Monday, 5 December 2011


Never to be forgotten: actress, wife and mother: Elisabeth Sladen. Image: AURUM PRESS. Image copyright: DAN GOLDSMITH/DOCTOR WHO MAGAZINE. 


By Elisabeth Sladen (with Jeff Hudson)

Published by AURUM PRESS

Reviewed by Scott Weller

Over the course of nearly fifty years there have been many companions, male and female, to have travelled alongside the legendary Doctor Who in his trusty time and space traversing TARDIS, but few have managed to capture the enthusiasm and love enjoyed by audiences for actress Elisabeth Sladen in her portrayal of spunky investigative journalist and heroine Sarah Jane Smith, who made her mark on the hearts and minds of the series fans old and young, large and small, in the early to mid-seventies, alongside two of the Doctor’s most popular incarnations, and soon becoming the iconic companion on which all others that followed would be judged…

Possessing natural acting instincts and a personal and professional integrity mixed with a mercurial personality, charisma and inner strength, Elisabeth Sladen was a true ambassador worldwide not only for DOCTOR WHO and its fans- of which she shared a unique bond of endearing and enduring loyalty over the years- but also as the star of her own equally popular spin-off series for younger viewers: THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES. Her loss to us at the young age of 65 this April was a truly tragic blow to her family - of whom she was a totally devoted wife and mother, her friends, and her unceasingly loyal and dedicated fan base. Before her illness, Miss Sladen had completed her autobiography (originally to have been titled WHO’S THAT GIRL), alongside co-writer Jeff Hudson, but, due to work commitments, had not had time to make an overview of it. Now, her husband and soul mate, fellow actor Brian Miller and daughter Sadie, have released the book posthumously, with a final chapter overview covering life before and after her sad passing.

Titled pure and simply ELISABETH SLADEN: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY, published by AURUM PRESS, here is a highly enjoyable tribute to the remarkable woman and her varied career as an actress, showing us her self deprecating sense of humour tinged with realism. In the book we discover a professional actress and very private person who quietly didn’t suffer fools gladly, but whose life was balanced with a very generous and warm heart.

A lovely foreword from ex-Doctor David Tennant, who grew up as we did watching Sladen as Sarah, nicely sets up our introduction to the life and work of the actress. Born in Liverpool in post-World War II Britain, young Sladen’s growing up is a fun and sprightly period in which she is bitten by the “performing arts’ bug at a very young age, if not as a job to earn money but for the pure enjoyment of it all. With such enthusiasm for her career start, its great to see that there are so few bleak moments in the book-her journey as an actor and the difficulties of getting regular income starting out are in themselves the main pitfalls- struggles most actors have to be prepared for and overcome in the choice of their career profession.

Sladen, at the BBC in 1973, undergoes a publicity photo call for Sarah Jane Smith's introduction to DOCTOR WHO. All WHO series images: BBC.

Adoring her time in the theatre, despite all the hard work and dogs body tasks often involved in her position as assistant floor manager, and after years watching all the great stage heroes she admired, Sladen would go on to work/act alongside some of Britain’s rising stars, and then into the world of commercials and popular TV, in shows like SOME MOTHERS DO ‘AVE ‘EM, police drama Z-CARS, a stint on long running British soap opera CORONATION STREETY, and finally to DOCTOR WHO, where she would prove so well cast by Producer Barry Letts as Sarah Jane Smith: strong willed and often fearless investigative reporter for the Metropolitan magazine. Sarah was both gutsy but vulnerable in equal measure, and played in a believable and appealing way by the actress. Thrilled to be in a major TV series success, Sladen’s thanks and affection for Letts shines throughout both the book and her career. Quickly having to adapt to the new series and her character within a matter of weeks, Sladen, never a sci-fi fan, would soon find herself working against the curly white haired, beaky nosed charisma of Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor. And it was an all-important relationship that didn’t quite get off on the right note, as she soon found the actor/entertainer, despite his spirited heart, often very generous nature and all round adventurous zest for life, a bit too much of an overpowering personality in her nervy early days- often unconsciously rubbing her up the wrong way- of whom she would have an on, off and on again relationship with over the years to come.

