Shannon Matthews The Moorside: why the Shannon Matthews abduction drama is TV at its finest | Television & radio | The Guardian Close Skip to main content sign in Comment activity Edit profile Email preferences Change password Sign out become a supporter subscribe search jobs dating more from the guardian: dating jobs change edition: switch to the UK edition switch to the US edition switch to the AU edition International switch to the UK edition switch to the US edition switch to the Australia edition The Guardian home › culture › tv & radio music games books art & design stage classical film home UK world sport football opinion culture selected business lifestyle fashion environment tech travel browse all sections close Television Mark Lawson on television The Moorside: why the Shannon Matthews abduction drama is TV at its finest The duo who tackled Fred and Rose West are now telling the harrowing story of Shannon Matthews, with Sheridan Smith on mesmerising form. Mark Lawson on the power – and the pitfalls – of docudrama Bingeing on tea and nicotine … Sheridan Smith in The Moorside. Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via Email View more sharing options Share on LinkedIn Share on Pinterest Share on Google+ Share on WhatsApp Share on Messenger Close Mark Lawson Friday 3 February 2017 12.02 GMT Last modified on Friday 3 February 2017 12.04 GMT The only boring thing about The Moorside, a BBC drama that will surely already have TV awards judges twitching, is its title.
It’s easy to imagine other networks opting for something like 24 Days in Captivity: the Kidnapping of Shannon Matthews – immediately reminding potential viewers of a major UK news story from 2008, when a nine-year-old from Dewsbury in West Yorkshire was reported missing by her mother, Karen.
After a missing persons search became a murder investigation, the girl was discovered more than three weeks later beneath a bed at the nearby house of Michael Donovan, a friend of Karen’s. Matthews and Donovan were each sentenced to eight years imprisonment. The prosecution argued that they had conspired to hide Shannon until Donovan “found” her and claimed the £50,000 reward that they would share. Yet the show’s non-sensational name – referring to the housing estate where events occurred – is a statement of intent. The kidnapped child features only twice, and no scenes take place at the house in which she was held. As they did in their Bafta-winning Appropriate Adult, which dramatised the story of serial killers Fred and Rose West, writer Neil McKay and executive producer Jeff Pope have again approached gruesome headline events from an unexpected angle. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Extraordinary realism … Sian Brooke, Sheridan Smith and Gemma Whelan in The Moorside. With the Wests, they focused on Janet Leach (played by Emily Watson), a chaperone required to attend the police questioning of Fred West because of his cognitive impairment. In The Moorside, the filter is Julie Bushby, played by Sheridan Smith, the local woman who led the Find Shannon community campaign. A key moment in McKay’s script has family liaison officer DC Christine Freeman (Siobhan Finneran) warning: “Part of my job is to prepare Karen for the worst”, to which Bushby replies: “And mine is to keep her spirits up.” Bushby is fascinating because, in real-life dramas, heroic citizens – such as Erin Brockovich, the environmental lobbyist played on film by Julia Roberts – generally celebrate victory in the final frames. However, Bushby, as we suspect or know long before she does, is being duped by Karen Matthews. Yet while her faith in human nature is understandably bruised, it is, compellingly, never completely lost. In Smith’s portrayal, Bushby is a woman whose reserves of loyalty and energy are matched only by her levels of nicotine and tea. But when she is required to make a speech in court, her words (taken verbatim from trial transcripts) have an eloquence and intelligence that Ibsen would happily have given one of his heroines. Unusually for a working-class character in British TV, she is neither sentimentalised nor satirised: Smith simply gives her a documentary credibility. Under the direction of Paul Whittington, there are two stand-out moments. In one, Julie swaps life stories on a park bench with Natalie (Sian Brooke), a neighbour who is sceptical about Karen. Later, Julie and Natalie, in a cramped police car, try to persuade Karen Matthews (Gemma Whelan) to tell them the truth. Both scenes achieve a level of realism more common on CCTV than TV drama. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Loyalty and energy … Sheridan Smith as Julie Bushby. The Moorside is Smith’s fifth biographical TV drama in five years. In Cilla and Mrs Biggs, her performances had to be vocally and physically exact enough to pass comparison with Cilla Black and Charmaine Biggs, wife of the trainrobber Ronnie. With Claire Webster, a murder victim in 2014’s The Widower, and cancer patient Lisa Lynch in 2015’s The C Word, Smith had the buffer, as with Bushby, of embodying people few viewers would recognise. But in each case, she created an identity far from herself – the pure essence of a real person, without anything of the actor peeping through.
Smith was able to consult Bushby on her character for The Moorside, but Whelan was legally unable to speak to Shannon’s mother, many of whose actions and motives remain mysterious and contradictory even after the trial. As someone says in the show, Karen had a reputation for “always telling stories”. Cleverly, Whelan makes these gaps part of the characterisation: her Karen is someone so used to telling lovers and the authorities what they want to hear that she was doing post-truth long before it became fashionable. Messing with the facts is a charge often made against docudrama itself. The Moorside starts with the standard warning that “some scenes have been created for the purposes of dramatisation”. But the fact-based projects of Pope and McKay have withstood such scrutiny over many years that this disclaimer may now do them a disservice, leading viewers to suspect far more invention than there is. As is often the case in this genre, the moments that seem most unlikely – the scene in the car, Julie’s courtroom aria, a moment when Karen suddenly dances to the ringtone on a cop’s phone – are solidly factual. McKay and Pope are also used to dealing with the ethics of fictionalising notorious crimes. Apart from Appropriate Adult, they also collaborated on See No Evil – The Moors Murders, which told the story of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, who were convicted for abducting, raping and torturing five young victims in the 1960s. What protects these series from sensationalism or prurience is distance – of time in See No Evil, and of perspective through the characters of Bushby and Leach in The Moorside and Appropriate Adult. Viewers will inevitably have concern about the possible impact of the drama – now or later – on Shannon Matthews, but the focus is always less on her than on the everyday pains of a community that would normally be ignored. Improbably, given its core content, the show manages to strike hopeful notes. But above all, despite the vague name, what viewers are getting here is television at its finest.
• The Moorside starts on BBC1 on 7 February at 9pm.