A new TV drama tells the incredible story of Canoe Man John Darwin, who faked his own death at sea in 2002. He hid in a secret room at home while wife Anne made a fortune in a life insurance and pension scam – even lying to their two sons that their dad was dead. The plot was exposed by the Mirror in 2007. The four-part ITV drama The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe, which starts on Sunday, was inspired by a book by ex-Mirror man David Leigh – who now recalls his unlikely friendship de he with Anne.
The makers of ITV’s The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe hope that it will cast new light on a woman whose punishment for telling some truly outrageous lies – first exposed by the Daily Mirror – was being sentenced to more than six years in a maximum security prison.
Inmates included serial killer Rose West, child abusers and drug dealers.
My book, which inspired the series, is based on my 15-year friendship with Anne, a quietly-spoken former doctors’ receptionist from the North East.
Screenwriter Chris Lang hopes the drama will provoke debate about Anne – and questions how much she was to blame for the jaw-dropping frauds that made headlines across the world.
Anne is played by BAFTA-winner Monica Dolan, who also narrates the series in Anne’s voice. John is played by Eddie Marsan, known for his roles in Ray Donovan, V for Vendetta and War Horse.
Anne, who will be 70 later this year, will be happy when all the fuss, as she sees it, dies down. She has confronted the consequences of the pain and anguish she caused, and paid an exceptionally heavy price.
She has quietly rebuilt her life having won the forgiveness of the two sons who once disowned her.
John is now living in the Philippines with his new, much younger wife. He has no remorse or regret – other than perhaps being found out – and revels in his notoriety of him.
I first met Anne shortly before Christmas, 2007, when she rather reluctantly let me into her apartment in Panama City.
I was a reporter dispatched to track down the wife of the man who had mysteriously come back from the dead five-and-a-half years after vanishing at sea.
She initially claimed to be ‘thrilled’ at his resurrection. Only it was obvious she was lying.
John had persuaded her they could start a secretive new life in Central America after fooling the world.
Fraudulent claims on his life insurance policies after he was declared missing, presumed dead, had made that possible.
However, a change in Panama’s visa rules ended the idea of a life in the sun with a fake identity. John flew home and decided to feign a bad case of amnesia.
Then that incredible photograph of Anne and John smiling happily with a Panamanian estate agent surfaced, taken 18 months before he supposedly came back from the dead.
Emphatic proof that the Darwins had committed an outrageous fraud. On the front page of the Mirror.
There came an array of confessions from Anne. John had faked his death because he was drowning in a sea of debt and could not face what he saw as the shame of bankruptcy.
Incredibly, for most of those missing years, he had been living in a bedsit next door to the family home in Seaton Carew, Co Durham, flitting between the two properties through secret passageways.
It was undoubtedly John’s idea – but Anne had gone along with it, albeit reluctantly. Then she had lied on a monumental scale to everyone, causing untold pain to her sons de ella Mark and Anthony.
Andy Commins/Daily Mirror)
Anne genuinely seemed relieved when the truth was revealed. Ella’s living her life as a lie for nearly six years had taken its toll. She was a nervous wreck; a woman who for years had dreaded every ring of the phone, every knock at the door.
She agreed to fly home to the UK with me. She knew she would be facing jail. She also knew that her two grown-up sons of her would probably never forgive her.
Heartbroken at what they saw as their mother’s unbelievable betrayal, they had already said as much. She was dead to them.
My stories were making front-page headlines day after day. But watching Anne’s life crumble before my eyes was an emotional experience. Anne’s grief for her was palpable – and she knew it was nobody’s fault but her own.
Her few close friends had abandoned her.
I genuinely worried she might do something to harm herself, or worse.
She had never been able to tell her sons because she was terrified of implicating them in the crimes.
She knew if she told them they would insist she turn herself in. John would never have forgiven her – and she hadn’t the courage to stand up to him.
Shortly before our plane landed at Manchester Airport, I offered what I believed to be good, practical advice.
“Tell the truth, Anne,” I said. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve lied to me, but for the sake of your family, tell the police exactly what happened.”
All she needed to do was plead guilty and accept her punishment.
Sadly, that didn’t happen. Her lawyers de ella came up with the now-abolished defense of ‘marital coercion’.
But for that to work, John had to be at her side at each stage of the offenses. He wasn’t even in the same country for much of the time.
By pleading not guilty, it also meant Mark and Anthony were forced to give evidence which helped seal her fate.
Anne, then 56, was sent to a maximum security jail. It was a terrifying experience for a woman who was no danger to anyone.
I frequently wrote to Anne, and visited her in HMP Low Newton in Brasside, Co Durham, several times. Most people, other than her supportive sister Christine and her elderly parents, abandoned her.
She finally found the courage to divorce John. She has had no contact with him since being released after serving half her sentence from her.
By that time, the two sons she had hurt so badly had both made their peace with their ‘mam’.
Mark was the first to visit her in jail. After she was transferred to Askham open prison, near York, in 2010, Anthony and his wife Louise introduced Anne to the grandson of whose existence she had no idea.
Remove what viewers will make of the ITV drama remains to be seen. I was a consultant and spent time on set at Elstree Studios and in Portugal, where the Panama scenes were recreated.
Today, Anne Darwin lives a quiet life in a pretty Yorkshire village. She dowes on her four grandchildren, still too young to understand her notoriety.
The way I see it, Anne earned and was given a remarkable second chance in life. Good luck to her from her.
The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe by David Leigh, with Tony Hutchinson, is published by Hodder.