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The truth behind The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe

The truth behind The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe

Eddie Marsan, Monica Dolan and writer Chris Lang discuss the new ITV drama, which is going to make a splash with its interpretation of the unbelievable tale

By Laura Rutkowski, Senior Staff Writer

Truth is stranger than fiction, and that couldn’t be truer in the case of John Darwin, or Canoe Man as he became known. Faced with crippling debt, rather than declare bankruptcy, he faked his own death via a canoeing accident in British seaside town Seaton Carew in 2002.


He convinced his wife Anne to go along with it so they could claim insurance money, but their sons Mark and Anthony were left to believe their father had died.

“I think they’d be upset for the first couple of weeks and then they’d get over it,” Eddie Marsan’s John says glibly in the new ITV drama The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe. After he returns home and dry, high and dry Anne (Monica Dolan) responds, “I wish you had bloody drowned.”


The deceitful secret was kept for the next five years, with John living in one of his and Anne’s two large properties, right next door to her. He was hidden in plain sight – way before Encanto’s Bruno – and could even hear his own sons grieving for him on the other side of the wall.

In 2006, the real John and Anne Darwin pose in Panama City for a photo that would be their undoing

The world was talking about John in 2007 when he turned up alive at a police station claiming amnesia about the past five years, but that’s not even the weirdest part of the story.


We haven’t mentioned extramarital affairs, an ill-advised photo taken in Panama City or coercive control yet. Tune in to The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe to see what damning evidence finally drowned the Darwins’ defence when they thought it was all going swimmingly well…


Here, stars Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan and writer Chris Lang (Unforgotten) share everything you need to know about the darkly comic series that provides insight into the fantastical world of John and Anne Darwin, who had their world turned upside down when John turned a canoe upside down.


Anne Darwin is the narrator of the story

Anne Darwin (Monica Dolan) tries to ignore the elephant, or the canoe, in the room

Chris Lang: In some ways, she was the harder character to understand. I think John was a narcissist and clearly an incredibly controlling character. That didn’t seem so surprising for a man, but for a woman – for a mother – to do what she did to her two boys was one of the things people found most shocking. It’s a story that excites a very strong reaction. People will have very strong feelings about it.  We want them to and they should do. 


I created a voiceover so we could get some sense of her internal monologue, because she didn’t have anyone else to talk to, she only had one good friend. I wanted to put Anne at the centre to try to understand the journey she went on.


Monica Dolan: I hope people will yo-yo with her. Should she take responsibility? How much responsibility? Her husband was her environment and that’s what she saw. There are moments when it’s impossible not to judge her and there are moments when, hopefully, seeing her experience guilt, we’ll ask ourselves what we might have done. As a society, we judge what she did as a mother, but maybe that’s not for the courts to judge – that’s for her children.


Eddie Marsan is back doing what he does best

John Darwin (Eddie Marsan) stands by his oarful idea to fake his own death

Eddie Marsan: In my career, I do toxic masculinity – it’s what I do. When I did Tyrannosaur, toxic masculinity was so grotesque that it was a comfortable distance from us. Post #MeToo, it’s become more nuanced and abuse has become more subtle. It’s not just violence, it’s psychological manipulation. Part of John’s manipulation is he’s seductive. Narcissists are sure, they’re convinced. People who are convinced are very, very seductive.


I’ve played the husband of Olivia Colman, Shirley Henderson and Sally Hawkins – I’ve abused all the great actors of our generation [on screen]. I’ve always thought that Monica is one of the greatest actors of our generation. If you’re going to have a story where a woman is the protagonist, eventually I’ll be the antagonist. 


The series was shot within a mile of John and Anne Darwin’s actual house in Seaton Carew

Canoe believe this is John?

EM: I was shocked at how small Seaton Carew is. John’s disappearance was the biggest thing to hit Seaton Carew in years. Two weeks later, he was walking up and down the high street, which is about as big as Chiswick High Road. He was walking with a beard and a stick, thinking no one would recognise him, and people didn’t. 


MD: How much responsibility do you take in challenging other people’s lives if it’s got nothing to do with your life? Maybe some people did recognise him.


EM: Some people said they did when we were there. People came up saying, “I always knew...”


CL: There were some missed opportunities in the investigation. A guy contacted me on Twitter and said he was the last person to see John alive. He was on the beach and saw John go into the water. When he went missing, he rang the police and told them all about how bizarre John’s behaviour had been. It wasn’t followed up. 


One of John and Anne Darwin’s sons visited the set on the first day of filming

CL: In disguise! We found out afterwards, we had no idea until a few weeks later. We approached all of the Darwins and none of them were interested in discussing or collaborating on the series.


MD: We heard that he’d come in a baseball cap.


EM: With a COVID mask on, to watch.


CL: Not [with] a great big beard and a walking stick!


A John Darwin playlist was created to get Eddie Marsan in the zone

EM: Dave [Leigh, the journalist who co-wrote Out Of My Depth with Anne] asked Anne what music John liked. I was surprised it came back as ABBA and country and western. My wife and I share Spotify, so my wife was thinking I was going through a midlife crisis, because there was Dolly Parton and ABBA on there.


It’s ultimately a story about forgiveness

Anne lied to her sons Anthony (left, Dominic Applewhite) and Mark (right, Mark Stanely) about John’s death for five years

CL: The most important thing about the story is that Anne’s sons forgave her. It was really key from the beginning that that’s the story we told, because we all see enough really bleak stories, particularly true crime ones. I was really struck by the fact that she rebuilt her relationship with her sons in a way that John didn’t.


That’s really the point of the story – the power of forgiveness, of compassion. You don’t get compassion unless you extend empathy and try to understand how good people do bad things. We all have to hope that we have the power to change, that we can do terrible things and then move forward. If her sons could forgive her, I would hope that we can as well. 


When is ITV’s The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe on TV?

The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe airs on ITV/HD (CH 103/113) at 9pm across four nights from Easter Sunday to Wednesday 20 April. It is also available in Apps & Games > ITV Hub.

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