The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe - is it a true story? What happened? When is it on TV?

Discover the incredible true story of John and Anne Darwin, their outlandish plan to fake his death, and what happened when they tried to start a new life in Panama.

By Katie Archer Published: 26 April 2021 - 5.48pm
Getty Beach Cleveland

The amazing events of John Darwin’s attempt to fake his own death are being adapted for a TV drama, The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe.

It has all the elements of a far-fetched Hollywood thriller, but is an extraordinary tale about an otherwise ordinary family who took the biggest risk of their lives.

Find out more about the story behind the drama and when you can expect to see it on TV.

Who are the cast?

Renowned actors, Monica Dolan (Appropriate Adult, W1A, A Very English Scandal) and Eddie Marsan (Ray Donovan, Sherlock Holmes, Happy Go Lucky), will play Anne and John Darwin in the ITV drama, The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe.

Writer Chris Lang (Unforgotten) said: "I am beyond delighted to be working with two of the finest actors of their generation.

"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.”

The drama will focus on how Anne Darwin 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 in 2002 whilst canoeing off the coast of Seaton Carew in Cleveland, where the couple owned two large houses with panoramic views of the sea.

The deception was to take its toll on Anne who lied to their sons, Mark and Anthony, for five years whilst her husband, in the early days of the fraud, secretly lived in a bedsit next door to the home he shared with Anne.

Is The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe based on a true story?

Unbelievably, yes – all of the jaw-dropping events in this new ITV series actually happened.

In the early Noughties, the story of John and Anne Darwin gripped the nation as their web of lies and insurance fraud began to unravel.

John, a prison officer, had reportedly gone missing off the coast of Seaton Carew in Cleveland in 2002, where he had been canoeing near to the stretch of coast on which he owned two large houses overlooking the sea.

He and his wife Anne were in serious debt – there were large mortgages and John had run up £64k on 13 credit cards, sending their finances spiralling out of control.

John Darwin 2008 Cleveland Police/Getty

John was facing bankruptcy over his excessive spending, but came up with a plan so strange that no one would have believed it as he decided to defraud insurance companies by faking his own death.

Although Anne wanted him to take the bankruptcy, he convinced her to go along with his scheme of lying to everyone – including their own sons Mark and Anthony – about his disappearance.

Meanwhile, John took up residence in a bedsit next door to the home he had shared with Anne, living right under the noses of everyone who thought he had died.

For five years, the couple’s sons were devastated by the loss of their father, and had no idea that their parents would have been able to tell them such an enormous lie. Meanwhile the strain of the deception took its toll on Anne.

Eventually, Anne and John decided to start a new life together in Panama City in 2006, but things began to unravel when John realised his fake passport would not be accepted under new visa regulations.

Detective Superintendent Tony Hutchinson of Cleveland Police holds the  fake passport picture of John Darwin 2007 Getty Images

He tried to return home in 2007, walking into a police station where he claimed not to remember the previous five years, but Anne was already under investigation by police suspicious about her move to Panama.

When a photo of them together at a real estate office in Panama turned up on a Google image search linked to a website about moving to the Central American state, their story came crashing down around them.

Screenwriter Chris Lang, known for his work on Unforgotten and Innocent, said: “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.”

ITV head of drama Polly Hill added: “This is an extraordinary story of deception within a very ordinary family.  Chris [Lang] has written brilliant scripts about the heartbreaking cost of this elaborate lie.”

What happened to John and Anne Darwin?

Although Anne tried to say in court that she had been coerced into the lie by John at their trial in 2008, a jury didn’t believe her story.

Both were sentenced to more than six years each in prison on convictions of fraud, and while they appealed their sentences, they were both turned down.

Anne Darwin leaves Manchester Airport police station 2007 AFP

John was eventually released from prison in January 2011, followed by Anne in March of the same year.

Although their sons Mark and Anthony were initially relieved to find that their father was still alive, they were so appalled by the deception that they cut contact with their parents.

When is The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe on TV?

The drama has only just been commissioned by ITV, so as yet there is no start date or cast announced.

Keep checking back for further updates.

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