Review: ITV true crime drama The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe was a hard show to like, thanks to the appalling monster at its heart

Some news stories seem to be made to laugh at – the tale of John Darwin, for example, who faked his own death and ran off to Panama.

By Philip Cunnington
Friday, 22nd April 2022, 5:00 pm
Monica Dolan as Anne Darwin and Eddie Marsan as John Darwin in the ITV true crime drama The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe
Monica Dolan as Anne Darwin and Eddie Marsan as John Darwin in the ITV true crime drama The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe

And despite a light-hearted tone, The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe (ITV, Sun-Weds, 9pm) showed the whole sorry saga was no laughing matter.

Darwin paddled off in a canoe from Seaton Carew – even that sounds like the start of a limerick – because he was in severe money trouble, and thought his wife could collect the insurance money when he was declared dead and join him abroad, where they could live a life of previously undreamt of luxury.

It all sounds like a terrifically knockabout caper. It even starts with that old meme of an exciting incident – in this case, a car chase – the record scratch and then the voiceover saying “I expect you’re wondering how I ended up here...”

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Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Diane Morgan starred in the first episode of a new series of the BBC2 anthology series Inside No.9

The big problem in making this a knockabout romp, however, is the character of Darwin himself.

Played by Eddie Marsan, he’s a dreamer at best, and a monstrously controlling narcissist and fantasist at worst.

Seen through the eyes of wife Anne (Monica Dolan), he forces himself on her whenever he pleases, disparages her in public and plays the victim when she challenges his ridiculous ideas of wriggling out of the increasing jeopardy he has placed them both in.

And with this appalling creature at the heart of the drama, it was difficult to like the rest of it. Darwin put his whole family through torment for years, living secretly next door to his grieving family.

And no amount of jokes and capers can cover up that simple truth.

Simon Cowell really does take us for mugs, doesn’t he? Britain’s Got Talent (ITV, Sat/Sun, 8pm) could be terrific Saturday night viewing, like Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. But BGT is the cynical opposite of the joyous Takeaway, setting up singers with record deals as deserving a break – when that is what the viewers need.

Inside No.9 (BBC2, Weds,10pm) returned for a new series this week, and while this first episode wasn’t one of the anthology’s best, it still contained enough great ideas and funny one-liners to keep most comedy-dramas going for an entire series. And proved Diane Morgan should be in everything.