Clutching a wreath as she stood at the end of the pier in the seaside resort of Seaton Carew, County Durham, 50-year-old Anne Darwin played the part of the grieving widow to perfection.
She was comforted by her sons Mark and Anthony, both in their 20s, and they had no reason to suspect her tears for their father John were anything but genuine. But as they threw their floral tributes into the North Sea on that blustery day in March 2004, Anne was fully aware the memorial service was a sham.
It was then two years since prison officer John Darwin had supposedly lost his life in a canoeing accident off this beach north of Middlesbrough. In fact, he was still very much alive and hidden away at their family home on the seafront, only a few hundred yards away.
In what was subsequently exposed as an outrageous scam, the Darwins had tricked their sons, and the wider world, into believing John was dead so they could claim the insurance money to pay off their huge debts.
It was a betrayal Anne Darwin has said she will regret for the rest of her life. Yet Mark and Anthony might still be mourning their father today had their parents not been exposed by a photograph of them smiling alongside an estate agent in Panama, four years after John’s ‘death’.
Both were subsequently jailed for the jaw-dropping fraud that is the subject of a new four-part ITV drama series, The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe, starring Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan as the crooked couple, which begins on Easter Sunday at 9pm.
Monica Dolan stars as Anne Darwin and Eddie Marsan as John Darwin in The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, an ITV drama about canoe couple John and Anne Darwin
The infamous photo that exposed the scheming couple and brought them before British courts. John and Anne Darwin (above) smiled for a photo with the manager of a holiday company in Panama in 2006
The photo re-enacted by the cast of the The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe of the moment the couple gave themselves away
John Darwin, the notorious Canoe Man, supposedly lost his life canoeing off the coast of Middlesborough
Telling the extraordinary story from Anne Darwin’s point of view, it promises to give her what ITV describes as ‘a sympathetic hearing without shying away from the incredible hurt she inflicted on her loved ones’.
This reflects the defence she put forward at her trial, suggesting that her domineering husband forced her to go through with the hare-brained scheme. That defence failed but it has been argued that, in a world where we understand more about coercive relationships, her explanation would have been taken more seriously by a jury today.
That certainly seems to be the stance taken by screenwriter Chris Lang in expressing the hope that viewers will forgive Anne.
‘Good people do bad things,’ he has said. But to forgive is one thing, to overlook someone’s guilt quite another. And even Anne has been harder on herself than it seems the programme-makers plan to be in their post-Me Too exculpation of a woman who has confessed that she never really believed in her own defence.
As she wrote in her autobiography Out Of My Depth, published in 2016, ‘evidence proved I was not even in the same country as John when some aspects of the crime were committed.
‘Secondly, a string of loving emails between us . . . undermined any possibility that John had been totally overbearing.’
Sad: The sons, Anthony and Mark, are shown supporting their supposedly widowed mother for years, throwing wreaths into the North Sea in front of Anne’s home where their father was hiding next door
Leading male: Eddie admitted that he can ‘see myself in him’ as he opened up about his own self confidence
She also admits her lawyers drew a blank when they asked her for examples of domineering behaviour that might have been witnessed by their sons. ‘It was difficult. I couldn’t think of anything where they’d been present.’
Viewers will have to make up their own minds about her culpability — but her autobiography never quite answers the question she poses early on: ‘How could I do this to my own sons?’
Clearly, John and Anne’s marriage was an unhappy one. By her account, they were unequal partners from the day they met as teenagers travelling by bus from the coastal village of Blackhall Rocks, eight miles north of Seaton Carew, to their respective grammar schools in Hartlepool.
John, who was born in 1950, was at a Catholic school for boys and Anne, two years his junior, attended a convent school down the road.
Later, she would blame what happened in part on his family’s social climbing. His father, Ronnie, had been a builder’s labourer but married a girl who lived in one of Blackhall’s posher private houses.
‘Ronnie had no intention of leading what he considered the grimy life of a miner. John was later brought up in an atmosphere of money, money, money — that’s what mattered above anything else.’
As a welder’s daughter who left school at 17 with qualifications in shorthand and typing, Anne says she didn’t feel good enough to go out with John, who passed his A-levels before training as a biology teacher. And soon after their marriage in December 1973, she discovered that he was ‘never quite satisfied with his lot’.
Early in their marriage, he bought an old Jaguar ‘which we didn’t need and certainly couldn’t afford’ and later a sporty little kit car which, she says, he would have driven in the snow with the roof off if there was a chance of anyone seeing him.
These were but two instances of how he constantly overrode her — and there were far more serious examples to come after the births of Mark in 1975 and Anthony three years later.