Despite those sunrise anxieties getting into her character, getting used to the series and working with Jon Pertwee, Sladen soon proves that she is no shrinking violet, and certainly comes across as a spirited little spitfire starting out, and projecting a lot of her personality into the character as it made its evolutionary first on-screen appearance in the 1973 filmed story The Time Warrior. Soon proving popular with audiences in her new series co-lead role, viewers enjoyed her projection of confidence, humour and fear as Sarah Jane Smith, where, despite the restrictions of the shows often punishing filming schedules on location and within the studio confines of the BBC, she managed to inject further nice little touches of character and humanity as the series progressed.

Sarah Jane's first adventure with the Third Doctor saw her do battle against a Sontaran in The Time Warrior.

Fortunately, her one season stint with Jon Pertwee, who unhappily left the show when he felt he wasn’t being supported enough by the BBC management, would give way to the Time Lord regenerating into the incredible presence that is Tom Baker, whose fedora hat, unending bags of Jelly Babies and lengthy multi-coloured scarf would soon help propel him into the TV screens of millions of devoted households, quickly getting used to his new, often alien, portrayal.

Helping the new Fourth Doctor- Tom Baker- settle in during his debut story: Robot.

And it was at this point that Sladen, no longer the new face on the show, became more comfortable in her surroundings and relished the chance to bring further new personality facets to her character whilst working with Baker - here was an almost symbiotic relationship of trust and respect both on and off screen between the pair. At first insecure in inhabiting the role- a true actors dream part of success and creative instinct- Tom quickly found Sladen- a fellow Liverpudlian- to be an amazing lifeline of support, of which an endearing/enduring friendship soon blossomed: a cohesive team ship during his new career as the Time Lord for the next generation and beyond of fandom, whilst Sladen, who had once been insecure about her future with the departure of Pertwee, gained a new and trusted friend and confidante-the pair soon becoming series and seventies icons to the nine million people who tuned in every Saturday mid-evening to be both entertained and scared by their incredible adventures, and who loved watching their on screen pairing/bond of friendship and trust that sadly exists in all too short supply in real life: a perfect friendship/relationship that many men and women can only dream of having, and perhaps another reason why both her and Tom Baker have endured so affectionately in WHO within the public consciousness for so long…

Sladen and Baker: an unbeatable ratings winning duo during the seventies.

It’s at this point in the book that it quite easily becomes one of the best behind the scenes looks ever at the classic series-showing us its good and bad moments at the height of its popularity in the seventies, with some terrific anecdotes on every story that Sladen was involved in during her three and a bit years on WHO, including a look at the classic scenes she shared with the Doctor(s), her various looks and costumes (including that Andy Pandy costume!), filming the action and adventures sequences, the numerous monsters she would appear with (including classic like the Daleks and the Cybermen), and the actors who brought them to life, plus the everyday things that entailed when being in one of the most popular television series of all time. Additionally, there’s the way the show has evolved and changed over the years, too: its two distinctive life cycles in the entertainment industry, of which her original lengthy stint on the series would quickly be remembered and appreciated for years to come with the arrival of the home video and DVD markets worldwide plus the sudden boom time of the Internet, where classic WHO would become even more sustainedly popular, resulting in Sladen’s tenure on the show gaining further appreciation and enjoyment. There’s also her eventual return visits to the show in its later years, plus the infamous K-9 AND COMPANY special which, despite her original high hopes for, she now completely loathes and regrets doing. Though her work on that one-off 1981 special would eventually lead to a new lease of life for her character, alongside the occasional return of the successful robot dog, in the C-BBC spin-off THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES in the mid-2000’s.

Though not a dog lover, Sladen would work with an Alsatian and K-9 in the singular K-9 AND COMPANY spin-off.

