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Monica Dolan is magnificent in this real-life drama

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So many TV shows seem to begin with a flashcard reading “This is based on a true story”. In the case of four-part drama The Thief, His Wife and the Canoethough, it did feel like a necessary reminder, given what was to come.

In 2002, British prison guard John Darwin elaborately faked his own death in a canoeing accident so that his wife Anne could claim his life insurance policy. He hid in the house next door to his own home for four years before the pair ran away to Panama and the scam unraveled.

Based on the first episode, this is a retelling particularly sympathetic to Anne, played by Monica Dolan. It is she who narrates the story of how her proud, reckless, deluded husband concluded that an enormous lie was the only way to escape debt and how she became hopelessly embroiled in his spiraling plan.

Eddie Marsan as John Darwin in ‘The Thief His Wife and the Canoe’ (Picture: ITV)

The show certainly leant into the dark comedy of the situation, particularly with Eddie Marsan as John, a man who seemed to view the whole charade as an adventure, oblivious to the terrible things he was asking his wife to do.

As Anne informed her sons of their father’s “death”, he was ordering breakfast at a B&B and whinging about his air mattress. And yet there was a real nastiness to the coercion and belittlement that he aimed at Anne that prevented it from tipping into farce, despite all the absurdity.

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ITV drama ‘The Thief His Wife and the Canoe’ is about the canoe couple John and Anne Darwin, who faked his death to con insurers out of millions of thousands of pounds. The damning photo taken at a Panamanian estate agents in 2006 was later to prove that Anne knew all along that her husband was not really dead (Photo: ITV/PA Wire)

Whether or not this was an accurate reading, Dolan was magnificent as a timid, pragmatic but ultimately weak woman manipulated into going along with something she knew was wrong. Her contained horror was palpable and her swing from incredulity to acquiescence completely believable.

You couldn’t make it up… except of course, they did.

Episode one of The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe airs on ITV between 9-10pm on Sun 17 April

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