Elisabeth Sladen came flying on to our screens in 1973 as that plucky young journalist, Sarah Jane Smith, and has been the nations favourite companion ever since.
From the moment she passed herself off as her aunt in UNIT with Jon Pertwee, to the moment she said “Don’t forget me” to the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, Sarah Jane Smith was adored.
It is with great sadness that we say goodbye to Elisabeth Sladen, but she will live on in the hearts of Classic Who fans and a whole new generation of fans that she touched the lives of.
“The universe was lucky to have Sarah Jane Smith; the world was lucky to have Lis” said Russell T Davies, creator of The Sarah Jane Adventures.
Lis was born in 1948 and attended drama school at the Liverpool Playhouse repertory company as an assistant stage manager. However, she really wanted to get in to acting but because she was such a good stage manager, she never managed to land herself any roles. She began deliberately doing things wrong so she would be given more acting, but her first appearance as a corpse got her in to trouble thanks to Brian Miller [now her husband] due to the fact that she giggled when he whispered “Respiration nil, Aston Villa two.”
Lis’s first major role came in 1970 when she appeared in Coronation Street as a barmaid for six episodes, followed by Z-Cars in 1971. She continued to make guest star appearances right up until 1973 when she landed herself the role of Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who when Rod Craddock, producer of Z-Cars, gave her an enthusiastic recommendation.
It is safe to say that I fell in love with her from her very first Doctor Who episode, Time Warrior, and she continues to be “my companion.” Many Classic Who fans will have grown up with Sarah Jane and Tom Baker, and I can recall my mum telling me about how she would hide behind the sofa every time she heard the Doctor Who music, but squeal when our heroine saved the day.
Sarah Jane was everything a good Doctor Who companion should be. She was clever, brave, outspoken, plucky and never did what the Doctor told her to do.
When Lis left the series in the 1976 episode, The Hand of Fear, it made front page news, where previously only a change of Doctors had received such attention. I am sure there were many a fan to shed a tear for her when she clutched her suitcase and little owl and left the Tardis.
After Sarah Jane’s departure, Sladen’s career was quiet for a while as she took on many minor roles. She went in to presenting, and finally took a starring role in Barry Letts’ Gulliver in Lilliput.
Sarah Jane eventually came crashing back on to our screens in 1981 when she reprised her role of Sarah Jane in K9 and Company: A girl’s best friend.
After K9 and Company, Sarah Jane never really went away. Lis appeared in Doctor Who’s 20th Anniversary special, The Five Doctors, a Children in Need special Dimensions in Time and finally starred in Downtime, an independently produced video in 1995 alongside Nicholas Courtney and Deborah Watling.
Lis starred in several audio plays over the years, two of them were produced for BBC Radio, The Paradise of Death (Radio 5, 1993), and The Ghosts of N-Space (Radio 2, 1996), together with Jon Pertwee and Nicholas Courtney.
Possibly my favourite part of Sarah Jane came from Big Finish Productions, who produced two series of Sarah Jane Smith audio adventures set in the present day, released in 2002 and 2006. Her daughter Sadie has also appeared in the audios, playing Natalie Redfern. However, the canon of these audio books is something of a debate among fans due to Sarah Jane’s next television appearance in 2006.
Lis was able to show a more “adult” side to Sarah Jane that hadn’t been shown on Doctor Who before. She brought Sarah back to life and had me laughing and crying with her, which just goes to show what a fantastic actress she was as she did not rely on the screen to portray her characters.
In 2006 something marvellous happened that would shape the rest of Sladen’s career. Russell T Davies brought back Doctor Who in 2005 and if that wasn’t enough for fans, he asked Lis to appear in a “New Who” episode. “All the years she was off screen she did the most terrific job of defending Sarah Jane and never letting her reputation be besmirched by any sort of merchandise or stuff like that” said Russell. At first Lis was reluctant to bring Sarah Jane back as she had her own ideas about the character. However, when she first read Russell’s script for School Reunion, she absolutely adored it and knew that was exactly how Sarah Jane would be. She starred alongside the 10th Doctor and Rose Tyler and brought back the rusty but faithful K9. The nation fell in love with Sarah Jane all over again.
“I just can’t believe that Lis is gone. She seemed invincible. The same woman who enchanted my childhood, enchanted my time on Doctor Who and enchanted generations who have watched her and fallen in love with her – just like I did. I feel very honoured to have shared a Tardis with Sarah Jane Smith, and I feel very lucky to have shared some time with Lis Sladen. She was extraordinary” said David Tennant, remembering his wonderful time with Elisabeth Sladen.
Billie Piper, David Tennant and Elisabeth Sladen in School Reunion.
Probably the most important thing about Sladen’s late career was The Sarah Jane Adventures, without it, this blog wouldn’t even exist. We owe a lot to Russell T Davies and Elisabeth Sladen for bringing us such a wonderful TV show that could be enjoyed by the younger audience, as well as us old school die hard fans.
The Sarah Jane Adventures aired in January 1st 2007 for the pilot episode of Invasion of the Bane and since then has spanned four series with a cast of spectacular actors, lead by a woman whose life we will never forget.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to Lis’s craft is that she will be so sorely missed by so many. Her passing is front page news even in a week of Political and Royal headlines.
When Sarah Jane first left the Doctor she pleaded with him not to forget her, and thanks to the superb performance of Elisabeth Sladen, we never will.
Note: The new Doctor Who episode on Saturday was dedicated to Elisabeth sladen and there was also be a 15-minute programme ‘My Sarah Jane: A Tribute to Elisabeth Sladen’ at 18:45 on CBBC on Saturday, after Doctor Who.