A neat quirk of The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe (ITV) is that Anne Darwin (played here by Monica Dolan) was incarcerated at HM Prison Low Newton in County Durham at the same time as serial killer Rose West (also portrayed by Dolan, unforgettably, in the superlative 2011 ITV drama Appropriate Adult). Writer Chris Lang, wisely, chose to leave that gossipy detail out - the two women once bumped into each other in the gym, apparently - but Darwin and West are now bound together in pub-quiz immortality. And in the British public’s consciousness. I can't picture either woman’s face without seeing Dolan’s.
As such, how I feel about West and how I feel about Darwin will always be shaped by Dolan’s performances (such is the way of TV drama: Major Charles Ingram will forever be Matthew Macfadyen; Caligula, John Hurt; and so on). In the finale of The Thief… how I was supposed to feel about Anne Darwin was very clear - this was the evolution of Darwin, from downtrodden house-mouse, belittled and berated by her overbearing husband, to emancipated woman, riding a bus through the rolling Durham countryside towards redemption in the British public’s - and her sons' - eyes.
Perhaps she deserves it. Lang clearly believes she does. This final episode gave us the police interview room and courtroom dramas, as the Darwins finally, slowly, came clean to the incredulous coppers about his hare-brained scheme to paddle off into the North Sea, fake his death, and claim a whopping great life insurance payout. Lang never let Anne off the hook - her lies were legion - but she could not have asked for a more sympathetic hearing.
There has been no redemptive arc for “canoe man” John Darwin, magnificently played as a cunning idiot by Eddie Marsan. Across the four episodes he slid, muddily and grubbily, from desperate bungler to pompous narcissist to, finally, emotionally abusive and controlling husband. After everything he put her through and made her do, John, after Anne had confessed all to the police, had the brass neck to “forgive” her. If you think Lang was laying on John’s nastiness a little thick towards the end - “Am I sorry?” he chuckled to his son, who believed for six years his father was dead, “That I got caught: yes!” - then consider the fact that, in real life, when Anne was released from prison, John sent her a photograph of herself, with a copyright logo on it. You’re mine, was the inference. Perhaps Lang has been kind.
The case against Anne - in court and in the public’s imagination - has always had a Camus-esque quality to it. Yes, John’s sin was great, but he only told one - enormous - lie and then hid under the floorboards. She, for years upon years upon years, on hundreds of occasions, convinced her two sons that their father was dead - there was fraud and money laundering and lying to the police too, of course, but there is no sin greater than being a bad mother.
The kicker was that she got six years and six months in prison, three months more than John, with the laws on coercive control back then requiring the abuser to be physically present on each occasion. John was in Panama, but, as we saw here, always in Anne’s head. She would almost certainly be found not guilty today. That we sympathised so much with Anne was largely down to Dolan, who made Anne seem physically sick at her deception, conveying buckets of sorrow with the twitch of an eyelid. Mark Stanley and Dominic Applewhite deserve credit too, for doing a lot with very little as the Darwins’ devastated sons.
John Darwin, we were told at the end, now lives in the Philippines with his new wife. Let’s hope he can’t get ITV there.