A a man facing financial ruin fakes his disappearance while kayaking in the North Sea. His wife cries with their two sons, has her husband declared dead and collects the insurance reimbursement, then he secretly moves into a hidden room in their house. The pair later flee to Panama, where the scam unravels after a careless photograph. The boys are summoned to meet their deceased father at a London police station.
Screenwriter Chris Lang, who penned ITV crime show Unforgotten, is known for crafting twisty and psychologically complex plots, but the real-life story of John and Anne Darwin – which he turned into his new ITV drama The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe – beyond even his imagination. Such was the media coverage of the story when the couple was tried and imprisoned in 2008 that Lang might have considered naming it Unforgettable. But more than a decade later, the exact details aren’t as easy to remember.
“I was surprised to see how much I forgot,” Lang said. “Reading the research material, I kept thinking: oh yeah! But then there was a huge amount of stuff that I had no idea: how they executed the idea, why they decided to come back.
Lang referred to a vividly told prank about an unfortunate, eccentric fantasy, which looks set to resonate with audiences — judging by the reactions to the show’s promotional materials. “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 for decades,'” says Lang. “But it wasn’t the crime that brought the prison sentences; that’s what they did to their children.
The obnoxious way in which Anne Darwin pretended to her children that their father was dead is what prompted Monica Dolan to play her. It’s the latest in a string of criminal roles in ITV dramas, including prolific serial killer Rose West in Appropriate Adult and Maria Marchese, the London resident jailed for her terrifying harassment of an ex-boyfriend. friend, in U Be Dead. Dolan relishes the challenge of parts that viewers won’t like, if not hate. “I’m reluctant to make excuses for a character,” she says. “I just do what the character does in the script and try never to resist that.”
Although it was John’s idea to settle his huge debts by claiming his death benefit, it was Anne who received the longest sentence: three months longer than the six years and three months her husband received. . Just as Medea, who killed her children, is better known in Greek tragedy than many male psychopaths, maternal cruelty seems to have been seen as more transgressive than that of the father.
“Unfortunately, we are quite used to men behaving appallingly around children,” Lang says. “There is something more interesting about a wife and mother committing this betrayal than a father.”
Looking at Lang’s version of events, viewers can conclude that Anne has been the victim of coercive control by her husband, who has a strong romantic and sexual hold on her and makes all the decisions for both of them. This was raised in his defense, even though, crucially, the concept of coercion was less legally defined than it is now.
“When tried,” Dolan explains, “the person charged with coercion had to be physically present at the time of each alleged offense.” So long-time psychological grooming or emails from Panama didn’t count.
When the series filmed in Hartlepool last April, Boris Johnson was in town, backing his candidate in a by-election that turned the seat of the Conservative North East for the first time in five decades, in part because of the argument that these seats had been neglected by London politicians and exploited by the capital’s bankers. Dolan thinks that, in this sense, the Darwins can be considered victims: John, a man of modest origin, received loans to buy a dozen properties to rent. When he concocted his plot, he owed £700,000.
“Not to diminish what they did,” Dolan says, “but the way banks were lending people money, it was inevitable that things like this would happen. The scale of their debt was mind-boggling.
Dolan points out that she and Eddie Marsan as John play “characters written by Chris”. Neither Darwin’s parents nor their sons cooperated with the project, so it relies on research and the manuscript of an unpublished book by journalist David Leake.
“You have to imagine a lot of it,” admits Lang. “You do research and research and then take that little leap. It’s a guess, but it’s a really educated guess. You can’t say that’s really what happened or what’s on his mind. But how well do each of us know each other anyway? If I could have sat Anne down and said, “Why did you do that?” I’m not sure she would be clearer than me.
But without permission or input from the living originals, does the writer feel responsible to them? “Of course,” Lang replies. “There is a huge moral responsibility and we have talked about it a lot. There is a duty towards the boys but also towards John and Anne. You can’t defame them, you can’t make stuff up. As for the kids, I’d be surprised if they didn’t think it was a sympathetic portrayal of what happened to them. We are fully on their side that this was a heinous crime against them.
But what if they just didn’t want to be dramatized in prime time and featured again in the media?
“The rebuttal to that is that the boys gave a huge interview to the Daily Mail. Anne has written a book and done many interviews. The Darwins spoke to the press on several occasions. So the defense of being left alone does not hold.
The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe joins ITV’s Quiz (about the alleged ‘cough’ fraud to win Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) and BBC One’s A Very English Scandal (reenacting an instigated murder plot by then-Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe) in an emerging subgenre of real-life, comedic crime capers. Because no one died in any of these crimes – although a dog was killed in Thorpe’s story – the dramatizations have more license to entertain.
The series’ executive producer, David Nath, said, “We said from the start that we shouldn’t shy away from humor. I’m starting to wonder if we’re reaching a saturation point with hard, dark true crime. What are the iconic stories of this genre to tell? Also, with where we are in the world right now — first Covid, now Ukraine — I don’t know if that’s the most inviting prospect of watching something truly horrific. I think the sweet spot is the true story which is also enjoyable.
Getting true stories is also an obsession of Dolan. For Rose West, she scoured a bunch of NHS glasses to find the right pair. With Anne Darwin, the challenge was dental – finding false teeth that would give Dolan narrower features. And, although aided by growing up in nearby Middlesbrough, she also worked with a dialogue coach on tones in Darwin native Seaton Carew.
“One of the things I learned is that if you’re doing an accent, you should learn it with your fake teeth! You don’t want to do it one way and then put your teeth in and have to start over because the dentures change the sound,” she says.
When filming wrapped, Dolan donned a different pair of dentures to play trailblazing artist Audrey Amiss in Carol Morley’s upcoming biopic, Typist Artist Pirate King, then gave one of the best stage performances of the year. as Sister Aloysius, a nun who suspects a priest. of child abuse, in a revival of Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley. Although Aloysius is the kind of unpleasant character she likes to play, there was one key difference – which caused problems.
“I knew something was wrong and I had to consciously force myself not to put my hand to my mouth,” she says. “Then I realized 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 moved on to the fifth series of Unforgotten, ITV’s brilliant police procedural, with Sinéad Keegan replacing Nicola Walker as Sanjeev Bhaskar’s co-cold crime investigator. Both shows involve ordinary people doing a bad thing that they seem to have gotten away with, until fate exposes them.
“That’s where my main interest lies,” says Lang. “I think we’re often on the verge of extreme behavior all our lives, and sometimes we do. So it’s about trying to understand that – and the stress that must put on the way you live your life. I suspect that some people who have committed crimes are better at living with this duality. But many 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