In 1992, John gave up teaching to become a prison officer and shortly afterwards began building a small property empire, with more than a dozen rental homes across County Durham. Anne maintains that she thought it was all too much to take on, especially as the properties never brought in the income he had hoped for. But, as usual, she was ignored and in the new millennium he bought two large Victorian seafront homes at Seaton Carew, one for them to live in and one they converted into 13 bedsits.
Character: Monica’s character, Anne, narrates the story from her point of view during the series, but revealed she only had the script to work from – as the real life Anne ‘did not want to be involved’
Unable to find suitable tenants to fill the latter, they spiralled into debt — but still John bought his ‘pride and joy’, a gleaming blue Range Rover with personalised number plates. The repayments for this swallowed half of his £1,300 take-home pay each month.
Although Anne earned £750 a month as a doctor’s receptionist, their mortgage payments were £1,735 and they also had several high-interest loans.
By the time of John’s disappearance, they had total debts of about £350,000 and couldn’t sell any of their rental homes because he had rolled all their mortgages into one huge monthly payment.
‘I hated coming home from work, dreading what new bills or threatening letters were on the doormat,’ said Anne. ‘All I wanted was to go back to a time before the rental properties and live a simple life.’
Eventually she suggested they should declare bankruptcy but John refused, saying he would never be able to live with the shame — and one evening in early 2002, he announced his audacious alternative plan.
‘I’m going to have to do a Reggie Perrin,’ he told Anne, referring to the 1970s TV sitcom character who faked his own death.
‘I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,’ she wrote. ‘I was so angry. “I’m the one who’ll have to do the lying,” I told him. “You can’t honestly expect me to tell the boys you’re dead? What sort of mother do you think I am?” ’
She claimed weeks of such arguments followed — but whenever she protested, he insisted there was no other option. Eventually she gave in because ‘I had no self-confidence and low self-esteem, and didn’t have the courage to do the right thing.
‘I put all my trust in the man I married and couldn’t perceive a life without him. As a result, I committed a crime that will haunt me for the rest of my life.’
It’s at this point that the reader is left doing a double-take. Many people are unhappy in their marriages without becoming implicated in fraud, yet what happens next is presented as somehow inevitable, rather than the criminal choice of a woman putting her own financial security above her children’s happiness.
Incredibly, the plans went ahead, with John carefully scripting what Anne should say in the days and weeks after his disappearance, and keeping a close eye on the weather and the tides.
Finally, on the morning of March 21, he decided the sea was rough enough for his vanishing act to be plausible — and while Anne went to work as normal, he took his red canoe down to the beach at Seaton Carew, making sure that several walkers witnessed him setting off.
In order to fake his own death, John Darwin made sure that several walkers witnessed him setting off in his red canoe down to the beach at Seaton Carew
Paddling out to sea to a point about a mile along the coast, he drifted back to shore again, then hid in sand dunes until dusk. Then he weighted down the canoe and pushed it out into the waves before meeting Anne at their pre-arranged rendezvous point in a beach car park at 7pm.
‘There, under cover of darkness, was John’s outline, trudging towards me,’ she wrote. ‘He looked like a bedraggled Milk Tray Man, wearing a thick black jacket, jeans and a woolly hat and carrying a rucksack.
‘ “For God’s sake, John, you can’t do this,” I begged him. It still wasn’t too late. But he wasn’t going to change his mind. Our nightmare had well and truly begun.’
As planned, she drove him to Durham railway station and from there he travelled to the Cumbrian seaside town of Silloth, where for the next few weeks he camped out on a beach.
Back home, Anne rang police with the story John had spent weeks perfecting. She had arrived home to find no sign of her husband or his canoe and was worried something might have happened to him. Following her call, a full-scale search and rescue operation was launched involving 65 RNLI volunteers, six rescue boats and three helicopters. Stretching far along the coastline, it covered an area of some 200 square miles and was described by one rescuer as ‘like looking for a needle in a hundred haystacks’.
As Anne knew full well, it was a needle they would never find and the next morning it was time to break the ‘news’ to their sons.
Unable to bring herself to make the calls, she asked her brother Michael to ring Mark at work in London. When he arrived in Seaton Carew that afternoon, she didn’t have to pretend to be upset.
‘I was already crying my eyes out because of what I had to do.
‘While I sobbed, Mark tried hard to hold back his tears. I felt wretched and loathed myself for what I was doing. What kind of a mother does this deliberately and totally unnecessarily?’
For the moment, they agreed not to contact Anthony, who was on holiday in Niagara Falls, where he planned to propose to his fiancee Louise.
Series: None of the Darwin family were involved in making the drama, though the script was based on court documents, police interviews, TV appearances and newspaper stories (Mark Sanley as Mark Darwin)
Eddie Marsan stars as Canoe Man John Darwin, the scheming husband who racked up debts too large to pay off without skulduggery
‘I simply couldn’t believe I was about to ruin what was meant to be one of the happiest times of his life,’ wrote Anne. But ruin it she did.
