The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe: The new TV series about the former teacher who faked his own death
John Darwin was, for all anyone knew, seen alive for the last time on March 21, 2002.
He paddled out to sea in his canoe near his home in Seaton Carew, just south of Hartlepool, and disappeared.
Failing to arrive at work later that day, John was reported missing, prompting a massive sea search.
All that was found was a double-ended paddle and the wreckage of John’s red canoe: the man himself was nowhere to be seen, declared legally dead. That is until he walked into a London police station five years later and, feigning amnesia, announced: “I think I am a missing person.”
The story of John and his wife Anne Darwin captivated the nation when news of John’s reappearance broke in 2007 and has now been turned into a gripping four-part ITV drama, The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe, written by Chris Lang, award-winning screenwriter of the TV drama Unforgotten and Netflix’s The Hook-up Plan, and starring Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan.
Anne, who was in on the lie, had fraudulently claimed hundreds of thousands of pounds in life insurance, pension and mortgage payouts, using it to clear debts and avoid imminent bankruptcy.
It would later emerge that taking out unsustainable mortgages on dozens of properties had left the couple in dangerous waters, so to speak, leading John to fake his own death in an elaborate insurance fraud ruse to try and fix their problems.
“I remember hearing about him turning up in the police station and having amnesia, and everyone going, ‘Oh, wow, this guy, he’s turned up after all this time’, and everyone thinking that’s really amazing,” recalls Dolan, 53, who plays John’s complicit wife Anne.
Neither John nor Anne Darwin spoke to the writers or actors for The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe, but Lang had access to thousands of pages of press stories, police interviews, court documents and a manuscript of a book by the journalist who broke the story, David Leigh.
“Every time I turned a page of the research, there was another extraordinary revelation,” Lang said.
“I kept finding myself thinking, ‘I can’t believe they did that. And then that. And then that.’ It was just a story that kept on giving.”
“It’s about a very ordinary couple doing an extraordinary thing and getting themselves into an incredible situation,” adds Marsan, 53, who plays John. He describes the programme’s John Darwin as a complex man: a fantasist, a narcissist, “incredibly selfish, incredibly insecure and incredibly pompous”.
“The relationship in the script is a pure perfect storm of dysfunctionality, really,” he muses. “There’s a co-dependency – he’s a man who always needs to be superior to those in his immediate vicinity.
“He always needs to have authority. He was a teacher and then a prison guard, then in his marriage with Anne – he’s very dominant, very patronising, he puts her down a lot.”
It’s a dynamic Appropriate Adults and W1A star Dolan also found interesting to explore while also enjoying the ever-evolving nature of the character Anne.
“Anne hasn’t really had the opportunity to discover herself and what she likes, because she’s moved straight from being with her parents to moving in with him, and he’s a very strong personality,” Dolan explains.
“I’ve never been in this position before where I’m discovering the character scene by scene. With her, it depends who she’s in the room with. That’s a very interesting thing to play with.”
While playing the real-life couple, Marsan and Dolan spoke to each other exclusively in a Hartlepool accent so that they could “sound like a couple who live together, so that they have inflections and tones that are complementary to each other”, and while they wanted to avoid too much speculation beyond the limits of the script, Marsan says he tried to put himself in John’s shoes to better understand him.
“The only thing I found out through the grapevine was what music John likes,” he says. “I always try to listen to the music that the characters like, so I created a playlist.
“My wife quite likes the John Darwin playlist,” he laughs. “It’s on Spotify in the car. It’s country and western and Abba!”
Marsan, known to viewers for TV roles in Ray Donovan and film roles in V for Vendetta, War Horse and more, says he would go for walks around Seaton Carew and listen to ‘the John Darwin playlist’, harnessing the subtleties of the narcissistic delusions he saw in the script’s version of John.
“The amazing thing about him is
that Seaton Carew isn’t very big,” he says.
“It’s literally just one high street.
“And within three weeks of there being TV crews there, reporting that this man had gone missing, and then that they were dead, he was back walking up and down the high street with a beard and glasses thinking no-one could see him!”
Viewers will have to wrangle with the difficult notion of blame and forgiveness while watching the events play out – just as Marsan and Dolan had to while deciding how to play the infamous couple.
On top of the lies to police and insurance companies, Anne had also lied to the couple’s two sons, Mark and Anthony.
She allowed them to grieve their father’s untimely death while, in reality, he was alive and well, living right next door to the family home. A few years on, the couple decided to start a new life in Panama.
And then John and Anne’s astonishing secret was exposed by the discovery of a photograph showing them in an estate agents’ office in Panama in July 2006.
John and Anne were jailed for more than six years in 2008 after he admitted fraud offences and Anne was convicted after a trial.
But did it have to be this way, or could John and Anne have found another path out of financial ruin?
While Marsan thinks that there are moments in the programme when, if she had decided differently, Anne could have turned things around, he doesn’t think his version of John “ever thought he could give it up, because he was just deluded”.
“He never really had the capacity to think, to make a choice,” he says.
“I think Anne did, but she never had the strength to.”
“One of the things that I think really divides us is forgiveness,” Dolan adds. “I think that people will be looking at this situation and they’ll be thinking, from what we portray: Is she sorry? Should she be forgiven?
“Her sons have done an incredible thing that, from interviews that I’ve seen with her, she’s really grateful for, in letting her back into their lives.
“I think that whole family’s been on an exceptional journey that most of us couldn’t possibly imagine.”
The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe is on ITV at 9pm from Easter Sunday to Wednesday April 20.