The True Story of The Thief, His Wife & The Canoe: John Darwin's shocking insurance scam

We look back at the incredible real story of John and Anne Darwin, which has been turned into ITV drama The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe.

By Alex Fletcher Updated: 14 April 2022 - 3.04pm
ITV Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan in costume as John and Anne Darwin

Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan are bringing the infamous real story of John Darwin and his wife Anne to ITV in April in the four-part drama The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe.

The darkly comic retelling of the audacious insurance scam that went wrong looks back at the true story in the North-East of England in 2002, when John Darwin successfully faked his own death.

The series will also explore how it all went wrong for John and his wife Anne after they attempted to start a new life in Panama, before they were eventually caught out.

But how much of the ITV series is based on real events? We look back at the true story of John and Anne Darwin…

The Canoe con true story

John and Anne Darwin were in a huge amount of debt after a series of failed investments in property didn’t pay off for them.

Refusing to declare himself bankrupt, John concocted a way out of their financial difficulties. The only problem was that it required an elaborate hoax – faking his own death.

Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan with a canoe as John and Anne Darwin ITV
Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan as John and Anne Darwin

Commenting on the police’s original investigation, The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe writer Chris Lang said: "There were some missed opportunities.

"I had someone on Twitter contact me and he was the last person to see John 'alive'. He was an army trainer and he saw John on the beach when he was doing some training. He told the police how bizarre John’s behaviour had been and they didn’t follow it up.

"He said he'd seen this guy and he was repeatedly coming up the beach and was obviously stowing away some things and he kept freezing as this guy was running up and down doing his circuits."

Hiding in the house next door

One of the most surprising and shocking aspects of the story is that is often forgotten about is how, after faking his own death, John Darwin simply moved back into the flat next door to Anne.

While the couple waited for the insurance money to come in, John walked around their small hometown of Seaton Carew with only a beard for a disguise.

John stayed in the connecting building and managed to keep up the con, even when his grieving sons came to visit his 'widow' Anne.

Eddie Marsan with a beard as the disguised John Darwin during his time in hiding ITV
Eddie Marsan with a beard as the disguised John Darwin during his time in hiding

One former colleague of John did report spotting him walking along the street, but what worked in the couple’s favour was that the police didn’t want to give Anne false hope with sightings, so didn’t pursue the investigations as much as they otherwise might have done.

Talking about how John managed to hide in plain sight, actor Eddie Marsan described his success as “remarkable”.

"It’s not like he’s in Mexico City or London. He's in a tiny seaside resort where everyone knows everyone and he’s able to hide between 2002 and 2007. It's extraordinary.

"His disappearance was the biggest thing to hit Seaton Carew in years and two weeks later he was walking up and down the high street. It's literally as big as Chiswick High Road. And he’s walking up the high road with a beard and stick."

Marsan added: "He was a narcissist and what narcissist do is they believe everyone else is two-dimensional and they are the only three-dimensional human being. They think nobody else sees the world as complex or as in-depth as they do. So they lie. And people believe the lie because they don't believe anyone would think they are that stupid. We believe there must be some element of truth because you wouldn't tell me that lie."

Monica Dolan as Anne Darwin in The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe ITV

A hitch in John’s plan was that the insurance company wouldn't pay out unless there was a death certificate and Anne couldn't get one until John was officially declared dead, which might have taken seven years if normal procedures were followed.

In the end, Anne played the sympathy card and claimed that she couldn't move on without a death certificate and even applied to the Home Secretary for an inquest to speed things along.

On 10 April, 2003, John Darwin was declared legally dead by a coroner and Anne was able to get the money they wanted from pension and life insurance policies.

The move to Panama

When the insurance money eventually came through, John managed to get a false passport under the name John Jones. The name was of a child born shortly before John in the local area, but who had died aged only five weeks.

You'll notice Eddie Marsan's John reading Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal in the TV series - that was the book that inspired John's new identity con.

Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan  filming in Portugal for the Panama scenes as John and Anne Darwin ITV

After collecting the money, John eventually picked Panama as a potential destination that he could start a new life with Anne. However, when they were looking to buy somewhere to live out there, the couple made a big mistake that would eventually bring them to justice.

