In recent years, ITV’s commitment to adapting every British crime story has brought them out of a gloomy gravity Stephenabout the murdered schoolboy Stephen Lawrence, and FromCheck out the arrest of serial killer Dennis Nilsen, for the more eccentric: Hatton Park, about a group of old men robbing London’s diamond district, and their hit show, Testthe story of the cough in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Where will this creative obsession end? A harrowing feature-length reconstruction of the life of the man who pushed the flare in his ass in the Euro final? A six-part forensics series on the origins of the cat litter woman?!
The Thief, His Wife and Kano is the latest installment in ITV’s campaign to dramatize every crime committed in Great Britain, however fast. It tells the story of John and Anne Darwin, played by top TV talent Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan, a Hartlepool couple who made headlines throughout the 2000s after John faked his death in a canoe crash. John was a dreamer, a man who, in the words of his wife (who recounted the entire process), would “buy a Range Rover he couldn’t afford, and then spend £3,000 on a personalized license plate; all before we get the gas connected.” But those aspirations plunged him into the hot waters – and then the frigid waters of the North Sea – as his debts piled up and his options dwindled.
The fact that John Darwin will always be known to the press and public as “Canoe Man” demonstrates the quality of this joke, if not entirely. no victimthen sure bodyless, crime. But writer Chris Lang understands that audiences cannot be expected to sympathize with anonymous insurance companies, so the conflict centers on a married couple instead. John Marsan is Walter Mittyish’s bully, forcing his wife into the plan. “I’d really rather end it all than face the shame of bankruptcy,” he says, as he forces her into a confusing plot, “I can’t stand it.” Therefore, Dolan’s Anne became a fierce participant in the ruse. “There’s no waiting in line for a woman like you, Anne,” he said the night of his departure, leaving the audience begging him to weigh the canoe with stones.
Marsan – who looks, let’s face it, like no one in the world but Eddie Marsan – brings a clown physique to John. As the clown emerges from the waves in a tight wet suit, he looks like an evolutionary stage somewhere between a human and a haddock. Dolan, meanwhile, imbues Anne with buttoned-up anger: her reluctance to join the scheme makes way for a frustrated mania when things snowball out of control. But for all the Punch and Judy elements, and the comedy inherent in the set-up (John returns to stay in the bed next door, sneaking into his former home for a morning fry through the coffin-shaped interconnect section), The Thief, His Wife and Kano never burn. The ludicrous juxtaposition of crime with the crude depiction of a manipulative and controlling relationship doesn’t work: it leaves both sides of the drama feeling oddly unsatisfactory. Not funny enough to lean on his dark comedy credentials, but not serious enough to say anything about domestic violence.
“This is the life I really want,” John told Anne, as he sat alone, locked in bed playing dirty video games, “with you.” The Darwin family’s life in Hartlepool, before they managed to escape to the more exotic climate of Panama, had a poignant quality of batho. But as the drama, and Anne’s life, unfolds, the extraordinary crime and its culprits give way to something darker and more procedural. It’s hard to watch the grieving (but not grieving) Anne tearfully scream into the churning waves of Seaton Carew without asking: did the story of the Canoe Man need to depress me like this?