‘It’s a jaw-dropping tale about how one minor event can snowball out of control’

Distributor All3Media International
Producer Story Films
Length 4 x 60 minutes
Broadcaster ITV

The lives of an unremarkable middle-aged English couple spiral into global news in Story Films’ four-parter The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe. 

The idiosyncratic drama recounts the true story of John Darwin, who – crippled by debt – decides to fake his own death in a canoe accident to fraudulently collect life insurance money. With only his wife Anne in on the deception, John lives a secret life in a bedsit next door to her, while she plays the publicly grieving widow.

Devastated by the loss of their father, neither of their sons has an inkling that their parents have lied to them.

Wanting to shed himself of the clandestine life, John assumes a fake identity and leaves the country to invest in money-making schemes. As these go awry, he convinces Anne to start a new life with him in Panama.

Suspicions are aroused when, five years after faking his death, John returns to England and walks into a police station pretending he has amnesia. As the story unravels, the couples’ lies catch up with them.

“We’ve done lots of true crime, but this is extraordinary,” says All3Media International senior vice-president of content and commercial strategy David Swetman. “It’s a jaw-dropping tale about how one minor event can snowball out of control.”

The series is driven by the writing and acting performances, Swetman adds. Unforgotten writer Chris Lang fills in the gaps in the story, imagining what was said behind closed doors. In doing so, he “captures the nuances of John and Anne’s characters, in all their complexity and moral ambiguity”, according to Swetman.

Meanwhile, Eddie Marsan (Deceit) as John opposite Monica Dolan (Appropriate Adult; W1A) as Anne have their work cut out to portray the larger-the-life and simultaneously ordinary husband and wife.

“It’s farcical, surreal, funny and devastatingly sad in equal measure,” Swetman says. “The story is funny, but there is real tragedy at the heart of it, with the breakdown of a family and the lies that are told to keep the story alive. Anne pretends to her sons that their father is dead – that’s a pretty complex set of emotions to portray.”

Swetman believes the combination of a bingeable story, great actors and high production values mean the series is tailor-made for the international market and, as a four-parter, it will work equally well on linear channels and SVoDs. 

Story Film’s success with last year’s Channel 4 series Deceit is an advantage in a buyer market seeking true-crime stories, but it’s the fact that the story is “almost unbelievable” that will really help it cut through.

“The more you watch, the more you wonder at how anyone thought they could get away with faking their own death,” Swetman says. 

From The Tourist to Story’s Witness No.3 and The Confessions Of Frannie Langton, All3MI has a collection of scripted titles in which ordinary characters find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. 

“There’s something incredibly engaging about the idea that suddenly your life turns, and you become involved in something unexpected,” says Swetman.

UK scripted