How The Moorside dared to put Britain’s underclass centre stage

Sheridan Smith as Julie Bushby in The Moorside. Picture by Stuart Wood/ITV.
Sheridan Smith as Julie Bushby in The Moorside. Picture by Stuart Wood/ITV.
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The Moorside was one of the most talked about dramas of recent years and shone a spotlight on a section of society normally kept in the shadows says Sarah Freeman.

There’s an easy formula when it comes to making popular drama these days. Take one hero who is flawed, but irresistibly attractive. Place them in a setting which is gritty, but not overly depressing. Then add a dash of sexual tension and some crime. Lots of crime.

The Moorside had plenty of the latter, but little of the added gloss. Based on the bogus kidnapping of Shannon Matthews, whose disappearance in 2008 sparked the biggest manhunt West Yorkshire police had seen since the days of the Ripper a few decades earlier, this was a story which right from the opening credits was sprinkled with domestic violence, child porn and psychological abuse.

Ahead of its screening there was much debate as to whether it was too soon to mine the grim facts of the case for entertainment and by its close last night the jury was still out. However, The Moorside did do one thing few other contemporary dramas have dared to do.

Over the two hour-long episodes it shone a spotlight on a section of society who are normally relegated to bit parts in prime-time drama. Here the front doors of the red brick houses which cling to the edge of the moor were thrown open and once inside the chaotic lives of those who live there were laid bare.

Karen Matthews desperately wanted to be Dewsbury’s answer to Kate McCann, whose daughter Madeline had gone missing a year earlier, and her inability to see just how desperately short she fell proved uncomfortable viewing from a middle class armchair

Trawling the court reports, TV footage and newspaper interviews from the time, screenwriter Neil McKay didn’t need much recourse to artistic licence as he brought us face to face with an underclass most of us would like to pretend doesn’t exist.

Here was a woman who had more contact with social workers than her own parents, who occasionally lost count of how many children she had and whose lack of intelligence set her on a path to inevitable disaster.

It would have been easy to have cast Karen as the villain and her friends who mounted the community search and who eventually exposed her lies as the heroes, but life on Dewsbury Moor and countless other deprived estates up and down Britain is more complicated than that.

While Julie Bushby, brilliantly played by Sheridan Smith, emerged as the estate’s matriarch and defender of what reputation it had left, she also had a son who had been excluded from school, a teenage daughter who was about to become a mum and a need for a while to do something other than just get by. That need was satisfied by Shannon’s disappearance. When the TV cameras arrived they wanted a spokesman and Bushby, occasionally sweary and always rough round the edges, got the job. Given an audience, she wasn’t going to let it go easily.

As someone said when one news bulletin went out, ‘Who’d have thought Moorside would end up on the TV?’ And that was the point. When daily life revolves around the next benefit payment or working out how to make a minimum wage stretch the maximum amount, having the press turn up on your doorstep is always going to be a welcome distraction.

Bushby was determined to show that despite what everyone else thought this was a community which looked after each other. Except it didn’t turn out like that. This wasn’t after all some throwback to a 1950s idyll where back doors were left open.

Towards the end of the BBC drama a man on a bike cycled past Bushby and told her that despite all they had gone through, nothing had changed. As he said, “They still think were all council house scum.” Sadly, whatever the intentions of the The Moorside production team, by the time the credits rolled those words still ring true.

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