Canoe Man

This real-life story is fun but lacks staying power.

Canoe Man (31 March, 9pm, BBC4): great title. Like Ronseal, it does what it says on the tin. Everyone knows who Canoe Man is. You remember. His name was John Darwin, and he pretended to have drowned off the Teesside coast in 2002 so that his wife, Anne, could claim his life insurance and pay off their considerable debts. Of course, of the two, Anne was the interesting one. It was Anne who kept the show on the road in the years after the police found his paddle: who fed him when he was living in a bedsit connected to the marital home by a secret door, and who went along with his (ultimately disastrous) plan that they move to Panama. Even worse, it was Anne who told the couple's two sons that their father was dead, and let them go on believing so until the moment in 2007 when he walked into a British police station, claiming to be suffering from amnesia. Maybe they should have called it The Canoe Man's Wife.

Norman Hull, the film's writer and director, failed to shed much light on Anne's motivation. But for a Canoe Man obsessive like me, this didn't matter. Nor did its inevitable longueurs (spending several years in a bedsit, more or less unable to venture into the outside world, doesn't make for the most gripping drama; in this period, the wildest thing he did was join the local library using his new, stolen identity). I loved the way that Hull had merrily taken out his felt tips, and coloured in the couple. In fact, his Darwins were just as I've sometimes imagined them myself, which is to say seriously creepy. This John, played by Bernard Hill, was not stupid. His real failure was one of imagination, for it seemed never to have occurred to him what a curse being "dead" would be. He was also selfish, pompous and spineless. Immediately after his disappearance, we saw him sulkily pitching a tent, in which he then lazed for three weeks, doing crosswords. But he was uncomfortable, poor thing. So he called Anne from a telephone box. "I can't stay out here much longer," he wailed. "I want to come home." In the next scene, she was picking him up in the family Range Rover.

Hull's Anne, meanwhile, was utterly weak-minded. Whatever John told her to do, she did - in the end. Saskia Reeves, who played her, looked uncannily like the real Anne (though her Middlesbrough accent was dreadful): a grey mouse, the kind of woman you could pass every morning and still never notice. Why did she do as John asked? This remains a mystery. As Hull told it, John did not beat her, or even raise his voice. No duress here, guv. Perhaps Anne was grateful for his continuing attention; certainly, Hull suggested that their sexual bond was unusually strong for a couple who had been married for 30 years. They frolicked in the shower and, talking via webcams, John asked Anne, quite baldly, to take her clothes off. Uh, oh. She was in her kitchen at the time. "I need a fix!" he whined, as though she were his drug of choice. Like I said: seriously creepy.

The BBC is doing a lot of this real-life stuff lately; Hull last worked on a film about the Greenhalgh family of Bolton, whose forgeries fooled the art world for two decades. It's all good fun, I suppose. Who doesn't want our more fantastical news stories to spring instantly to life? Who doesn't want to peer behind the net curtains of these unlikely cons? On the other hand, it's rather cheap. I mean this literally. When the Darwins moved to central America, we were treated to an archive shot of some presumably Panamanian town, but that was it in the way of local colour. John and Anne never left the confines of their luxury flat. The trouble is that such dramas have no lasting value. They capture a moment, that's all. And as the Darwins know better than anyone, living in the moment can only take you so far. In life, it's always best to take a long view, whether you're running from your creditors, or running a broadcasting company. You know: paddles, creeks, all that.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 05 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, GOD