“There’s only one sensible thing to do,” declares John Darwin (Eddie Marsan) early in The Thief, His Wife, and the Canoe. Darwin and his wife Anne (Monica Dolan) are mired in debt, on the verge of financial ruin because John’s over-ambitious plans for a buy-to-let empire didn’t pan out as they’d hoped – so Anne is relieved, even pleased, that John was at last going to admit defeat and declare bankruptcy.
Except his sensible plan is to fake his own death – after getting Anne to take out a hefty life insurance policy, of course.
The Thief, His Wife, and the Canoe charts the seven-year deception pulled off by John and Anne Darwin in real life: John (dubbed ‘canoe man’ in the press once everything came to light) really did fake his death as part of an insurance fraud scheme, pretending his canoe capsized and letting everyone assume he’d drowned. After a few weeks in hiding as his family and friends mourned him, John went to live in one of the buy-to-let houses he’d bought – the house right next door to the family home where his wife Anne still lived.
John’s plan is, probably unsurprisingly, hastily made and ill-thought out. Or rather, it’s incompletely thought out: for all the attention to detail that went into staging his death, buying a new canoe paddle and closely monitoring the weather for weeks, little thought was given to the realities of the deception afterwards. The insurance policy small print is more specific than they realised – though the police can pronounce John dead quite quickly, without a body it takes the insurance company years to recognise the death and start paying out (and, of course, the insurance company expects Anne to keep paying during that time or they won’t get anything at all). It’s the sort of unexpected technicality they keep running into – really, that first one is probably the simplest, it gets more and more heightened as the story goes on – and the burden of the deception keeps being placed on Anne.
Immediately, The Thief, His Wife, and the Canoe sets itself apart from other ITV true crime efforts simply by virtue of not being about a murder. The show is better for it, really: lacking the exploitative, grimey layer that often clings to dramatisations of murders, The Thief, His Wife, and the Canoe is better able to take advantage of the strengths of the genre that are so often otherwise obscured. It’s a genuinely interesting and unusual story – closer to a heist or a caper than an account of brutal violence – and lacking that slightly tawdry dimension means that Thief Wife Canoe never gets in its own way. More true crime should be like this, really – there’s more entertainment value in dramatizing the novel and the odd rather than the unrelentingly grim.
It becomes easier as a result to appreciate the central character dynamic, which is the best part of Thief Wife Canoe. John is quietly manipulative, less of a beguiling Machiavelli type and more of a needling browbeater, always ready to go with a reason why something isn’t his fault. When he threatens Anne, it’s personal and mundane, suggesting she’d probably miss their son’s wedding if she didn’t help him. You start to see how, as Anne says at one point, she became “an extension of him [her] entire adult life” – as John insists on filling a room she shrinks in turn, more timid and less assertive than him, even as it becomes clear she’s more capable than him in a lot of ways.
Dolan and Marsan are fantastic together, their performances really closely in tune with one another; it’s not chemistry, exactly, but they’re on the same wavelength and playing off each other well. Marsan plays that very infuriating character well, a chancer who never really understands the hurt he’s causing – Dolan, in contrast, is sublime as someone who feels all that pain intensely. If you strip back the complexities of the con, what Thief Wife Canoe is really about is a woman (it’s her story first and foremost) knowingly destroying her relationship with her sons, even as she’s desperate not to be doing it at all – some of the best scenes come towards the end, shared between Dolan and Mark Stanley and Dominic Applewhite (both fantastic as the Darwin sons) as they cautiously reconnect after the deception has been revealed.
“I’m not sure why I did what I did,” remarks Anne Darwin towards the end of The Thief, His Wife, and the Canoe. But, after this well-observed character study, you might have more of an idea of why she did it – which is really the best you can hope for from any kind of true-crime story.
The Thief, His Wife, and the Canoe begins on ITV on Easter Sunday at 9pm, with the remaining three episodes airing on subsequent nights thereafter. I’ve seen all four episodes before writing this review.