The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe story

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Sunday:The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe; (ITV, 9pm)

Who remembers The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin?

It was a hit sitcom based on David Nobbs’ novels about a dissatisfied, middle-aged man who fakes his own death by running into the sea.

But did Reggie’s antics inspire a real-life incident?

Anne Darwin and John DarwinAnne Darwin and John Darwin
Anne Darwin and John Darwin

The story of John Darwin bears some similarities, although in a way, the facts are even more incredible than the fiction – as we’re about to discover courtesy of this four-part drama, which is being shown on consecutive nights. It’s based on a script by Chris Lang, creator of the brilliant Unforgotten; Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan play ex-teacher and prison officer Darwin and his wife Anne.

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“I am beyond delighted to be working with two of the finest actors of their generation,” said Lang when the production was announced. “I have admired them both from afar for many years (not in a creepy way though) and cannot wait to see them bring Anne and John Darwin to life.

“If I’d tried to sell this project as an original story, it would never have got further than the pitch: ‘It’s just too far-fetched, Chris, no-one would ever believe that any of that could actually have happened’. Except it did. All of it. And I loved writing every single word.”

If you don’t recall the case, which was headline-hitting news in 2007, then here’s a brief recap.

In March 2002, Darwin was spotted paddling out to sea in his canoe near his home in Seaton Carew, County Durham, and was reported missing when he failed to turn up for work. Twenty-four hours later, the paddle and wreckage from the canoe was found, and although rescuers were puzzled by how someone could have got into difficulties on such a calm day, a death certificate was issued.

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Over the next five years, Darwin remained incognito – even the couple’s sons believed their father was dead. Anne claimed his life insurance and everything seemed to go as you would expect, until he resurfaced in 2007 claiming amnesia. A year later, both husband and wife received custodial sentences after being convicted for fraud.

The drama charts not only these events, but what happened in between.

“The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe tells the story of surely the most outrageous fraud of modern times – and my favourite kind of drama is when the outrageous comes from the prosaic,” claims Dolan. “As breath-taking as their managing to pull this deception off in the first place is how spectacularly the couple wrecked it for themselves as soon as they had got away with it.”

“I’m so thrilled to be working with Chris Lang, one of our greatest writers, and to get the chance to work with Monica Dolan,” adds Marsan. “The story of how and why John Darwin faked his own death to defraud insurance companies is fascinating. I can’t pretend to understand what was going on in his head when he made those choices.”

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Darwin hit the headlines again recently when he announced he was going to fight in Ukraine. So, as was the case with Reggie Perrin, there’s perhaps more to come – maybe this time next year, Lang will have written an even more incredulous sequel.