When the story of the “Canoe Man” emerged in 2007, I’d venture that the nation’s screenwriters were all sharpening their thoughts. You’ll probably remember it, or some of it: in March 2002 John Darwin, a 52-year-old former teacher and prison officer, was seen paddling out to sea in a canoe from the shore at Seaton Carew. This was deliberate – Darwin was about to fake his own death from him and, in collusion with his wife Anne, use the insurance money to pay off his whopping debts from him. The plan, if you can call it that, was to hide out in a tent in the woods until the story died down (it didn’t).
What was most striking about the Darwins was how profoundly unstriking they were, and this too I’d venture caught the eye of the creators of The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe (ITV): there’s nothing more intriguing than ordinary people doing extraordinary, or in this case utterly witless, things. It invites the audience to ask questions of themselves, what they might do in different circumstances, and that leads you to empathy, morality, secrets, lies and all the good stuff.
The question for a screenwriter with a great true tale though, is how to do it. Here, writer Chris Lang (Unforgotten) has chosen to play it straight. Apart from a beginning that’s set at the end (in 2007 with Monica Dolan’s Anne Darwin being chased around Panama City by paparazzi) the story jumps right in with John (Eddie Marsan) having lived way beyond his means and them both concluding that there is “ only one sensible solution”. It tells you all you need to know about husband and wife that Anne’s sensitive solution is declaring bankruptcy, while John’s is faking his own death in a freak canoeing accident.
Things unravel quickly, one lie swirling into another until Anne finds herself telling her own sons their father is dead. Seconds later John, who in this telling is a deluded narcissist, is on the phone asking Anne when he can come back home. Lang correctly identifies that the interesting story here is Anne’s de ella – how did a seemingly kind, thoughtful woman find herself tied up in a marriage like this one? Why did she go along with the harebrained scheme? Why didn’t she just turn him in, as she threatened several times?
It’s fertile ground yet strangely we’re offered access to Anne’s thoughts and motives via a voiceover. In TV drama this tends to be a bit of a lazy shortcut: show, don’t tell etc. It’s therefore a surprise to find a voiceover, because Lang is no lazy writer – witness Unforgotten, one of British TV’s best recent shows – and performers as good as Monica Dolan don’t need their thoughts and motives explained anyway. They show, they don’t tell. The obvious comparison is with Sky’s Landscapers, another bizarre, real-life crime story (about the Mansfield Murders) which also asked why a mild-mannered couple (in this case Olivia Colman and David Thewlis) might do egregious things.
Landscapers took a very different approach, throwing every filming technique in the book at it and creating something wonderfully trippy. But both dramas admitted that there’s always comedy in dark deeds, and both were focused on superb performances from their leads. Britain currently leads the way in real-life crime dramas like this, and it should be celebrated. Or to borrow a phrase, we’re killing it.