The Moorside review: a gritty, captivating tour de force from Sheridan Smith

The BBC's dramatisation of the search for a missing schoolgirl is a raw and evocative study of kindness

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Bolshy, bawdy, benevolent. These are three words that encompass Sheridan Smith’s portrayal of Julie Bushby, the woman who fiercely led the community search for Shannon Matthews, a nine year-old girl who disappeared from the Moorside Estate in Dewsbury in 2008.

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Shannon’s abduction was a story that gripped the local community and indeed the nation, emblazoning the front page of every tabloid at the time. The outcome of the search then enraged the country, as it surfaced that Shannon’s own mother had conspired with her boyfriend’s uncle to kidnap her in an apparent plan to claim the reward money.

In The Moorside, the key focus is not the abduction, nor the subsequent arrests, but the tireless hunt for Shannon and the seemingly boundless altruism of Julie Bushby. The BBC drama paints a bleak and evocative picture of the small Dewsbury estate being suddenly riddled with policemen and locals sifting through bins and combing the fields in an effort to find any evidence of Shannon’s fate. It perfectly captures the collective feeling of anxiety when a crime like that shakes a small community. “Who’d have thought Moorside would be on the news?” Julie’s son asks.

The estate is so tight-knit that at various points Julie is thundering down the road – she doesn’t ever seem to just “walk” – and neighbours come sidling up to her, exchanging rumours about the case and helping to plan marches to raise awareness. Julie is running such a military operation with the hunt that a power struggle begins to simmer between her and DC Christine Freeman, the detective played by Siobhan Finneran (Clare Cartwright in Happy Valley and O’Brien in Downton Abbey).

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Julie, a personification of maternal love, is so desperate to see the good in people and to remain optimistic, that she refuses to acknowledge that Karen, Shannon’s mother (Gemma Whelan) is behaving oddly. Karen’s friend Natalie meanwhile, played by Sian Brooke (Sherlock), is increasingly suspicious of her.

In one very unsettling scene, Karen begins to dance to the detective’s ringtone, Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl. She smiles to herself strangely while DC Freeman looks on in bewilderment clearly thinking, like the rest of us: Is that really how a mother would act just days after her young child has gone missing? This, almost unbelievably, actually happened. Similarly, there was an incident where the man behind the counter at Karen’s local fish-and-chip shop gave her family a free dinner, to which she replied: “Ooh. I’ll have to have one of my kids go missing more often.”

Gemma Whelan is very convincing in her portrayal of Karen as childlike, as someone who is way out of her depth, deluded and who begins to actually revel in the fame of having a missing child. In one of the press conferences she gives, she sits clutching a teddy bear which she thinks is “probably” Shannon’s favourite, and when she sees news coverage about her daughter she says, gleefully: “She’s getting really famous now, ain’t she?” Karen’s character is very purposefully presented as stupid, rather than evil.

Smith’s performance, though, is the tour de force. Throughout the entire first episode her eyes seem to constantly be brimming, ready to pour out tears of frustration. She is unashamedly foul-mouthed, her cuss of choice being “bollocks”, and she looks drab and make-up free.

Just as the hour draws to a close, and hope for Shannon’s safety is beginning to fade, a rumour that had been “going around Asda” reaches Julie. Shannon has been found alive. Julie’s reaction is as if it were her own daughter: she screams, she pounds the air with her fist, she lets the tears slide freely down her cheeks.

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But then Julie hears that Shannon was found at her step-dad’s uncle’s house, and she is crushed. Here’s to more bolshiness, bawdiness and benevolence next week.