True Crime Tuesdays: The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe
Helen Archer | On 26, Apr 2022
This rather strangely titled series – perhaps an homage to the Peter Greenaway classic The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover – tells the story of John and Anne Darwin, who famously attempted audacious life insurance fraud back in 2002. Screened on ITV over the Easter break – aptly, considering John Darwin came “back from the dead” some years after “disappearing” off the coast of Seaton Carew in his canoe – it’s a quintessentially British retelling of a quintessentially inept British crime.
Perhaps it is impossible to tell this story without some level of humour, as it is so preposterous, although the 2010 one-off BBC drama, Canoe Man, starring Bernard Hill and Saskia Reeves, was an altogether more sombre affair. The ITV version, written by Chris Lang (creator of the much-loved Unforgotten), is much lighter, with with some deadpan lines that can only be be played for laughs – at the start, anyway. Monica Dolan plays Anne as a kind of blank slate, while Eddie Marsan tones down the sinister nature of the deception as the venal, yet at times disturbingly thick, John.
It starts with what is now something of a meme, as Anne, in voiceover, says “I expect you’re wondering how I ended up here”, while embroiled a high speed car chase through the streets of Panama, before flashing back to seven years earlier and the start of the story. Here, Anne states: “All I ever wanted was a simple life”. Although neither John nor Anne were involved in this production, Anne wrote a book called Out of My Depth, which will doubtless have been used as source material – and the four-part series is very much from her perspective.
“John was a man who always needed more of everything,” she tells us, as he hatches his bizarre plan to fake his own death rather than face bankruptcy. Although he does emotionally blackmail his wife initially, with vague threats of suicide, not much time is given to her decision to go along with his plan – one minute they’re having the discussion and the next it’s all systems go. Anne soon finds herself lying not only to the police and the insurance firms, but to her own two sons, played by Mark Stanley and Dominic Applewhite. “I think they’d be upset for a few weeks but then they’d get over it,” John reassures her, his lack of compassion and humanity clear from the outset.
The lines are delivered in a considered monotone, as though to accentuate the banality of their crime. As the plan gets underway, and John starts living in one of the bedsits he owns in a property adjoining his wife’s, the minutiae of their marriage is played out. Anne worries that John leaving the toilet seat up will tip people off about his whereabouts, while John listens from behind a wall as toasts are made in his memory at family Christmases. The drudgery, the tedium, the Britishness is handled, in the first couple of episodes, as some sort of Ealing comedy. When John decides they should move to Panama, Anne deploys her spin on the famous Mrs Merton joke. “So,” she asks, “what first attracted you to the low-tax high-corruption country of Panama, John Darwin?”
This humour is dialled down in the latter part of the series, as the depths of their deception is uncovered by their sons and as Anne is forced to face up to the emotional damage she inflicted on them by lying to them day in, day out, for years. As John finally realises the jig is up – and hands himself into a London police station claiming concussion – his son, Mark, is called in to identify him. It’s beautifully played by Mark Stanley and impossible to imagine the unreality of the situation as he gets what so many bereaved people dream of – their loved resurrected, someone they thought they’d never see again in front of them, alive and breathing.
So, too, does Anne’s situation become ever-more affecting by the end of the series, as viewers are asked to understand the Darwins’ relationship, and the way in which it shaped her. Through conversations with her therapist while in prison, she untangles the years of subtle and not-so-subtle emotional abuse, and dependency she felt for her husband, as the scales fall from her eyes and she sees him for the man he is.
The series is, then, something of a tale of two halves, with viewers ultimately caring less about the couples’ fate than the effect it had on their sons. It is never heavy-handed or moralising, but lets the viewer come to their own conclusions about the nature of the conspiracy, asking subtle questions about cruelty and forgiveness. And throughout, there is an ever-present feeling of dissonance – the gap between the seeming ordinariness of the couple, and their extraordinary, doomed undertaking.