Sheridan Smith has been confirmed as the star of a controversial BBC1 docudrama about the ‘abduction’ of nine-year-old Shannon Matthews in 2008.
But rather than playing Shannon’s mother Karen – later jailed for eight years for her part in the kidnap plot – she will take the role of the woman who organised the Dewsbury community in a desperate search to find the missing schoolgirl.
Julie Bushby was the chair of the residents and tenants association on the Moorside estate in Dewsbury.
Former Downton Abbey star Siobhan Finneran will play family liaison officer and former Huddersfield detective Christine Freeman while Game of Thrones actress Gemma Whelan takes the role of shamed mother Karen.
The drama will be made by the same team behind Appropriate Adult, which told the story of serial killers Fred and Rose West from the perspective of Janet Leach.
The two-parter, currently called The Moorside Project, aims to focus not on the crime itself but on the community that lived through it, showing the spirit and determination of the women at the forefront of the campaign to find Shannon and the impact on them when the truth about her disappearance was finally revealed.
Cilla star Sheridan, 34, said: “The story is a fascinating mixture of what I thought I knew and a whole lot more that I had no idea about.
“The themes of faith and trust in human nature, and the way the whole community came together really inspired me.”
Watch Sheridan in Cilla biopic
Initial plans for the BBC drama sparked an outcry in 2014 with the then Dewsbury MP Simon Reevell, describing it as ‘inappropriate’.
He said: “I don’t think it is a very good topic or use of BBC money. I don’t see how it is helpful for the victim to have this dragged across the screen for entertainment.”
But executive producer Pope explained: “For a short period of time the nation’s focus was on a small corner of West Yorkshire as a young girl went missing in suspicious circumstances.
“By the time Shannon Matthews had been found alive, we perhaps felt we knew all there was to know about the Moorside estate and the people who lived there.
“But what we discovered as we researched into this fascinating story is that those conclusions were drawn far too quickly.”
Shannon, who was later taken into care along with her six siblings, allegedly disappeared after a school swimming trip in February 2008 and sparked one of the biggest hunts ever seen by West Yorkshire Police.
She was discovered 24 days later hiding in a bed at the home of her mother’s boyfriend’s uncle, Michael Donovan , less than a mile away.
Her mother and Donovan had hoped to claim the £50,000 reward money and were jailed for kidnap, false imprisonment and perverting the course of justice.
They served just half of their eight-year sentences before being released in 2012.