The disappearance of John Darwin, staged by his wife Anne Darwin, is one of the most fascinating crimes of recent years. This seemingly inconspicuous couple led unexceptional lives in the North East of England, which took a surreal twist when John Darwin decided to escape to a new life, with his wife’s help, and cash in on the insurance. Their story has just been told in a BBC Four drama, Canoe Man, starring Bernard Hill and Saskia Reeves.
The story that Anne told everyone was that John had gone out in his canoe one day, and never come back. But in fact, John was living in concealment in the house next door, which the couple also owned. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the deception, and the one that I find truly shocking, is that the lie was told to the couple’s two sons as well. I find this extraordinarily cruel, and yet the Darwins were not cruel people, as far as I can tell.
They were not especially bright, that is for sure. They ultimately decamped to Panama, but allowed themselves to be photographed – and the snapshot ultimately appeared on the internet. It all became too much and John came back to England and gave himself up, pleading amnesia. But he finished up in prison.
The casting of this low-budget drama was interesting. Bernard Hill is a very reliable actor, and he portrayed John pretty well. Anne, resolutely unglamorous, was played by Saskia Reeves, a beautiful woman, who was so good in Close My Eyes back in the 90s. Saskia Reeves did a sound job, but the script still left me wondering about the motivation of Anne Darwin. Why on earth did she go along with it all? I feel that the story of the Darwins would benefit from much deeper probing of the psychology of this extraordinary ordinary couple.