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Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan on playing conman John Darwin and his wife Anne in The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe

Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan
Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan as John Darwin and his wife Anne. (Image credit: ITV)

The story of John Darwin, the former teacher who faked his own death in a canoeing accident and was spotted years later in Panama City, is truly a story stranger than fiction. 

Now his outlandish and ill-fated plan to avoid the shame of bankruptcy is being retold, from the point of view of his long-suffering wife Anne, in The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, a new four-part ITV drama starring Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan. 

Up to his ears in debt, 51-year-old John hatched a plan to disappear by apparently drowning while canoeing in the North Sea near his home in Seaton Carew in March 2002. 

He was declared dead, but was actually living a bedsit in the house next door to the family home, while Anne played the grieving widow and received large payouts from John’s insurance and pension. 

Worst of all, Anne had to hide the truth about their father’s disappearance from their sons, Mark and Anthony (played by Mark Stanley and Dominic Applewhite).

TV tonight Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan as John and Anne Darwin.

Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan as John and Anne Darwin. (Image credit: ITV)

The strange saga continued to unfold in a series of increasingly bizarre twists, that saw the couple start a new life in Panama, before John turned himself in to the British police in 2007, claiming to be suffering from amnesia. The pair were subsequently found guilty of fraud.

Here, Ray Donovan star Eddie and Monica, who played Rose West in Appropriate Adult, talk about playing the decidedly odd couple at the heart of the story… 

What’s your take on the couple you are portraying in this drama? 

Eddie: "John tried to build a buy-to-let empire and retire early. He had delusions of grandeur and, in a narcissistic way, he thought he was smarter than everyone else. He is a fantasist and Anne is the victim of a fantasist."

Monica: "And dealing with a fantasist on a day-to-day basis must take all sorts of psychological gymnastics!"

How would you describe the relationship between John and Anne? 

Monica: "Anne hadn't really had the opportunity to discover herself and what she liked, because she’d gone straight from living with her parents to moving in with John. He treated her very badly but she stayed with him."

Eddie: "It’s a perfect storm of dysfunctionality! John’s a man who always needs to be superior, because he’s got such low self-esteem. He was a teacher and then a prison guard and, in his marriage with Anne, he’s very dominant and patronising, and puts her down a lot."

What do you make of the plan John came up with to avoid bankruptcy? 

Eddie: "John didn’t really have a long-term plan! He had a very fragile ego, and so the thought of bankruptcy was absolute torture to him. He just wanted to avoid that."

Monica: "It’s an extraordinary series of events. You look at what happened and think: ‘Why did they do that?’ I think that’s what fascinates people."

Can you understand the motivation behind their actions?

Eddie: "John’s incredibly selfish, insecure and pompous, but he’s also a man facing financial ruin and bankruptcy, and so many people understand the pressures of that now."

Monica: "It was almost a situation waiting to happen, because mortgages were being sold in a way that people couldn't possibly keep up with, and found themselves trapped."

Anne Darwin and sons

Anne Darwin (Monica Dolan) and her two sons.  (Image credit: ITV)

What do you think about the fact that they lied to their sons? 

Eddie: "John thinks that they will just get over it, which says a lot about him. He believes people don’t really love him, and so he’s not really loving either."

Monica: "Lots of people would say: ‘Oh, I care much more about my kids than I do about money,’ but we've maybe got quite an idealised view of motherhood – though obviously, what she did definitely wasn't ideal!"

Should the Darwins be forgiven for what they’ve done? 

Monica: "One of the things that divides us is forgiveness. It's the lies they told that are the infamous thing. People will be watching this and asking: ‘Is Anne sorry? Should she be forgiven?’"

Eddie: "I don't have sympathy for John, but I understand him because I look into myself and I think: ‘When I do things like that, what's going on in my mind?’ I don't trust him though!"

Did you enjoy working with each other? 

Eddie: "I’ve been lucky enough to work with all the great British actresses of my generation — Olivia Colman, Sally Hawkins — and Monica is right up there."

Monica: "It's so exciting coming to work with an actor like Eddie. Doing scenes with someone like that makes you up your game!"

Eddie Marsan as John Darwin contemplating how to carry out his scam.

Eddie Marsan as John Darwin contemplating how to carry out his scam.  (Image credit: ITV)

Monica, Anne was in prison with another character you’ve played, wasn’t she? 

Yes, Rosemary West (who Monica played in 2011 ITV series Appropriate Adult). They were both in Durham prison and, in her book, Anne mentioned a moment where she went into the gym, and Rose was there. If we’d done that scene, I could have played them both! 

You filmed some scenes in the Dominican Republic. What was that like? 

Eddie: "My ancestors come from the Caribbean, and I'd never been there. My great grandfather was a merchant seaman from Trinidad who landed in the East End of London in 1904."

Where can I watch The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe? 

The four-part drama The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe will arrive on ITV in the UK on Easter Sunday, April 17 at 9 pm, then runs over consecutive nights on ITV at the same time until Wednesday, April 20. 

It will be followed by the documentary The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe: The Real Story on Thursday, April 21 at 9 pm, also on ITV.

Ian MacEwan
Ian MacEwan

Ian writes about TV and film for TV Times, What’s on TV and TV & Satellite Week magazines. He co-hosts the weekly TV streaming podcast, Bingewatch.