Deciding it was best to leave at the top of her WHO status, Sladen, always instinctively knowing how to navigate her life and career, would do exactly that in her memorable finale story of the shows 1976 fourteenth season: The Hand of Fear. Intriguingly, with her departure, the actress never quite understood why she had proved so popular in the role of Sarah–an occasional persistent thought that would echo on at times through her career and her time beyond WHO: in many ways she thought of it as just another job, but with the passage of time her perspective on the character and the shows success would change for the most part once she met the series worldwide fans.

With WHO, temporarily at least, out of her mindset, Sladen then headed off to fresh pastures including radio work, other types of children’s programmes and dramas here and there, plus a return to some stage projects. These later roles may not have been as high profile in the public eyes, but to Sladen they would prove a period of great enjoyment and creative freshness before she and her husband decided to start a family: enter Sadie Miller!

Sladen would return to WHO for its Twentieth Anniversary in 1983: The Five Doctors.

Despite not wanting to re-appear full-time in Classic WHO’s final years, Sladen would partake in numerous related events and projects, like the fun family jaunts she often had whilst making worldwide conventions and meeting the masses of fandom springing up in the eighties. Plus there was her warm re-unitings with many of her co-stars, as well as other legendary people who had acted or been involved in the show’s making, its various spin-offs and the like.

Sarah Jane would return alongside new Tenth Doctor and K-9 for several adventures. Image: BBC/RADIO TIMES.

“Retired” from acting so as to continue raising her family, and having mildly shirked off her talents as an actress, Sladen’s eventually return to the WHO fold would be in the then hotly anticipated episode for the new series: School Reunion, with David Tennant now starring as the series Tenth Doctor. At first sceptical and wary of how the shows producers might treat her character-of whom she was incredibly protective-Sladen was soon convinced into doing it after meeting and trusting its then show-running producer and main writer/show runner Russell T. Davies. Despite early nerves and worries that her performance might be off-kilter with the film-makers requirements, the episode would quickly prove a terrific career choice that would change Sladen’s life for the deserved better for the next six years to come…

Back in business, Elisabeth Sladen would be the star of her own series: THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES...
...of which Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith would soon make a welcome appearance.

Initially very wary of coming back to new WHO and preparing herself for a critical backlash for her performance- which ultimately didn’t happen-Sladen’s return as an older, lonelier Sarah Jane Smith- re-discovering her life and times with the Doctor who once left her- was much welcome by audiences and industry critics alike, of which her particular tear-jerker episode would be praised as one of new and Classic WHO’s best stories. From such great building blocks would come Davies idea for a spin-off series for younger viewers, which would be totally devoted to Sladen as Sarah Jane, and where she would quickly become a hero to children all over again, years after her original time on WHO, in a lively show that also saw in further new character development for Sarah Jane as she became a mother-hen protectorate to the show’s young supporting cast family. In her final years on the hit show, which she would be working on right up to her tragic passing in April 2011, Sladen would be delighted by the response and awards the show received from its dedicated viewers, as well as continuing to enjoy meeting her young fans at convention events.
Outside of her acting career, Elisabeth Sladen would be a devoted wife and mother.

As the news travelled the world on April 19th 2011 that Elisabeth Sladen was no longer with us, I still, even now with the passing of time, find it hard to believe that she’s gone. She possessed the kind of vitality and warmth that I thought would be with us for a long time to come. WHO scribe, and fellow series legend, Terrance Dicks recently observed her quiet dignity and independence as a person: elements which she brought into her character beyond her scripted words. These qualities can also be found within her book, of which she’ll live on in our hearts and minds forever…

ELISABETH SLADEN: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY, which also bears a lovely treasure trove picture selection of her family and career, is a fitting tribute and testament to the much-missed actress and the life and profession she clearly enjoyed being a part of. It provides us with a remarkable portrait of a loving wife and a devoted mother, who also happened to play one of television and DOCTOR WHO’s most accomplished and beloved characters, of which her indelible mark in entertaining viewers young and old will remain long assured…

KOOL TV RATING: 4 out of 5

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