In 2002, Hartlepool couple John and Anne Darwin were in a spot of financial trouble. In order to avoid declaring bankruptcy, John decided he would fake his own death and live off the life insurance pay-out.
With the help of his wife Anne, John persuaded their two sons, the police, and the whole world that he had gone canoeing one day and never come back. It worked for a while: for years he was a missing person, presumed dead.
In 2007, after trying and failing to start a new life under a fake name in Panama with Anne, John turned up at a police station in London, claiming he had amnesia.
The story exploded, and John soon became known as “Canoe Man”, but the pair were caught out when a member of the public found a photo online of the couple in Panama, taken in 2006.
They were both convicted of fraud and sentenced to more than six years in prison.
Now, 10 years on from John’s initial “disappearance”, ITV is dramatising the story in a new four-part seriesThe Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, with Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan playing the couple at the centre of the scandal. Read our interview with Dolan about portraying Anne here.
So, what is fact and what is fiction in the ITV drama?
In the show, it is claimed that John is the kind of man who “would buy a Range Rover he couldn’t afford, and then spend £3,000 on a personalised number plate; all before we’d got the gas connected”. He did, in reality, drive a Range Rover despite being in hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of debt.
As depicted in the series, John and Anne really did live in a house right on the seafront in Seaton Crew. After he “disappeared”, John did hide in the bedsit they owned next door – and there really was a coffin-shaped doorway connecting the two properties, that he would sneak in and out of.
In the ITV drama, there is a brief mention of John being spotted by one person who knew him in Seaton Crew. In actual fact, numerous staff from the prison where he worked saw him around – one driving his Range Rover with his pet Rottweilers in the back, another at the marina. No one believed them, even though the family liaison officer reported it to the police. John later admitted that, at one point, he walked past his own brother and father on the seafront. They were within a few feet of him, but failed to spot him.
What the series also doesn’t show, is that when John turned up at the police station claiming to have amnesia, police were immediately suspicious because he was in good health, tanned, well-nourished and dressed. Also, a police financial investigation had already begun three months prior to John’s reappearance, following a tip from one of Anne’s colleagues connecting her claim on her husband’s life insurance and her subsequent emigration to Panama.
The insurance company Anne tried to claim from was also suspicious, because of the hesitant way Anne had answered questions on phone. In the series, their struggle to get the life insurance money is depicted as an issue with a technicality, rather than concerns about the truth of her story.
John and Anne’s fantasy world all came crashing down when a member of the public found a photo of them in Panama dated 2006. What the series doesn’t mention is that it was a housewife from Cheshire who spotted it and sent it to the papers. It also doesn’t mention that their business plan in Panama had been to buy 250 acres and open a canoe school, of all things.
Read about what happened to the Darwins after they left prison, here.
The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe begins on ITV at 9pm on Sunday 17 April.