The real-life story of a Hartlepool man who faked his own death to claim life insurance and avoid bankruptcy is the focus of new ITV drama The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe.
The jaw-dropping plan initially worked and everyone thought John Darwin had died in an accident in March 2002 until he walked into a police station in London in 2007 – claiming amnesia – and the complicated plot began to unravel.
Now, 20 years after it all started, the story will come to life once again in a new TV series filmed largely in town.
The four-part drama focuses on how Anne became complicit in her husband’s deception as she started to convince the world, their family and friends, the police and insurance companies that he had gone missing while canoeing off Seaton Carew, where the couple owned two large houses with panoramic views of the sea.
The series is narrated by Anne, played by BAFTA-winner Monica Dolan, while Eddie Marsan stars as John Darwin.
Writer Chris Lang has said Anne didn’t want to talk to the creators of the drama and he drew on police interviews, court reports and press interviews to help understand her journey.
“In many ways, John Darwin is a relatively easy character to understand – his is the story of a narcissist – but Anne is much more complex,” said Chris.
“So to try to understand how a mother could have committed such a heinous crime, I decided to place her at the centre of the piece, and then create a device which allowed us to hear her inner monologue, her actual thought processes.
He added: “You’d never have imagined that this very ordinary couple could have been hatching this extraordinary plot that they nearly got away with. It’s a brilliant slice of English life.
“I’m sure many of us have dreamt up extraordinary solutions to our problems and then stepped back from the precipice. The only difference between us and the Darwins, is that they jumped.”
In the years after John faked his death, Anne lied to their sons – Mark and Anthony – while in the early days of the fraud her husband secretly lived in a bedsit next door to the home he shared with Anne.
The couple eventually decided to move to Panama City to start a new life together.
But their lies were exposed by the discovery of an infamous photo of them posing together in a Panama real estate office in July 2006.
Actor Eddie Marsan has revealed that he and Monica would stay in character all the time on set and only spoke to each other in Hartlepool accents.
“I don’t know what Monica sounds like when she’s not Anne. We wanted to sound like a married couple, so we only spoke to each other in a Hartlepool accent,” said Eddie.
Speaking of the couple, he said: “The dynamic between them is fascinating. They are co-dependent. They’re both so dysfunctional, but on the surface you don’t realise it. In private, however, you see that he is a fantasist and she just wants to be loved by him.”
While preparing for the role, Eddie didn’t meet John – but says he can relate to him.
“I can identify with John’s hubris”, said Eddie.
“As an actor, I go from thinking I’m going to win an Oscar one week to thinking I’m going to be driving a cab the next.
“My self-esteem goes up and down all the time. So I can completely understand that in John. He refuses to face reality and thinks he’s going to win. We all do that, especially when it comes to money.”
He added: “John tried to build a buy-to-let empire and retire early. He had delusions of grandeur.
“In a narcissistic way, he thought he was smarter than everyone else. That’s why he had the cojones to try this.
“He thought he could outsmart everyone else. He saw other people as merely two-dimensional and thought he was the only three-dimensional person in the world. But he underestimated people’s ability to see through him.”
Nine photos from Hartlepool filming of John Darwin canoe drama as series set to …
Monica Dolan, who portrays Anne, hopes the story will provoke debate.
“It’s an astonishingly interesting relationship between John and Anne,” Monica said.
“It’s also a series of events that is incredibly bizarre, and yet if you follow what they were trying to do, every individual event makes sense.
“The drama says something wider as well. No one is denying they were criminals, but at the same time banks were selling mortgages they shouldn’t have been selling to that couple. They were bound to get into trouble. It really is a fascinating story.”
She added: “I hope it provokes debate. It’s a story about forgiveness and that is something which very much divides people.”
John and Anne were jailed for more than six years in 2008 after he admitted fraud offences and Anne was convicted after a crown court trial.
Neither of them contributed to the production. John is remarried and lives in the Philippines.
Monica said: “From the beginning, Anne didn’t want to contribute to this production.
“She’s done her time and I respect that. I’m okay to leave well enough alone. I also want to put it in capital letters that this is a character in a script. I’ve never met her. It’s a take on her and it’s a drama.”
Speaking of what he’d tell John if he met him, Eddie added: “I’d say ‘what were you thinking? That was crazy’. But I don’t know if I’d like to meet him.
“He’s probably hacked off that it’s not Brad Pitt playing him. When he heard it was me, he probably thought, “great. Thanks a lot’.”
The series will start airing nightly at 9pm on Easter Sunday, April 17, through to Wednesday, April 20.