When John still hadn’t turned up the next day, Anne’s sister called Anthony on her behalf.
‘Poor Anthony and Louise immediately cancelled the rest of their holiday and flew back to the UK. All because of my unforgivable lies. I was in a terrible state . . . but not for the reason everyone thought.’
After four days, the search operation was called off and three weeks later, after Mark and Anthony had gone back home, Anne drove to Cumbria and brought John back to Seaton Carew.
She says she insisted it was time to end the lies, and that they should at least tell their sons. But he maintained that was impossible.
‘If we told them, they were likely to persuade me to tell the truth. And if they agreed not to say anything, it would implicate them in the crimes, and that was the last thing either of us wanted.’
Back in Seaton Carew, John spent most of his time hidden in the family home with Anne. Their gravel driveway gave them warning of any cars pulling up and whenever Anne had company, he disappeared through a passageway that was hidden behind the door of a fake cupboard and led to their house next door.
There he sat, holed up in one of the empty bedsits, and secretly listened to the conversations of family and friends visiting his wife, their sons often among them.
While he was away, he had lost weight and grown a long beard. He had also taken to wearing baggy clothes he bought from a charity shop and walking with a limp. Thus disguised as an old man, he began taking ridiculous risks, even carrying out DIY on the front of the house and walking around town.
Six weeks after he had disappeared, his canoe was found washed ashore just along the coast from Seaton Carew. But it wasn’t until April 2003 that a coroner declared him officially dead and the pensions and life insurance payouts began coming in — the couple’s proceeds from the crime eventually totalling more than £500,000.
With much of their mortgage paid off, Anne could finally start selling the 12 rental properties they owned. But not everything went the Darwins’ way.
In June 2004, the local police rang to say that one of John’s former colleagues from the prison had reported seeing him near the house. Although John had a long grey beard and resembled Saddam Hussein at the time of his capture, he was ‘100 per cent sure’ it was him.
When Anne told them the man must have been a cousin of John’s who looked very like him, they accepted her word. But they couldn’t carry on living like this, so John decided they should move to Panama.
Scene: In snaps from the show the couple are seen shaking hands with Mario Vilar, head of the firm Move To Panama (Jorge Albuquerque) and his wife Karina (Mariana Norton)
Although neither of them had ever been there, John had heard it was both a pleasant place to live and a safe haven where their assets would be beyond the reach of the British courts if ever their fraud was exposed. He planned to buy acres of cheap land there and set up an eco-resort where guests could enjoy riding, trekking and, of all things, canoeing.
To get a passport under a false name, John first needed a birth certificate and borrowed from the plot of his favourite book, Frederick Forsyth’s The Day Of The Jackal. Like the assassin who scours graveyards for the headstone of a baby boy born at about the same time as him, he searched the local council’s archives and found the birth certificate of John Jones, an infant who, like him, was born in Sunderland in 1950 but had died at five weeks of age.
Using the information provided, he ordered a copy of John Jones’s birth certificate, which was duly folded many times, then rubbed into a dirty bit of carpet so it looked of the right vintage.
In July 2006 the couple flew to Panama to recce potential new homes and land. As Anne had always been considered a home bird, the sudden announcement that she was off to Central America for her summer holidays came as a shock to her sons. But she told them she had to get on with her life and that this trip might be just what she needed. In fact, it proved their downfall.
During their two weeks in Panama, they were shown around by Mario Vilar, the head of a relocation agency, who asked his wife to take a Polaroid photo of him with his new British friends. Although they knew they needed to keep a low profile, they reasoned that it was just a souvenir for Mario — but it became a ticking time-bomb.
When they returned home, Anne told her sons that Seaton Carew now held too many unhappy memories for her, so she was selling their two houses there and emigrating to Panama.
‘It was just another of the many lies I had by now become accustomed to telling. I wasn’t proud of myself but felt there was no other way.’
Eight months later, they finally moved to Panama City, buying an apartment which appealed to Anne because there was a Catholic church near by. ‘That had always been one of my top requirements when looking for the right flat.’
How she squared her churchgoing with the fraud that had made the move possible is hard to fathom — but she would certainly have needed faith to get her through the events about to unfold.
That summer, a change in Panamanian law meant permanent residency could be granted only to those with a character reference from the police force in their home country.
As that was clearly impossible for John to obtain, he planned to return to the UK and ‘come back to life’, claiming that he had amnesia and remembered nothing of the past few years. That way, he could re-establish his real identity and return to Panama with the reference letter he needed from the police.
He almost got away with it — but this resurrection proved a step too far, and Anne Darwin’s behaviour as their plans unravelled challenges further the idea of her as an innocent in the crime whose only true victims were her sons, as we will reveal in part two of this series on Monday.