A man facing financial ruin fakes his disappearance while kayaking in the North Sea. His wife mourns with their two sons, has her husband declared dead and collects the insurance payoff, then he moves secretly into a hidden bedroom in their house. Later, the couple flee to Panama, where the scam unravels after an unwise photograph. The boys are summoned to meet their dead dad in a London police station.
Screenwriter Chris Lang, who wrote ITV detective show Unforgotten, is known for creating twisty, psychologically complex plots, but the real-life story of John and Anne Darwin – which he has turned into his new ITV drama The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe – is beyond even his imagination. Such was media coverage of the story when the pair were tried and jailed in 2008 that Lang could have considered naming it Unforgettable. But more than a decade later, the exact details aren’t quite as easy to remember.
“I was surprised how much I’d forgotten,” says Lang. “As I read the research material, I kept thinking: oh yes! But then there was a huge wealth of stuff I had no idea about: how they executed the idea, why they decided to come back.”
Lang has conjured a vividly told farce about a hapless eccentric fantasist, which looks set to resonate with the public – judging by reactions to the show’s promotional material. “When I tweeted the first picture of the poster, there were people saying: ‘They were only going after insurance companies … and they’ve been fucking us over for decades,’” says Lang. “But that wasn’t the crime that attracted the prison sentences; it was what they did to their kids.”
The unpleasant way Anne Darwin pretended to her children that their father was dead is what attracted Monica Dolan to play her. It’s the latest in a series of roles as criminals in ITV dramas, including prolific serial killer Rose West in Appropriate Adult and Maria Marchese, the London resident jailed for her terrifying stalking of an ex-boyfriend, in U Be Dead. Dolan relishes the challenge of parts viewers will dislike, maybe even detest. “I’m loth to make excuses for a character,” she says. “I just do what the character does in the script and try never to resist that.”
Despite it being John’s idea to settle his huge debts by claiming his death payout, it was Anne who received the longer sentence: three months longer than the six years and three months her husband received. Just as Medea, who killed her children, is more notorious in Greek tragedy than numerous psychopathic men, maternal cruelty seems to have been viewed as more transgressive than that of the dad.
“Sadly, we’re pretty used to men behaving appallingly to children,” says Lang. “There is something more interesting about a woman and mother committing this betrayal than a father.”
Watching Lang’s version of events, viewers may conclude that Anne was a victim of coercive control by her husband, who is shown to have a strong romantic and sexual hold over her and to make all the decisions for both of them. This was raised in her defence, though, crucially, the concept of coercion was less legally defined than it is now.
When she was tried,” says Dolan, “the person accused of coercion had to be physically present at the time of every alleged offence.” So long-time psychological grooming or emails from Panama didn’t count.
When the series was shooting in Hartlepool last April, Boris Johnson was in town, supporting his candidate in a byelection that turned the north-east seat Tory for the first time in five decades, partly due to the argument that such seats had been neglected by London politicians and exploited by the capital’s bankers. Dolan believes that, in that sense, the Darwins can be seen as victims: John, a man of modest background, was given loans to purchase a dozen buy-to-let properties. When he concocted his plot, he owed £700,000.
“Not to diminish what they did,” says Dolan, “but the way the banks just loaned money to people, it was inevitable things like this would happen. The extent of their debt was mind-blowing.”
Dolan stresses that she and Eddie Marsan as John are playing “characters written by Chris”. Neither Darwin parent nor their sons cooperated with the project, so it draws on research and the manuscript of an unpublished book by journalist David Leake.
“You have to imagine a fair amount of it,” Lang admits. “You research and research then take that little leap. It is a guess, but it’s a really educated guess. You can’t say that really is what happened or what’s going through her mind. But how much do any of us know ourselves anyway? If I’d been able to sit down Anne and say: ‘Why did you do it?’ I’m not sure she’d be any clearer than me.”
But without permission or input from the living originals, does the writer feel a responsibility to them? “Of course,” Lang replies. “There’s huge moral responsibility and we talked about it an awful lot. There’s a duty to the boys but also to John and Anne. You can’t defame them, you can’t make stuff up. In terms of the kids, I’d be astonished if they didn’t think it was a sympathetic portrayal of what happened to them. We are entirely on their side that this was a heinous crime against them.”
But what if they just didn’t want to be dramatised in primetime and featured across the media again?
“The rebuttal to that is that the boys gave a huge interview to the Daily Mail. Anne wrote a book and did many interviews. The Darwins have spoken to the press multiple times. So the being left alone defence doesn’t hold up.”
The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe joins ITV’s Quiz (about the alleged “coughing” fraud to win Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) and BBC One’s A Very English Scandal (reconstructing a murder plot instigated by then Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe) in an emerging subgenre of jaunty, comic real-life crime capers. Because no one died in any of these crimes – though a dog was killed in the Thorpe story – the dramatisations have more licence to entertain.
The series’ executive producer David Nath says: “We said from the start we shouldn’t shy away from the humour in this. I’m starting to wonder if we are reaching a saturation point with hard dark true crime. What are the iconic stories of that sort left to tell? Also, with where we are in the world just now – first Covid, now Ukraine – I’m not sure if it’s the most inviting prospect to watch something really gruesome. I think the sweet spot is the true story that is also enjoyable.”
Getting true stories right is also an obsession of Dolan. For Rose West, she trawled through a mound of NHS spectacles to find the right pair. With Anne Darwin, the challenge was dental – finding false teeth that would give the fuller-faced Dolan narrower features. And, although helped by having grown up in nearby Middlesbrough, she also worked with a dialogue coach on the tones of the Darwins’ native Seaton Carew.
“One of the things I’ve learned is that if you are doing an accent you should learn it with your false teeth in! You don’t want to do it one way then put in the teeth and have to start again because the dentures change the sound,” she says.
When the shoot was over, Dolan donned a different pair of dentures to play the pioneering artist Audrey Amiss in Carol Morley’s forthcoming biopic, Typist Artist Pirate King, then gave one of the year’s best stage performances as Sister Aloysius, a nun who suspects a priest of child abuse, in a revival of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable. Despite Aloysius being the kind of dislikable character she enjoys playing, there was a key difference – which caused problems.
“I knew something felt wrong, and I had to consciously force myself not to put my hand to my mouth,” she says. “Then I realised it was because, for the first time in so long, I only had my own teeth!”
There’s more continuity to come for Lang, who has moved on to the fifth series of Unforgotten, ITV’s brilliant police procedural, with Sinéad Keegan replacing Nicola Walker as Sanjeev Bhaskar’s cold crimes co-investigator. Both shows involve ordinary people doing one wrong thing they seem to have got away with, until fate exposes them.
“That’s where my main interest lies,” says Lang. “I think we’re often on the verge of tipping over into extreme behaviour all our lives, and sometimes we do. So it’s about trying to understand that – and the stress that must place on the way you live your life. I suspect that certain people who’ve committed crimes are more adroit at living with that duality. But plenty of people are destroyed by it. That’s what I want to explore.”
The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe is on ITV and ITV Hub from 17 April