THE disappearance of nine-year-old Shannon Matthews in 2008 made national headlines – and even more when it emerged that her mother was responsible for the faked kidnapping.

A new TV drama, The Moorside Project, focuses on the search for Shannon, galvanised by the community on the Dewsbury estate where she lived.

A Bradford dialect coach helped the cast learn a specific Dewsbury accent for the drama, which was filmed last year on an estate in Halifax and a Wyke social club.

Gomersal youngster Josh Lobley, 13, from Articulate Speech, Drama and Casting in Bradford, played the son of Karen Matthews – played by Game of Thrones star Gemma Whelan.

The Moorside Project looks at the opposing perspectives of Julie Bushby, played by Sheridan Smith, who spearheaded the community campaign to find Shannon, and Karen’s neighbour Natalie Brown (Sian Brooke), who suspected she wasn’t telling the truth.

“We don’t tell the story of Shannon Matthews, we tell the story of the women on the estate who came together to find her,” said writer Neil McKay, who developed the two-part mini-series with executive producer Jeff Pope.

Press and public attention swung dramatically when Shannon was found alive at the home of Karen’s partner’s uncle, Michael Donovan. “Their trust had been betrayed,” said Mr McKay, of the people who had campaigned and searched for Shannon.

"People piled in then, saying: ‘They’re just low-life after all, they’re everything we thought about people on a council estate’.”

Actress Sian Brooke said: “These women, they’re fantastically strong. The whole community came together, searched night and day for 20-odd days.

There was this huge spotlight on them, then suddenly it vanished. Everyone came away with that impression of, ‘Well, there we go...’ So this drama is great because it really does open it up and tells their side of the story.”

Added former Downton Abbey actress Siobhan Finneran, who plays Karen’s family liaison officer: “It was a story we thought we knew, but we didn’t, and we should do; we should know what was happening on that estate.

"Having watched it on the news and felt I knew what was going on there, to read this script gave me a very, very different story.”

While the programme examines the media scrutiny Shannon’s case attracted, and the deception of a community by one of its own, “we also go beyond that to reaching the final scene between Natalie and Julie,” said Mr McKay.

“They both recognise each other’s point of view – the one who had the doubts and the one who had faith – and how, in a sense, they were both right.”

Matt Zina, principal of Bradford-based Yorkshire School of Acting, was contacted by producers a year ago.

“The director wanted the most authentic dialect possible from the main characters,” said Mr Zina, a screen acting coach, casting agent and actor who has appeared in TV dramas such as Heartbeat and A Touch of Frost. As an ‘on-set’ coach he works with actors on TV productions and films.


“I met producer Ken Horn and director Paul Whittington and discussed the history of the Dewsbury region and how, with the geography and lack of mobility of people, they have developed their own nuances within their accent,” he said.

“I met the cast and, using interview footage of real people in the case, taught them an accent that was the most ‘foreign’ they’d come across.

“The process culminated with a read-through, which was ‘D-Day’ for me as accent coach because executives from BBC and ITV studios were there to see if these actors, mainly from London with Received Pronunciation would be able to realistically represent characters relating to the Shannon Matthews case. The actors were amazing. I received such positive feedback.”

News reports and photos of Shannon were recreated from scratch for the drama.

While Karen Matthews wasn’t approached or involved, Sheridan Smith and Sian Brooke spent time with their characters’ real-life counterparts.

“When I spoke to Natalie, she really gave this impression of community, and they were so close,” said Miss Brooke.

“She said, as mothers along their road, they’d have their doors open all the time, they would all look after each other’s kids.

“Natalie and Karen had been friends for many years so for her it was a huge sense of betrayal.”

When it comes to ethical concerns around putting Karen Matthews back in the spotlight, Mr McKay admitted it “keeps him up at night”, but added: “We don’t tell it from her point of view, we don’t defend her or condemn her, we just call it as we saw it”.

  • The first part of The Moorside Project is on BBC1 on Tuesday, February 7, at 9pm.