When the BBC first announced this two-part drama, based around the disappearance of Shannon Matthews, the press release was at pains to stress that this project was not a drama about Shannon Matthews – it was a drama about the community and its mobilisation in its search for the little girl. This was an interesting prospect, and I liked the idea of an examination of the power of community and how a crime can change it, even energise it, and give it a hitherto unknown purpose. In some respects, this fulfilled its brief, but more often than not it failed.
It’s very difficult to tell a story – a true story – when the conclusion is so fresh in the memory. And a story with a missing person’s case (with the mother found to have been responsible for the disappearance of her daughter, no less) is always bound to stir up emotions that have hardly subsided. And so it proved with The Moorside. I was scanning Twitter during the drama and plenty of people were angry (no surprise on that score, it was Twitter after all, a platform hardly known for its placidity): they were already calling Karen Matthews (Gemma Whelan bringing her to life with shocking accuracy) a degenerate thicko, and the inhabitants of the Moorside estate nothing more than tracksuited scumbags and pissheads. Some even roared that any family like shouldn’t be allowed to claim state benefits. This was what I was worried about: the levels of snobbery and contempt working class people like those on the Moorside would attract and the vitriol they would inspire, without considering the whole story and the context of the story.
Already, this drama had obviously touched a nerve and garnering all kinds of streams of consciousness rage and exposed deep divisions in viewers. In that respect, it had already done its job by provoking strong discussion, but there had to be more to this drama than just provoking discussion. And that idea that this was a Shannon Matthews drama without being a Shannon Matthews drama was wrong: you can’t have a drama based around the Shannon Matthews case without the Shannon Matthews case being centre stage.
Subsequently, Karen Matthews was at the drama’s heart, more so than I ever thought she would be. An obviously confused, delusional mother living in a house full of kids, step-fathers and other family members, she saw an opportunity; a warped, disgraceful opportunity and somehow took it, deciding it was a good idea to hide and keep her daughter captive for 13 days, hidden in a divan bed. She initially seemed devastated when she called in the disappearance of Shannon, but as the episode progressed her idiosyncrasies began to show through. While she was being interviewed by DC Christine Freeman (the always excellent Siobhan Finneran) her mobile chimed. She got up off the sofa, mid-interview, and started to dance to the ring tone (Brown Eyed Girl). Odd behaviour. Alarm bells began to ring – especially in the mind Karen’s best friend Natalie (Sian Brooke, last seen in Sherlock) – when she also stated, perhaps with a half-grin, that Shannon was famous now after seeing the story on the evening news. She also seemed to actively enjoy the press attention.
One person firmly on Karen’s side was friend Julie Bushby. Julie, an emotional, head-strong woman, had swung into action and had mobilised the community with the force of a hurricane. She managed to re-open the community centre despite it being boarded up by the council, she made t-shirts and she organised door-to-door searches, even though she was warned by Freeman and the police that this went against protocol. She told a police friend to “fuck off” when he questioned her unorthodox methods and organised a march instead. Julie had become obsessed, blind to Karen’s deception (which at that stage was still undetected) because she was a mother herself and couldn’t believe that a mother would do anything to her daughter. She also had absolute faith in her friends and her community. But there was more: the disappearance gave her new purpose, and an unstoppable, relentless energy. The precise reasons why we were yet to find out, but this was when the drama worked best: when Julie Bushby was onscreen, Sheridan Smith (one of the most natural actresses this country has produced in a long time) fitting into the role like a glove. Smith was outstanding as Julie.
What was less outstanding was the overall balance of the piece. Overall, writer Neil McKay (who has history of adapting real-life crime stories for television) did a fairly good job of telling this incredible, strange and sickening tale, but it seemed to fall between two stools as a drama (and that’s what I’m judging this as) – on the one hand we followed the case in ‘real time’, while on the hand we saw how Julie transformed the community. It was neither one thing nor the other.
I also found myself asking why this had been made at all. A case still so recent and one that obviously still touches a nerve within British society, this was bound to stir up angry emotions and feelings many people had barely been able to suppress. No doubt that it was an uncomfortable watch, no doubt it was, at times, fantastically played, and no doubt that when Julie Bushby found out that her friend Karen Matthews may have deceived her, she felt deep humiliation like a gust of hot air from an electric heater, but I found myself wondering why we like to watch this kind of thing and vent our anger. Is it voyeurism? Is it because we like to shout from the sidelines because it’s happening to someone else, almost like a spectator sport? Is it because we like to judge others? Whatever the intentions of the creators, I worried that The Moorside might provoke some mob-like and awful views and the point of it might get missed in all the baying, frothing fervour.
The real Shannon Matthews is now, by all accounts, 18-years-old, living with a new family. I wonder how her foster parents and, indeed, Shannon felt when this drama played out and social media went berserk?