Canoe Man Review: Plenty Of Paddle
CANOE MAN: Wednesday 31st March, BBC4, 9pm ALERT ME
Canoe Man tells us the intriguing tale of that guy who faked his own death to elope to Panama with his wife. Yer know – the one who got caught out by a celebratory estate agent photograph.
Having not seen any adverts or blurb for this, I was anticipating real testimonies and interview. However, Canoe Man is entirely acted, with reasonable success.
From the outset, Bernard Hill who plays John – the central dominating fraudster – appears as a wooden and rather comical actor. He also really looks like John Thaw. Therefore, for the first eight minutes I was utterly distracted. Absolutely anything could have happened – but I wouldn’t be able to tell you.
The actress playing Anne (the downtrodden wife) provides the sporadic narration as the action plays out before us in entertaining, but not always engrossing fashion. “They say that money makes the world goes round. What idiot invented money? Love is what’s important,” echoes Anne’s narration, summing up the kernel of this eventually involving and saddening drama. With her voice as our guide, we are inevitably on Anne’s side
We begin where the story ends – John Darwin handing himself in after a failed relocation to Panama as a ‘dead’ man. The words clump round his mouth as if he’s being forced to act at gunpoint, “my name’s John Darwin. I think I might be a missing person”.
What is most interesting throughout is the relationship between John and Anne. John appears slightly sinister at all times, and we don’t know to what extent Anne is intimidated by her husband. The pair will indulge in frantic embracing, and then utter hatred for each other. And at one point, John bizarrely asks his wife to undress via webcam.
Sympathy is certainly demanded for Anne, which serves well in setting up the ending. She is constantly caught between acting her fake sorrow at her husband’s ‘death’– and actually spilling out her own pain at her real situation. Anne’s plight as she is gently forced to serve her persuasive and powerful, yet absent husband is at times moving.
At the beginning, Canoe Man just looks like a really eventful episode of Heartbeat. But as John grows in his selfishness and the pair gets deeper into their scenario, we become more involved. John is indifferent to their deed, “Tell them I’m dead. It’s no big deal – everybody dies” and calmly goes about creating cubby holes, obtaining false passports and inventing names.
Although the tension is extinguished in the early stages by terrible acting, the story becomes genuinely intriguing. You realise you have forgotten the details from the news story that broke years ago, and you genuinely want to watch this to the end. Especially since you’re rooting for Anne.
It is crucial to add, however, that ‘based on a true story, though some scenes and characters are fictional’ is plastered on the screen at the start. This kind of leaves you thinking ‘well which bits are real?’ Just when you get involved, a voice in your head reminds you it might be tosh. It’s that in-built cynicism we all have watching, say, Hollywood films with the same pre-text ‘based on a true story’. Except Canoe Man isn’t a Hollywood film – it’s a luke-warm drama set in Teeside – so it can’t really justify such a reminder.