The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe review – an unforgettable tale of marital muppets

Why would you go along with your husband’s plan to fake his death and live behind a wardrobe? This droll, laughter-chasing dramatisation of a real-life insurance scam tries to explain it

“John was the sort of man,” Anne Darwin tells us in voiceover early in this drama, “who would buy a Range Rover we couldn’t afford and then spend £3,000 on a personalised number plate.”

We all know that sort of man. Perhaps you’re married to him. If so – and while I’m not a professional marriage counsellor – my advice is: pack a bag and never look back.

Instead, like a more tragicomic Tammy Wynette, Anne stood by her man. Until she could stand him no more, that is. The big question asked by Unforgotten creator Chris Lang’s dramatisation of real events, The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe (ITV), is why it took her so long.

You may remember the Darwins. In 2002, the 51-year-old former teacher and prison officer paddled a canoe up the coast from his home in Seaton Carew, Co Durham, capsized the boat, faked his own death and hid out for a bit. In the meantime, his wife reported him missing, lied to their two sons about her husband’s fate and claimed the life insurance with the – to my mind utterly fantastical – idea that ultimately the couple would resume their marriage, debt free.

“What could be simpler?” John (Eddie Marsan) asks Anne (Monica Dolan) in the drama. “It’ll all be over in a couple of weeks, I promise you.” Marsan is terrific in the role – a small-town Walter Mitty who is both wild eyed and deluded. His patchy north-east accent is no match for Dolan’s, however, which sounds like Sarah Millican’s with less helium. Dolan’s best work here, though, is to appear both biddable and doubtful. Her sad eyes tell us that Anne thinks John’s plan is as cunning as one of Baldrick’s.

After returning furtively to the family home, John began a new life, holed up in a room that was hidden behind a wardrobe. “Where’s the last place anyone would think of looking?” John asks Anne rhetorically in the drama. “Next door! Genius!”

Neither Canoe Man nor ex-Mrs Canoe Man were involved in this drama, which gives Lang freedom to imagine how the couple went through with their folly. Lang made his name on the peerless cold-case drama Unforgotten, and here his droll and disobliging reimagining of the Darwins’ survival of the dimmest ensures that the couple will remain unforgettable.

He tells the story from Anne’s perspective, which serves to make her more sympathetic than her man-baby spouse. In one scene after his disappearance, she is at home struggling to keep the lie afloat with police and family when, calamitously, the phone rings. It’s John, calling from a phone box in the woods to complain. “My mattress keeps deflating,” he whines like a child midway through the orienteering module of the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme. “I haven’t had hot food in three days and I’ve got chilblains.”

Lang’s inclination here is to play the story for laughs. That’s understandable – they are a laughable pair – but often, the dialogue lacks verisimilitude. Only occasionally does Lang’s drama rise to the pathos of Ed Sinclair’s Landscapers, starring Olivia Colman and David Thewlis, about another pair of real-life Brits not cut out for their life of crime. But then, Christopher and Susan Edwards, who murdered her appalling parents then buried them in the couple’s Mansfield garden before fleeing to France, were more sympathetic than the Darwins.

The challenge here is to explain why Anne, though neither stupid nor venal, went along with her marital muppet’s plan to mug off the authorities and live off ill-gotten gains. Lang, in what probably amounts to poetic licence, has Anne tell the true story of a woman who held on to the rope of a rising hot-air balloon. There came a moment when the only way to survive was not letting go. The analogy is clear: John’s insurance scam is the rope and doing the right thing is the ground, steadily disappearing from view.

As for John Darwin, truth is dafter than fiction. He was heard of last month, heading for Ukraine, aged 71, to fight against the Russians. When asked about his chances of survival, John’s second wife told reporters: “He will have a bullet proof vest and good life insurance, good for me.” Unless, of course, he plans to fake his own death. Again.


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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