Why the case of Shannon Matthews is ripe for TV drama

With a new drama based on Shannon Matthews' false kidnap about to air, those involved with the production tell Grace Hammond why it's a story worth telling.
The cast of The Moorside which is based on the false kidnap of Shannon Matthews. Photographer: Stuart Wood.The cast of The Moorside which is based on the false kidnap of Shannon Matthews. Photographer: Stuart Wood.
The cast of The Moorside which is based on the false kidnap of Shannon Matthews. Photographer: Stuart Wood.

It was back in 2008 that then Prime Minister David Cameron described Dewsbury Moor as “a place where decency fights a losing battle against degradation and despair” and it was hard not to agree. His comments followed the disappearance of Shannon Matthews, who it was later found had been hidden by her mother, Karen, in an ill thought out plot to secure the £50,000 reward money

Details of the case made grim reading and the estate where the false kidnap played out didn’t emerge in a particularly favourable light. Now eight years on the case is the basis of a new BBC two-part drama The Moorside. Before a single minute has been aired, the production has already faced criticism, but writer Neil McKay insists that it’s a story that shouldn’t be ignored.

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“We don’t tell the story of Shannon Matthews, we tell the story of the women on the estate who came together to find her,” he says. “Shannon went missing less than a year after the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and the underlying question was ‘do we pay attention to a missing child on a council estate?”

Certainly in the early days of the search, the backdrop of rundown housing didn’t afford the kind of photogenic press shots necessary for more high profile coverage, but the case did become front page news when the nine year old was found alive at the home of Karen’s partner’s uncle, Michael Donovan.

People piled in then, [saying], ‘They’re just low-life after all, they’re everything we thought about people on a council estate’,” says McKay.

While the reaction to the discovery could fuel a succession of Phds, the drama focuses on Julie Bushby (Sheridan Smith), who spearheaded the community campaign to find Shannon and believed in Karen throughout, and Karen’s next-door neighbour Natalie Brown (Sian Brooke), who first suspected her friend wasn’t telling the full truth. “These women, they’re fantastically strong,” says Brooke. “The whole community came together, searched night and day for 20 odd days. Suddenly there was this huge spotlight on them when they were searching, and then suddenly - BAM - it vanished.

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Filming didn’t actually take place in Dewsbury, but on an almost identical estate in Halifax, while the 999 calls, news footage and photos of Shannon were all recreated from scratch. Matthews wasn’t approached or involved at any stage of story development either, however, Smith and Brooke did spend time with their characters’ real-life counterparts.

“When I spoke to Natalie, she really gave this impression of community,” says Brooke. “She said, as mothers they’d have their doors open all the time, they’d shout out, ‘Where’s so and so?’, and then there’d be this echo at every garden, and then they’d find out, and know the [kids] were all safe.Natalie and Karen had been friends for many years and so, for her, it was a huge sense of betrayal.”

There is currently a court order preventing any press contact with Shannon, but the team behind The Moorside Project did get in touch with those in charge of her care.

“Go on the internet, read anything about Karen Matthews and she’s a deeply vilified figure - and we don’t make any apology for the crime she committed,” says McKay. “It’s not for me to know how Shannon would react. [But] Whatever she thinks about her mother, it’s better that there’s a portrait of Karen that’s more balanced and nuanced.”

The Moorside airs on BBC1 next Tuesday.