This was one of the most elaborate scam solutions and it stunned the world.
John Darwin faked his death while “canoeing” to claim £250,000 in insurance, leaving his wife Anne to feed his sons with the devastating lie that their father was dead.
But five years later, a harmless photograph of a grinning couple, taken four years after John “died,” exposed the hoax.
Former science teacher and prison guard John, then aged 57, was imprisoned for six years and three months.
But Ann, then 56 years old, was given six and a half years, a higher tariff that would be unlikely today, given anti-coercion laws since then.
Now, a new ITV drama, The Thief, His Wife and a Canoe, shows her as a bullied figure who has been forced into participating in a scam.
Monica Dolan, who plays Ann’s former doctor’s secretary, said: “She’s been in jail for a long time and there are more corporate shenanigans where people don’t do that much time.
“I think she might have been listened to differently now, but in terms of judgment, we as a society judge what she did as a mother.
“But maybe it’s not the courts that should judge, it should be judged by her children.”
The four parts depict John, played by Eddie Marsan, as a manipulative narcissist and deluded dreamer who bullies Ann.
In the program, he is seen telling her that if they don’t pull off the scam and prevent the “humiliation” of bankruptcy after years of cost overruns, he will kill himself to get the money.
And as they tell lies after lies, he emotionally blackmails Ann even more, saying that admitting their crimes will ruin the lives of their sons, Mark and Anthony, played by Mark Stanley and Dominic Applewhite.
In a 2008 trial at Teesside Crown Court, a jury dismissed Anne’s defense of forced marriage.
But under laws passed in 2015, it is likely that Anna will now have good reason to believe she was coerced.
Monica, who won a Bafta Award for her role as Rose West in the 2011 ITV drama A Suitable Adult, claims that Ann always felt humiliated by John and feared that he would leave her.
Given the fact that she was constantly hanging over, this could easily be interpreted by law as a coercive relationship.
She said: “You have to be able to prove that there was something that scared you. What’s interesting about Ann – which I think is very difficult – is her fear that he might leave her.
“It can definitely be described as offensive with some pretty subtle nuances.”
In March 2002, John was seen rowing in the sea off the coast of their home in Seaton Carew, Teesside, and was later reported missing.
Officially, he was considered drowned, and then Ann was able to claim payment of insurance.
John spent five years hiding in the property he owned next door to the family home, sneaking through a secret doorway hidden behind a closet to Ann’s.
The plan was for the couple to eventually start a new life in Panama after paying off their debts.
While on a trip to a South American country to view real estate, they made the mistake of taking a picture with a real estate agent.
But John found that eventually it would be impossible to do so, so in December 2007 he showed up at a London police station claiming he had lost his memory.
Then there was a photo in Panama that proved he was lying, so their elaborate scam fell apart.
Their two grieving sons felt like betrayed parents.
Eddie says this new, more sympathetic interpretation of Ann, based on books, police interviews, court transcripts and newspaper profiles, is likely to divide viewers. It even divided the staff into the show.
He said: “Especially among the female crew members, there has been an intergenerational interpretation of this story.
“The older female crew members felt she should take on more responsibility, while the younger ones saw her as a victim.”
Although no one from the family helped the makers of the drama, they found that one of their sons came to the set in disguise and watched the action.
Both John and Ann were released from prison in early 2011 and divorced soon after.
John now lives in the Philippines and has nothing to do with his sons. Mark and Anthony have forgiven Ann for what happened.
For series writer Chris Lang, best known for creating The Unforgotten for ITV, this was the most telling fact of the whole affair.
He said: “It really struck me how Ann rebuilt her relationship with her sons in a way that John didn’t.
“From the very beginning, it was key for me that this is the story we should tell.
“We wanted to understand how good people can do bad things. So, let’s try to understand her and try to forgive.
“If her sons could do it, I hope we can too.”
- The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe will air on ITV next month.