Dispatches from the North: Review of BBC Four’s Canoe Man

Seaton Carew, the little seaside village where I live, made national headlines in Britain in 2002 when John Darwin went missing off the North Sea coast after paddling out to sea in a canoe. Five years later in 2007 Seaton Carew then made international headlines when Mr. Darwin stumbled into a London police station claiming amnesia, but his story soon unraveled when a photo of him and his wife in Panama surfaced on the internet. Currently John Darwin and his wife Anne are serving prison sentences for insurance fraud. For those who watch Coronation Street, their infamous plot inspired a recent story line where the character Joe McIntyre attempted a similar scheme.

The true story was ready-made for TV adaptations. ITV made their own documentary a couple years ago called One Man And His Canoe which was filmed here in Seaton Carew, interviewed locals and told probably the most complete version of the story. I watched the documentary and although I was a bit disappointed in the way Seaton was portrayed, in retrospect and in light of BCC’s attempt I have to give ITV credit for telling the story accurately and most importantly for filming on location.

BBC Four's "Canoe Man" starring Bernard Hill and Saskia Reeves as John and Anne Darwin (image from BBC)

The release of BBC Four’s Canoe Man a dramatization starring Bernard Hill and Saskia Reeves, was met by the people of Hartlepool with low expectations as it became clear before it even aired that none of it was filmed on location in Seaton Carew. When the program finally aired, the poor choice of location was only the beginning of what was wrong with the dramatization. Throughout the entire program, the words “Seaton Carew” or “Hartlepool” were never even mentioned, and it seemed almost deliberate that the location was left out. It is disappointing that even though the village received extensive coverage on BBC News while the story was unfolding, when it came time to make this into a feature program and show what a lovely place this is they seem to have forgotten it exists and used an inadequate substitute instead. Considering that Hartlepool is classed as a hot spot for unemployment, I can’t imagine that the change of location had anything to do with cost. The people in the area would have been happy for the BBC to invest some money into the local economy and shoot this film in Hartlepool.

A change in location might have been understandable if it wasn’t for the awful attempt leading lady Saskia Reeves made at a Hartlepool accent. What was the point of deliberately writing Seaton Carew and Hartlepool out of the story and then giving your leading lady a North East accent? In the end it seemed like she must have studied Geordie accents thinking it was all the same. People who aren’t from the North East assume everyone who lives in this region north of Yorkshire, east of Cumbria and south of Scotland sounds like Cheryl Cole. In reality the Geordie accent is very specific to Tynesiders and people throughout the rest of the region have a number of vastly different accents and Hartlepool is no exception. Reeves’ poor attempt at a regional accent was really distracting and made the whole performance really unbelievable. I think Reeves was focusing so much on the accent, which wasn’t even the right one, that her acting really suffered.

I also had some serious problems with the way that Anne Darwin was portrayed in this dramatization. I understand that the director wanted to shed some light on the complex relationship between Anne and John Darwin but I believe he took it too far. She was made out to be an innocent victim, forced by her overbearing husband to commit fraud and lie to her children. I thought this was really disrespectful to the people who were effected by her fraud. In truth it was Anne who was tasked with carrying out the fraud. John may have been the mastermind, but Anne phoned in the missing person report to the police and would have sat completely alone and watched out her sea front window as a full-scale sea search for her husband involving life boats and coast guard ships and helicopters took place. She witnessed with her own eyes people risking their lives as a result of the false report she made, and I can’t believe that she was completely innocent and only acting under the influence of her husband. I don’t think she could have pulled off the fraud so smoothly if she was motivated only by fear and not by her own greed and ambition as well.

The whole drama was also terribly written. The story involved scenes of Anne Darwin dropping wreaths and flowers from a pier into the North Sea every year to play the part of the grieving widow. This is something that the BBC made up, as there is no pier in Seaton Carew and no reports of Anne Darwin doing anything like this. The dialogue was a hurried succession of depressed reflection and emotional outbursts and none of it flowed together coherently. The writing was very awkward, melodramatic and full of embellishments. This always seems to happen when a true story is dramatized, but the diversions from the truth in the BBC retelling were confusing and didn’t serve any purpose.

Overall the entire production from dialect, to writing, to location even down to Anne Darwin’s horrible wig was appallingly shoddy. After the program aired last week it was the subject of much conversation throughout town, with many people telling me they shut it off after the first 15 minutes because it was just so awkward to watch. Of all the things wrong with the program, the local people were mostly disappointed that Seaton Carew was completely written out of the story and many were downright offended at the mockery that Saskia Reeves made of the Hartlepool accent. I was really disappointed as I would have expected more of the BBC who used funds we paid through our TV license to create this waste of time and money. The BBC have a reputation for creating the highest quality programming, but with Canoe Man it seemed like they didn’t even put forth a good effort to do the story justice which made it all the more disappointing.

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  1. avatar says

    Thanks for the review – I almost downloaded and watched this but I’m glad I didn’t. Many people don’t realize that on top of all the great stuff the BBC puts out – they also put out a lot of crap.