Canoe Man: Why does the Darwins' story stick in our minds?

Tuesday 30 March 2010, 10:45

Richard Klein Richard Klein Controller, BBC Four

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A Canoe Man paddles across your horizon only once in a while, so my first reaction to director Norman Hull and producer Magnus Temple's suggestion that we dramatise this story was one of delight.

It is odd, is it not, how every now and again some stories stick in our minds? They are true stories. Real people really did do all that the story said they did. But these stories stand out because they are more like fiction than fiction itself and therefore seem unreal.

Bernard Hill as the canoe man paddles out to sea

Often tragic with a strong theme of the comic about them, these stories become iconic windows on our world. And when I hear or read about them there is always a little bit of me that thinks there but for the grace of God go I.

Norman Hull is a director who likes to explore the inner workings of his characters. In the story of John and Anne Darwin he struck a rich seam of material to draw upon. A couple who found themselves caught up in a spiral of debt, then, seemingly unwilling to face the normal consequences of bankruptcy, they opted to, well, opt out.

And then the hare-brained scheme - part comic and absurd, part cruel and slightly crazy - to pretend to drown at sea while on a canoeing trip in order to claim life insurance.

Follow this up with a madcap plan to live out the rest of their lives in Central America - of all places, Central America! - and then to find that, ah, oh dear, they need new visas in order to live in Panama permanently and they have to return to Britain to get them.

And finally, maddest - or perhaps most desperate - of all: the plan to go to the police and claim a five year disappearance was to be explained by a spot of memory loss. As I say, you couldn't make it up.

Bernard Hill turned up to play John Darwin - a role he took to with aplomb. Bernard delivers a performance that subtly plays with John Darwin's character, exploiting for both comic and tragic effect the gap between his apparent heartlessness towards his own children and his desperate attempts to get out of the sticky mess he finds himself in.

Bernard Hill and Saskia Reeves as The Darwins
Saskia Reeves also plays a blinder. Again, in the way that BBC Four dramas celebrate, she plays the complexity of Anne Darwin's situation with an elegant mix of emotion and deranged wifely support. Anne Darwin is, perhaps, the most conflicted and least understood character in this very human story.

The judge at her trial condemned her outright as the plot's mastermind and called her manipulative. Norman chooses to see her role in a more complicated way, suggesting that while she was very much part of the scheme she was also more aware than her husband of the emotional damage the reckless scam was causing, especially to her two sons.

Getting the film made was an achievement in itself. I am delighted that the producers met the Darwins' two sons, Anthony and Mark to gain their support and permission to portray them in the drama. What Norman wanted to do was not a simple re-telling but something more ambitious and the sons were happy to support it.

Anthony and Mark visited the set during the filming of the scene where Bernard Hill as John Darwin is interviewed by police. The script is verbatim of the real life police interview. Like of all us, they were fascinated by the magic of film-making. Though the circumstances were sensitive, both were very amused by Saskia's two wigs in the costume and make up truck - for looking uncannily like their mum's real hairstyle.

One of the aims of BBC Four is to employ style and wit, to entertain as it informs, that is as warm and affectionate as it is knowledgeable and insightful. The channel, at all turns, aims to deliver programming of distinction for people who love to think.

BBC Four is known for sensational biographical films and clever, attractive literary adaptations. It's great, therefore, to be able to branch out into broader factual territory.

Canoe Man is essential a tragedy but through good drama we can not only recognise the comedy but also the humanity and the reality - a very BBC Four approach!

Richard Klein is controller of BBC Four

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    Comment number 1.

    Excellent story spoilt by a catalogue of glaringly inaccurate and inconsistent continuity errors:-
    1) Hartlepool people do not have Geordie accents or close to it
    2) Seaton does not have a pier
    3) The dialling code for Seaton is 01429 not 0191
    4) All views of the coast line were totally inconsistent
    5) Views and portrayal of the shoreline were obviously not of Seaton
    6) The situation of the house was not even close to that of the Darwins
    7) Roads and general scenery at the beginning were nothing like Seaton or nearby Hartlepool
    I live in Stockton-on-Tees and know that this is a poor portrayal of the area, it’s time the BBC realised that the North East exists and that we are proud of our area and like it to be displayed and portrayed as such. So much more in terms of credibility and reality would have been added to this programme had it been filmed in Seaton or footage from Seaton been used.

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    Comment number 2.

    The film seems considerably more sympathetic to Anne Darwin than the Judge, who heard all the evidence, was. It makes her out to to be a virtually unwilling participant.

    So, who is right? The Police described Anne Darwin as a 'compulsive liar'.

    This film seems to be reinforcing the lies.

    Also, who only one hour? 10 years ago this topic would have been in a drama lasting 90 minutes, if not two hours. Either the budge was very tight, or this product was designed to last more than 1 hour with commercials.

    The result is a hurried affair, which does not go deep enough. Nice to see Saskia getting decent screen time though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    More comments about the programme over on the Points of View messageboard.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Nice music....Fauré: Pavane, Op. 50 I could listen to it all day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    i must say that the acting from the anne darwin character and the terrible newcastle style redcar accent was terrible. Peaople dont speak like that in redcar. Also since when has a redcar phone number started with the std code 0191.
    Bad research and bad casting.

    Not good enough


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