Sheridan Smith laughs as she remembers her only holiday of 2016. “It was a five-week break before Funny Girl moved from the little theatre it opened in, to a run in London’s West End. My agent had earmarked it as a chance to get some sun and recharge my batteries after six months doing eight shows a week on stage. But it was the only time available to film The Moorside, so I spent the whole time on a council estate in Yorkshire in the rain and freezing cold. But I wouldn’t have changed anything. I loved the chance to play a character close to my own roots, growing up in Doncaster, and more importantly I got the chance to be near my family and especially my dad, who was very ill at the time and who we lost just before Christmas.”
Working again with director Paul Whittington, with whom she had collaborated on dramas Mrs Biggs and Cilla, Sheridan takes on another real-life character in this telling of the story behind the “kidnap” of schoolgirl Shannon Matthews from an estate in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in 2008. She plays local mum Julie Bushby, who led the estate’s efforts to find Shannon and bring her home safely. Julie, and the whole estate, later discovered that Karen had known all along where her daughter was and she was later convicted of kidnap, false imprisonment and perverting the course of justice.
“Julie was terribly betrayed by Karen,” says Sheridan. “And she received a lot of ridicule and abuse for apparently being taken in by her. But she is a kind and courageous woman with a massive heart who just refused to believe the absolute worst of Karen.”
As the executive producer, I began talking to Sheridan about playing Julie back in 2012, in Australia, during the making of Mrs Biggs, as award-winning writer Neil McKay was just beginning to research the story. “I knew then that I wanted to play her,” says Sheridan. “I love getting lost in the characters I play, and when that character is a real person there is lots of background and research I can delve into. Meeting Charmian Biggs and Cilla Black was fascinating, and I spent hours talking to them, watching videos of them and reading books about them. I did get a bit tongue-tied meeting Cilla and I was too star-struck to take up her offer of ringing her any time if there was anything extra I wanted to ask her, but I fell in love with both of them – as I did with Julie. I felt such a bond with them.”
Sheridan spent a lot of time with the women of the Moorside estate, both before and during the filming. “That is what inspired me so much about Neil McKay’s script. The way they came together and fought for that little girl. They’d go out searching, grab two or three hours’ sleep, then be up for more of the same the next day – and this went on for weeks. Then, after Shannon was found, it was Julie and her friend Natalie Brown who played a key part in uncovering what had happened. I knew all about the headlines, but this was a story that had never been told.”
That “holiday” in Yorkshire has left a lasting impression on her. “I am still friends with Julie. She’s a great mum and grandmother and, although she doesn’t always let it show, she has a heart of gold. There was a really emotional scene I had to play where my character talks about losing her baby boy to cot death. She stayed up all night with me discussing what had happened and how she had coped, just to help me play the scene. At the time I was so worried about my dad, but I learnt a lot from her that night about staying strong for those you love and for that I’ll always be grateful.”
The Moorside is on tonight at 9pm on BBC1