The BBC continues its drama tour de force with THE MOORSIDE, a fascinating insight into the shocking kidnapping of a little girl by her own mother


February 2008 and the news blew up with the story of missing nine-year-old Shannon Matthews. I remember it well because for almost three weeks I switched on the headlines every night and hoped for the best, but expected the worst.

I remember crying when she was unbelievably found alive. Then watching in disbelief as the whole messed up saga unfolded and it was revealed that Shannon’s own mother, Karen Matthews, had been involved in her disappearance; cooking up some half-baked scam with her boyfriend’s uncle to hide the little girl at his flat to, some believe, make money.

Many will argue the story’s too recent and raw to be turned into a TV dramatization. Indeed, not even ten years have passed since this the whole sordid event took place. Writer Neil McKay excels at this kind of stuff, also penning the excellent Appropriate Adult (2011), the kind of television you know you shouldn’t watch but can’t tear your eyes away from. Just as with Dominic West’s gutsy performance that prevented that drama from turning into some cheap and nasty piece detailing the dirty secrets of the West household, Sheridan Smith is at the heart of this one and does sterling work as Karen’s friend and neighbour Julie Bushby – the self-appointed heart of the community.

Julie gathers the estate troops to step up the search for Shannon with rowdy rallies and candlelit singalongs to school day hymns. Gemma Whelan sports some serious eye-bags and the kind of dead expression behind the eyes you’d expect of some whacked out kid to give a damn accurate portrayal of the mother who got herself into something bigger than she could ever have imagined. There’s never a sense of the ‘evil’ here that many would believe Karen Matthews is built from. Instead what you witness is what it’s like to be at the arse-end of society.

With grey mottled walls riddled with mould and peeling paper; overflowing kitchens and small lounges stuffed with cigarette-brandishing wider family members; this is how people live. This, for many, is the reality of life and it’s awful. Children aren’t raised, they just age, in a sea of pink cake birthdays and Poundland plastic toys. Despite what the critics would have you believe, this doesn’t mean every rough talking, chain smoking individual is some morally decrepit moron intent on sucking the system dry and abusing their children.

The BBC made a brave decision to air this controversial drama, and what I took from it was not the evil lurking in every home but the lack of education, drive and moral decency. At the time, David Cameron said this was the kind of community where “role models are criminals, liars and layabouts.” What McKay presents is a community. The kind of old school community that many hark back to, indeed, surely a lot of the Brexit debate was about the loss of community and how it’s ruined Britain. People don’t know their neighbours now, there’s little chatting over fences – more like whispering over hedges. Smith’s performance is as in-your-face and ballsy as the real Julie Bushby seems to be; she brings people together because, in her own words, “they take care of their own.”

The real crime here is the apparent lack of social care. Karen Matthews’ actions seem to have been born of childlike immaturity. She may have had seven children but to all intents and purposes she was still one herself, though living in an adult’s body. Her crime smacked of kids cooking up some silly lie only for it to grow exponentially and for them to end up grounded for a week with no quid pocket money. Matthews got eight years instead and wrote childlike letters to the friend who had supported her through the worst trauma anybody could imagine – the kidnapping of her daughter.

The BBC are on top of their game, it’s only February and they’ve rolled out some fantastic productions and this one may just be the best so far. I’d be really surprised if Smith wasn’t holding a gong at some point in the near-future and thanking them up north for the chance to give their side of the story. The Moorside doesn’t lecture or point the finger of blame, it leaves it up to viewers to observe, and form their own opinions. I encourage you to do just that.


- Aired on BBC1, February 7 2017 at 21:00.