JOHN DARWIN’s life-insurance fraud made ideal television. In Chris Lang’s four-part true-crime drama The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe (ITV, first episode 17 April), the story of Darwin’s faked death by canoe accident and of the deceits that followed was told from the perspective of his co-conspirator, or coerced victim: his wife, Anne, played by Monica Dolan. Her performance as someone mentally a hair’s breadth away from doing the right thing, but inexorably digging a deeper hole, was impressive. Dolan took the stereotype of mousey spouse and brought a tragic quality, humanising the mother who pretended to her two sons that their father was dead.
Dolan’s pitch-perfect performance prevented any scene-stealing by Eddie Marsan’s domineering Darwin. Marsan perfectly captured the fraudster’s Hartlepool accent, together with his delusional self-assurance. “It’s that simple, Anne!” he shouted at the end of explaining how he would canoe to a cove, be picked up by his wife, and be driven to Durham, where he would board a train to the Lake District and camp wild, while Anne reported him missing, enabling her to pocket the insurance money.
Marsan’s ability to keep Darwin’s bullying and absurdity in play simultaneously created pockets of light. When Darwin decides to return to the UK with faked amnesia, he gives a hammy impersonation of a man reunited with his adult children in the fog of memory loss, all tremulous voice and the desire to touch to be sure that people are real. Darwin’s charade is counterpointed by Anne’s kneeling by her bed praying, knowing that her world is about to fall apart.
The drama ends with Anne reconciled to her two sons while serving a six-year prison sentence, underscoring the ability of family bonds to survive the unthinkable.
Chivalry (Channel 4, first episode 21 April) sets out to examine the moral dilemmas of an industry. Starring its co-writers, Steve Coogan and Sarah Solemani, it features Coogan as an entitled film producer, paying lip service to gender equality, and pitted against Solemani’s feminist film director, who is desperate to get a reshoot finished so that the studio will fund her next project. Hollywood’s sunlight-filled poolsides make a perfect canvas for this dark comedy of workplace manners.
Is it the end of the road for BBC’s flagship Pilgrimage series? Filmed during lockdown, Pilgrimage: The road to the Scottish Isles (BBC2, 8, 15, and 22 April), recreating St Columba’s missionary journey, lacked the travelogue appeal of two previous series, showing instead six celebrities trudging through the north of Ireland and Scotland in the rain. But the final episode, finishing on Iona, included bright spots, such as discussion between the Jewish Emmerdale star Louisa Clein and the Muslim comic Shazia Mirza of their faiths’ different emphases on the afterlife. More depth and less gimmicky distraction could revive Pilgrimage for a fourth time.