the moorside
Sheridan Smith plays Julie Bushby BBC

Sheridan Smith makes her highly-anticipated return to the small screen as Julie Bushby in BBC1's two-part series The Moorside tonight (7 February). Her character was behind a huge campaign to keep "missing" child Shannon Matthews in the news after she was abducted for 24 days in 2008.

For those wondering who Bushby is in relation to the family, she was the former friend to Karen Matthews – mother of the nine-year-old schoolgirl – who stood by her throughout the trial until it was revealed that Karen Matthews was behind it all.

As Bushby, Smith is a big, slightly scary and intimidating personality on Dewsbury council estate, the Moorside – which is home to the Matthews and soon attracts cynical press attention.

The character is keen to make sure that the missing little girl remains in the public eye and organises numerous demonstrations, T-shirts and leaflets as Shannon's deceptive mother (Game of Thrones' Gemma Whelan) stands by and weeps dry tears.

But before we dive in to Neil McKay and Jeff Pope's enthralling drama – which examines the notions of class and betrayal – let's refresh our memory on the real crime story.

What happened to Shannon Matthews?

Shannon Matthews is a young English girl who became the focus of one of the biggest search efforts in the region since the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper. At the age of nine, Shannon was reported missing by her mother after failing to return home from school on 19 February 2008.

The last confirmed sighting of her was outside Westmoor Junior School, in Dewsbury, at 3pm GMT. The search for her soon became a major missing person police operation, comparable to the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.

Her story captured the nation's hearts and rewards of up to £50,000 were offered for her safe return as mother Karen pleaded for her to come home.

the moorside
Missing poster for Shannon Matthews in 2008 West Yorkshire Police via Getty Images

A major twist occurred when it was reported that Shannon had been found on 14 March, three weeks after she had gone missing. She was discovered hidden inside the base of a divan bed at a house in Batley Carr – approximately one mile from her family home.

The house belonged to her stepfather's uncle, 39-year-old Michael Donovan, and police soon established a link between Karen and the man who had been holding the young schoolgirl hostage. Donovan was the uncle of Craig Meehan – the boyfriend of the kidnapped girl's mother.

The kidnapping was subsequently discovered to have been contrived by Karen and Donovan to generate money from the publicity.

The Sun newspaper offered a reward of £20,000 for information leading to Shannon's ' safe return, with the sum increasing to £50,000 by 10 March. The plan was that Donovan was to eventually "find" the girl before taking her to a police station where he would claim the reward money and split it between himself and the child's mother.

karen matthews
Shamed mother of Shannon Matthews, Karen, pictured in 2008 BBC

When Shannon was found, Donovan – also known as Paul Drake – was arrested at the scene, and charged with kidnapping and false imprisonment. Karen was charged with child neglect and perverting the course of justice on 8 April 2008 and the joint trial of them both at Leeds Crown Court began on 11 November 2008.

The trial concluded on 4 December with both defendants being found guilty of kidnapping, false imprisonment and perverting the course of justice. The pair were given eight-year prison sentences.

The Moorside premieres on BBC1 at 9pm tonight.