The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe started on ITV last night (17th April) and has certainly proved to be a talking point.


It explores the bizarre true story of Anne and John Darwin, a couple from Hartlepool who went to extreme lengths to get out of their unimaginable debt.

In 2002, John faked his own death by paddling out into the North Sea in just a canoe - when the canoe was recovered but he wasn’t, he was presumed dead, but he was actually alive the whole time. Anne was able to then collect his life insurance money.

The pair planned to move to Panama years later to start afresh, but a change in visa laws meant their trip was cut short and John handed himself into UK police, feigning amnesia.

Their entire plot unravelled shortly after and they were convicted of fraud in 2008.

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While The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe is largely based on fact, parts of it have been dramatised. Read on for the true story behind the drama.

The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe true story

Anne and John Darwin lived in Seaton Carew, Hartlepool, and suffered from crippling debt totalling over £700,000, forcing them to the verge of bankruptcy.

As a solution to their financial problems, John decided to fake his own death, aiming to convince people he had taken a canoe out to the North Sea where he eventually lost control and drowned, with his body gone forever in the tide. He asked his wife, Anne, to help him by solidifying the lie and being the one to claim the life insurance - she would also have to tell their two sons their father was dead.

On 21st March 2002, John was reported missing when he failed to turn up at work (as a prison officer). The following day, the paddle he used along with the canoe wreckage was discovered. The police soon after declared him presumed dead, giving Anne the all-important death certificate she needed to claim his life insurance.

John meanwhile, took residence in the bedsit next to their home, which they also owned. He could visit Anne through doors connecting the old properties together.

The pair stayed like that for several years, until they decided to start a new life in Panama, where they would live and work. John obtained a passport using a fake identity and in July 2006, they flew out to the Central American country where they purchased a property.

Anne and John Darwin's police pictures (GETTY)
Anne and John Darwin's police pictures (Getty)

However, new visa rules in Panama meant those who wished to live and work there would have to have their identities confirmed by the UK police force - something John couldn't do.

John decided the game was up and planned to turn up at a random London police office, feign amnesia, and then go back to his normal life.

What he wasn't aware of though when he handed himself in in 2007, was that the police had been investigating suspicious behaviour around Anne's movements - it wasn't long before their story was fully uncovered and the pair were arrested.

In July 2008, Anne and John Darwin were both found guilty of fraud and sentenced to more than six years in prison each. Their sons publicly denounced them.

Anne now lives in the North East and has since reconciled with her boys. John lives in the Philippines with his new wife.

Were Anne and John Darwin involved in The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe?

No, Anne and John Darwin weren't involved with The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe production.

Speaking at a recent Q&A for The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, Lang was asked if he spoke to Anne or John Darwin, to which he said: "No, not direct contact, we approached them all. And none of them were interested in discussing or collaborating on the project.

"David Leigh, who was the journalist who broke the story... does still speak with Anne and has a good relationship with her. So, you know, I think [he] hopefully has been able to reassure her that it is as sympathetic a telling of her story as is possible, given what she did.

"But no, they didn't want to get involved. You know, they have told their story a lot in public, obviously... Yeah, none of them wanted to."

The creative team also revealed that despite not wanting to be involved, one of the Darwins' sons visited set during filming.

"[He was there] on the first day of filming, in disguise," explained executive producer David Nath. "We didn't know he was there until a few weeks later."

"We'd heard he'd come in a baseball cap," added Monica Dolan, who plays Anne.

Nath continued: "Yeah, with a COVID mask on to watch."

Is The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe based on a book?

The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe is based on the real-life crime committed by Anne and John Darwin, and while a lot of this was taken from factual court reports and news coverage, there is also a new book that writer Chris Lang leaned on, which has the same title and has been penned by David Leigh.

Leigh is a British journalist who tracked down Anne Darwin in Panama City and persuaded her to be interviewed. Her confession to him brought about the explosive revelations of John's crime, but also sealed her fate as he sold the story to the Daily Mirror and Daily Mail.

He kept in touch with Anne and she eventually agreed to tell him her side of the story on the record in a book, titled Out Of My Depth while in prison. There, she speaks of how she was really feeling during the whole lie, and touches upon the control she says John had over her.

Leigh's new book The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, which is set for release on 14th April, sees him team up with retired detective Tony Hutchinson, who was the lead of the case against John.

Tony Hutchinson of Cleveland Police holds the fake passport picture of John Darwin (GETTY)
Tony Hutchinson of Cleveland Police holds the fake passport picture of John Darwin (Getty)

Lang recently explained where he took his inspiration from to tell his version of events.

The series is narrated by Anne Darwin, so her emotions and recounting of the tale are imagined, but not wholly fictional. Speaking of why Anne made the perfect narrator, Lang said: "In many ways, John Darwin is a relatively easy character to understand (his is the story of a narcissist), but Anne is much more complex, so to try to understand how a mother could have committed such an heinous crime, I decided to place her at the centre of the piece, and then create a device which allowed us to hear her inner monologue, her actual thought processes."

Speaking about how he did that, Lang explained: "Because she didn't want to talk to us, there was necessarily a degree of imagination involved, but it was an 'educated imagination', because I was also drawing on a lot of research (the police interviews, court reports, press interviews and Dave's manuscript to help me understand her journey."

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