys and lives quietly in York. Intriguingly, producers did later find out that one of the Darwin sons had come to Seaton Carew took look at the filming that took place. He was wearing a basketball cap and Covid mask so went unrecognised; they only discovered his visit due to people they were talking to who knew the family. It is perhaps a reminder that while for us this incredible and audacious drama is pure entertainment, some people are still living with the effects of it.
The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, starts on Sunday 17th April on ITV.