On 5 December 2007 the Daily Mirror ran a story on its front page that was so surreally incriminating, it could barely contain it’s glee. “CANOE’S THIS IN PANAMA?” read the headline, above a photo of one John Darwin, smiling next to his wife, Anne, in 2006 – four years after he supposedly died in a freak canoeing accident off the coast of North East England. The story started a faked-death scandal that kept tabloids entertained years later, inspiring multiple soap plots and a BBC drama called Canoe Man. Now, ITV has made a four-part drama, which aired on consecutive nights from Easter Sunday (the slot in which Quiz – another stranger-than-fiction tale of robbery, elaborate deceit and put-upon spouses – reached five million viewers in 2020).
This uniquely bizarre story, reality borrowing from the most implausible dramas, is perhaps uniquely difficult to dramatise. This goes some way to explaining why the series begins, disappointingly, in the clichéd register of action thrillers. There is blazing sunshine, a hoard of paparazzi and a screeching car chase, interrupted by a voiceover that says: “I expect you’re wondering how I ended up here.” (All that’s missing is a record scratch and a freeze frame.) Thankfully, we’re soon transported to a setting of greater specificity: the Darwins’ home of Seaton Carew, on the edge of Hartlepool. The couple owned two adjoining Victorian seafront properties; grand but decaying. Here, they are positively dingy: rendered in sad shades of brown, stained wallpaper peeling from the walls, the pale blue light of the seaside barely crossing the threshold, despite large bay windows. Instead of lapping waves, we hear bailiffs hammering on doors, clamouring to collect John’s many debts.
How desperate does a person have to be to fake their own death? It’s a question the show is surprisingly uninterested in asking. Eddie Marsan’s cocksure John is set up as the comic villain; Monica Dolan’s Anne the trembling victim of his controlling behaviour and unstoppable appetite for hairbrained get-rich-quick schemes. No time is spent on the months of botched financial ventures that led John to his delusional conviction that faking his own death was the right course of action; the closest we get to an insight into his motivations is a shot in which he poses with a bottle of champagne in front of a brand new Land Rover.
He is a man seemingly incapable of remorse, even as he bullies his wife and orphans his sons. John barrells through this farcical plot of his own making with unhinged optimism. This is where the show derives much of its humour: images of Anne enduring police interviews are juxtaposed with shots of John,
a dead man strutting through his new life, high on the mistaken belief that he’s fooled the world into a large life insurance pay-out. He is so overconfident that he hides out in his own house, lurking in the building next door, sneaking in and out through the adjoining doors. When Anne, in a rare moment of fury, mutters that she wishes he had drowned, he responds with bathetic sarcasm: “Well, I’m sorry I’m not actually dead, Anne.”
Perhaps this is just what John Darwin was like. (A memorable quote at the time from his aunt, “To be honest, I don’t believe he ever got his feet wet,” suggests as much.) Or perhaps a cartoonish baddie was deemed necessary for audiences to sympathise with Dolan’s Anne. In Quiz, the coughing major’s wife was a Lady Macbeth; Dolan is known for her chilling take on Rose West. But here, Anne is an unwilling accomplice, belittled, manipulated and threatened by her husband, shrinking from his touch. Dolan’s every gesture starts with her mouth, which twitches, squirrel-like; she presses her lips together often, as if afraid of what confessions might leap out, unbidden. She carries the emotional burden of their lies alone.
The focus on Anne’s pain makes this more tragedy than farce –the papers, it must be said, had more fun with it. The writers, I assume, hope to outrage us when we finally learn that (spoiler!) Anne served a longer sentence than her husband. Perhaps continual fear, panic, guilt and shame, could – as the real Anne Darwin maintained – manifest in the same ways as grief.