The couple had their photo taken with the relocation agency, which would later become the crucial piece of evidence against them.

John’s plans to use a plot of land in Panama to build their home and set up a resort for holidaymakers had one crucial snag – he needed a letter from the police in Britain stating that he was a "person of good character" to get residence in the Central American country.

At this point, John was in the con so deep that another big lie seemed like the only way for the couple to get the life they wanted.

Faking amnesia

Rather than abandoning the Panama plan, John returned to Britain and turned himself in at a police station. However, rather than admit he had faked his death, John told the police he had been suffering from amnesia.

Walking into a London police station, John said: "I think I'm a missing person".

John's sons were thrilled with the news and Anne was contacted in Panama, where she feigned excitement.

For a short period of time, John's bizarre claim was believed, but the photograph of Anne and John together in Panama alongside the estate agent proved in the end to be their greatest folly.

It was time-stamped and proved that the couple had recently been together and, more importantly, that Anne knew he wasn't dead.

The court case

Karl Pilkington plays one of the detectives on the Darwin case ITV
Karl Pilkington plays one of the detectives on the Darwin case

In 2008, John Darwin pleaded guilty to the charge of obtaining cash by deception.

Anne was also found guilty after a trial, but because she pleaded not guilty on the grounds of coercion, she got a longer sentence than her husband.

Their sons, who were found to have played no role in the scam, distanced themselves from John and Anne and even testified against them at the trial.

The judge declared that their children had been victims of the "grossest form of betrayal".

Anthony Darwin said after the trial: "Dad told one nasty lie and disappeared... but she lied for six years. She was the face of the lies and she kept lying, even when the evidence was so overwhelmingly against her".

The couple eventually repaid the £540,000 they owed and, after being released from jail, John downplayed the crime, arguing that they "didn’t kill anyone".

The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe writer Chris Lang (Unforgotten) said he hoped viewers would come to their own conclusion over whether Anne Darwin was unfortunate with the court's verdict.

"The law has changed. The law changed several years later. Coercion and control is easier to prove now," he said.

"At that point, you had to prove the person controlling you was physically present every time an offence was committed and often John wasn’t physically present. But it feels slightly absurd looking back that a court couldn't recognise that a person could be present in your mind, particularly if someone had been with you for 20 or 30 years.

"You don’t need to be standing by their side to bend them to their will."

What happened next? The real story

After 38 years of marriage and the revelation that John had written to another woman while in jail, John and Anne divorced.

Anne moved to York and got a job with the RSPCA and has managed to rebuild her relationship with her sons.

She released a book on 2016, Out of Her Depth, where she explained how she ended up going along with her husband’s schemes and betraying her children.

Anne also collaborated with journalist David Leigh, the first reporter to track her down in Panama, for a book. Leigh’s memoir was the main inspiration for The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe.

John continued to have a colourful life, breaking his parole terms in 2013 when he flew to Ukraine to meet a romantic interest.

In 2015, John married again in the Philippines. He wed Mercy May Avila, who is 23 years younger than him, and they both continue to live in Manila.

John attempted to write a memoir during his time in jail, but it was never published.

All the Darwin family were approached to get involved in the ITV series, but opted not to take part. However, one of their sons did visit the set in disguise under a baseball cap and Covid mask and watched from afar on the first day of filming.

Speaking at the launch of the series, Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan said that they were happy to take on the roles without speaking to the couple.

"I think if John had the self-awareness to give me some kind of insight, he wouldn’t have done [the crime] in the first place. I don’t need to sit and listen to someone like that," argued Marsan.

Dolan added: "In terms of speaking to them or meeting them, I think its less useful than watching them talk to someone else or footage of them. There were many interviews, a Woman’s Hour interview and an interview on This Morning.

"If I met her, I think I would be too engaged with her to watch her."

Watch The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe on Sunday 17 April at 9pm on ITV.

The next three episodes air across the following three nights – 18 to 20 April.