Wednesday, 20 April 2011

RIP: Elisabeth Sladen

Doctor Who star Elisabeth Sladen, who was also in spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures, has died aged 63. Sladen appeared as Doctor Who assistant Sarah Jane Smith in the BBC television sci-fi series between 1973 and 1976 opposite Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. In more recent times the Liverpool-born actress had appeared in four series of The Sarah Jane Adventures on children's channel CBBC.

Sladen, who had a daughter, had been battling cancer for some time. Sladen first appeared as Sarah Jane alongside the third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, and stayed for three-and-a-half seasons, also working with the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker. Her character, a journalist, was renowned for being inquisitive and stronger than some of the Doctor's other assistants. After her time in the Tardis, Sladen returned to her native Liverpool where she worked in theatre.

She returned to the role on several occasions over the years and was given her own spin-off series on CBBC in 2007, in which she appeared with the most recent two Doctors, David Tennant and Matt Smith.

A BBC spokesman said: "It is with much sadness that we can announce Elisabeth Sladen, the much-loved actress best known for her role as Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who and CBBC's The Sarah Jane Adventures, passed away this morning. She was 63." CBBC controller Damian Kavanagh said he was "deeply saddened and shocked by the news of Lis's untimely death". "Lis brought joy, excitement and a sense of wonder to her many fans in her role as Sarah Jane Smith. She was adored by our young audience and I know all of them will miss her as much as I will," he said.

Russell T Davies, the creator of The Sarah Jane Adventures, said: "I absolutely loved Lis. She was funny and cheeky and clever and just simply wonderful. The universe was lucky to have Sarah Jane Smith, the world was lucky to have Lis." Sladen leaves actor husband Brian
Miller and daughter Sadie.  

I remember the Doctor Who Radio Times special magazine which came out in the 1970s, which listed all the stories, and gave a preview with pictures of the final Jon Pertwee season. There was Lis Sladen, her hair cropped very neatly, in a trouser suit, by the side of some Mediaeval Tower. The previous companion, Jo Grant, played by Katie Manning, had been adorable, and wore wonderfully fashionable clothes, and this new companion looked to be more staid and serious, with perhaps less overt sex appeal - as a teenager, watching Doctor Who, that kind of thing was important!

But as it turned out, with the debut of her first story, "The Time Warrior", she won me over with her wonderful portrayal of  Sarah Jane Smith, both gutsy and vulnerable, and with her brilliantly expressive voice. As she made the transition to Tom Baker, her woman's liberation image, very much in the forefront with Pertwee, especially in stories like "The Monster of Peladon" became softened, and her hair became longer, with a softer, less severe cut.

But just as she bounced off Pertwee, she was the ideal companion for the early Tom Baker, and grounded his somewhat offbeat performance, giving it the edge of realism that it needed. She could also give a good performance of alien possession, and did so in a number of stories. I doted on her, adored her, and was devastated when she left Doctor Who.

It was wonderful, too, to see her back in "The Five Doctors", although her choice of lurid pink clothes, or more probably the production team's, seemed slightly at odds with her character. She was very badly served in the dreadful "K9 and Company", where the same team made the mistake of anchoring the story around the robot dog, and not her character. And that, I thought, was that.

Then in David Tennant's first season as the Doctor, she turned up in "School Reunion", a brilliant script that explored what it was like after you had left the Doctor - or he had dumped you, and the emotional upheaval of that, and meeting his new companion - your replacement. Of course there had to be alien monsters, but the heart of the story was also Elisabeth Sladen's wonderful performance, not a repeat of her past, but Sarah Jane as she would be after that kind of history. And she was wearing the right sort of clothes as well, the sort you would expect that character to wear - the lurid pink was gone; this team had got it so right.

She returned for two shorter cameo performances with Tennant, and by then had also her own spin off series, this time focusing on human relations rather than robot dogs - unlike John Nathan Turner, Russell T Davies knew and understood where the heart of the story telling should be, with human beings, and wisely kept K9 to a cameo. There were wonderful stories, and she was finally the main character, with her own
younger companions.

She successfully bridged the old and new series of Doctor Who, in a way that not many past companions could have done, and seemed almost timeless, so it was a considerable shock to see that she had died, so suddenly, of cancer. But while Doctor Who goes on, and there are still DVDs of her in Doctor Who, she will still win admiration for creating a real human being from what can often be something of a cipher of a role, that of companion. She also demonstrated in "The Sarah Jane Adventures" that she also had the charisma to take the leading part, as well. Alas, there will be no more "Sarah Jane Adventures", but there is a considerable body of work there that demonstrates just how good she was, and what a void she will leave behind in her passing.

Wishing condolences to her husband and daughter.

1 comment:

Ian Evans said...

Yes, I remember her and the strange look Tom used to give her sometimes.