Former Prime Minister David Cameron once labelled Dewsbury an example of ‘Broken Britain’, calling it “a place where decency fights a losing battle against degradation and despair”.
He made these comments following the disappearance of Shannon Matthews in 2008, who it was later found had been hidden by her mother, Karen, in a faked kidnapping.
New BBC drama, The Moorside Project, starring Sheridan Smith (Cilla, Gavin & Stacey), Sian Brooke (Sherlock) and Siobhan Finneran (Downton Abbey), is set to take that sweeping ‘Broken Britain’ statement, and what we think we know about this case, and tilt the angle.
“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,” explains writer Neil McKay, who developed the two-part mini-series with his long-time colleague, executive producer Jeff Pope.
Shannon went missing less than a year after the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, but the manhunt for the Moorside estate youngster played out very differently.
“Do we pay attention to a missing child on a council estate?” was the underlying question, explains McKay, and the prejudice relentlessly tousled with during the investigation – by the public, the papers and politicians (“Then people did, they did pay attention”).
However, that attention swung rather violently when Shannon was found alive at the home of Karen’s partner’s uncle, Michael Donovan. “Their trust had been betrayed,” remembers McKay, of the people who had campaigned and searched for the nine-year-old. “People piled in then, [saying], ‘They’re just low-life after all, they’re everything we thought about people on a council estate’.”
This drama does not add to the pile of denigration, but instead focuses on the opposing perspectives of 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.
“Everyone came away with that impression of, ‘Well, there we go...’ So this [drama] is great, because it really does open it up and tells their side of the story.”
“It was a story we thought we knew, but we didn’t, and we should do; we should know what was happening on that estate,” says Finneran, who plays Karen’s family liaison officer, Christine Freeman. “Having watched it on the news and felt I knew what was going on there, to read this [script] gave me a very, very different story.”
While the programme examines the media scrutiny Shannon’s case attracted, and the deception of a community by one of its own, “we also go beyond that to reaching the final scene between Natalie and Julie,” says McKay, “where they both recognise each other’s point of view, the one who had the doubts and the one who had faith, and how, in a sense, they were both right.”
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 that feature were all recreated from scratch.
Karen 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.
“They were quite heavily involved,” says Brooke, who spent several hours with Natalie, talking not just about how she was involved in the case, but also about her life as a whole. “When I spoke to Natalie, she really gave this impression of community, and they were so close. She said, as mothers along their road, they’d have their doors open all the time, they would all look after each other’s kids – it was a blessing. Natalie and Karen had been friends for many years and so, for her, it was a huge sense of betrayal.”
Smith and Julie, meanwhile, “bonded, put it that way,” says McKay with a smile, adding: “They sat up some nights together I believe, and Julie was on set a lot, she brought her kids and her grandkids – it was lovely.”
When it comes to ethical concerns around putting Karen back in the spotlight through airing this show, McKay is clear, it’s something that “keeps him up at night”, but ultimately, “we don’t tell it from her point of view, we don’t defend her or condemn her, we just call it as we saw it”. “She’s unknowable in some ways,” he adds, “which is why Gemma [Whelan]’s performance is absolutely outstanding.”
There’s a court order preventing Press contact with Shannon, but the team behind The Moorside Project did get in touch with those in charge of her care. What impact do they think watching the show could have on Shannon, who is now in her teens?
“It’s not for me to know how Shannon would react. [But] Whatever she thinks about her mother, and we can’t speculate about that, it’s better that there’s a portrait of Karen that’s more balanced and nuanced.”
The Moorside Project begins on BBC One on Tuesday, February 7.