Chris Lang talks about “The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe”

What drew you to write The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe?

I got sent a load of research material in May of 2020. Maybe 50 press stories, a 1000 pages of police interviews, a 1000 pages of court documents, and an early manuscript of a book by the journalist who broke the story, Dave Leigh. Every time I turned a page of the research, there was another extraordinary revelation. 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 and so saying ‘yes’ to it was a no-brainer.
Which element of the story particularly caught your imagination?

The incongruity of this very ordinary couple from Hartlepool hatching this very extraordinary plan, which then came undone in an exotic Central American country. The juxtaposition of those two worlds was very rich territory.

Their story was also very unusual in the sense that it was undeniably tragic, but also, on occasion, bleakly funny. As a screenwriter, that is very fertile ground.

Eddie Marsden and Monica Dolan in “The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe”

What motivated you to make Anne the narrator?
In many ways, John Darwin is a relatively easy character to understand (his is the story of a narcissist) but Anne is much more complex, so 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, her actual thought processes.

How did you do that?
Well, because she didn’t want to talk to us, there was necessarily a degree of imagination involved, but it was an ‘educated imagination’ , because I was also drawing on a lot of research (the police interviews, court reports, press interviews and Dave’s manuscript) to help me understand her journey.

Why do you think Anne was so obedient towards John?
I think that in a complex and insidious way, she’d been controlled by her husband for decades. She was also terrified of being alone, of being deserted by him (indeed that was one of his constant threats to her). Also, once she told the big lie, once she had stepped over that line, it became harder and harder to admit the appalling truth. Even after the story finally broke, it still took her another four months to tell the whole truth (that she had been in on it from the start) to the police. There was a kind of cognitive dissonance going on in her head. She wasn’t able to admit it, even though it was clear to everyone that the whole thing was artifice.

But you do not underplay the hideous things she did, do you?
Not at all, we owed it to the sons, the real victims of John and Anne’s crimes, to be truthful. I can’t imagine a greater betrayal than a mum telling you your dad is dead when she knows he is actually still alive. Pretending to be grieving for five years, allowing them to grieve for five years – what would possess a mother to do that? It seems unthinkable to any parent.

How would you describe John?
He was quite charismatic, quite funny (sometimes even intentionally) but also a man with absolutely no conscience and no sense of how his actions would be perceived. Like many narcissists, he was also desperate to appear more successful than he was, which ultimately was the cause of his downfall.

What other clues to John’s character did you gather?
John had a Range Rover with personalised plates which shouted out to the world, “look at me, look at how well I’m doing” but in truth, he had catastrophically overreached himself. This was a man who earned a relatively modest salary as a prison officer (she was a GP’s receptionist) but who had mortgages on nearly 20 properties, none of which he could service. His downfall was grimly inevitable.

What does Monica Dolan bring to the role of Anne?

Monica was the first person everyone thought of for the part. She has that ability to totally inhabit a character and became Anne in a way that I don’t think any other actress could have. Anne could easily have been played as a thoroughly dislikeable person, but she is much more complex than that, and we needed an actress that could bring the audience along with her on that difficult journey. Ultimately, this is a story of redemption, of what a family can and can’t survive, of what it can and can’t forgive, and Monica takes us on that journey brilliantly.

Why is Eddie Marsan so right for the part of John?

Eddie has incredible range, he can play very dark, he can play very ordinary, but whatever he plays, he always brings such humanity to his characters. And this was key for us, because we never wanted John to just feel like a monster. The character has to have a twinkle as well as a dark side. Eddie captures that brilliantly.

Did the Darwins cooperate with you at all?

No. But there was so much material in the public domain that it didn’t feel like we were missing anything. Anne had written her own book and felt she didn’t have anything more to say. John didn’t cooperate either. He lives in the Philippines and is remarried now. But it’s still a very first-hand account. The script is based on multiple press interviews, police records, court records, interviews that the journalist David Leigh did, and my own educated guesses at how certain conversations might have played out.

Do you see this as a very English story?

Very much so – the seaside setting, the ordinariness of the couple, that sense of things going on behind the net curtains. You’d never have imagined that this very ordinary couple could have been hatching this extraordinary plot that they nearly got away with. It’s a brilliant slice of English life.

Do you think The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe will strike a chord with viewers?

I hope so. I’m sure many of us have dreamt up extraordinary solutions to our problems and then stepped back from the precipice. The only difference between us and the Darwins, is that they jumped.