Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Remembering Elisabeth Sladen

I was shocked and saddened to learn today that Elisabeth Sladen, the much-loved actress best known for her role as Sarah Jane Smith in the popular sci-fi British series Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures, passed away this morning. She was 63.

Regular readers would know that I am a great admirer of Lis Sladen and the character of investigative journalist Sarah Jane Smith whom she brought so wonderfully to life. Indeed, Sarah Jane Smith has been the focus of no less than seven previous Wild Reed posts. And since news of Lis' passing, two of these posts, She's So Lovely and The Adventures Continue, have been ranked among this site's most popular posts. (4/20/11 Update: She's So Lovely is currently the most popular post at The Wild Reed.)

I must admit I still can't quite fathom the news of her death. For one thing, I had no idea she was dealing with cancer. I don't think anyone outside her family and perhaps some select work colleagues knew. But it seems totally in keeping with what I've seen and read of Elisabeth Sladen that she would deal with her illness quietly and without fuss, and with, I'm sure, inspiring grace and fortitude. She lived that way, and I'm sure she died that way.

She also imbued Sarah Jane Smith with such attributes, which is why I think so many people responded so warmly to the character, one that's been described as a "heroine whose appeal had no boundaries."

I was just a skinny kid in Australia when Sarah Jane Smith was introduced as the space/time traveling companion of the Time Lord known simply as “the Doctor” in the classic British sci-fi TV show Doctor Who.

For the uninitiated, the Doctor is from the planet Gallifrey and, like all Time Lords, has the ability to “regenerate” his body when near death. This concept allows for the convenient re-casting of the show’s lead actor. In fact, to date, eleven actors have played the part of the Doctor for television. Lis Sladen has worked along side four of these actors, making her one of the Doctor's longest serving (and most popular) companions. She appears as a regular in 18 stories over four seasons of the "classic" series (1963-1989) and four episodes of the revived series (2005-present).

Sarah Jane Smith is also the first companion to appear in a Doctor Who spin-off, the 1981 television pilot
K-9 and Company. And, of course, she was the central character of the series The Sarah Jane Adventures (2007-2011).

Above: The cast of The Sarah Jane Adventures.
From left: Daniel Anthony (Clyde Langer), Rani Chandra (Anjli Mohindra),
Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith), and Thomas Knight
(Sarah Jane's adopted son Luke)

In the classic series, Sarah Jane Smith had some, well, classic adventures with the Doctor, encountering with him some very formidable foes, including Sontarans, Daleks, Cybermen, Zygons, Ice Warriors, carnivorous plants, giant spiders (“All praise to the eight-legs!”), android mummies, and an ancient alien evil known as Eldrad.

Throughout, she maintained a confident and inquisitive outlook. So much so that she's often credited with being the first companion of the Doctor to exhibit a distinctly feminist sensibility.

In 2006, Sladen reprised the role of Sarah Jane Smith in a guest appearances in the “new” Doctor Who (see here and here). Shortly after, she began her own TV show, the successful Sarah Jane Adventures (see here, here, here, and here). At the time of Lis Sladen's death, three storylines (comprising six half-hour episodes) of the show's fifth season had been completed.

Russell T Davies, as creator of the "new" Doctor Who series, was instrumental in bringing the character of Sarah Jane back to the show. He also later created The Sarah Jane Adventures. Earlier today he paid tribute to Elisabeth Sladen.

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.

David Tennent, who worked alongside Lis as the Tenth Doctor, has also paid tribute to Lis, saying:

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.

And Matt Smith, the current Doctor, shared these words:

What struck me about Lis was her grace. She welcomed me, educated me, and delighted me with her tales and adventures on Doctor Who. And she also seemed to have a quality of youth that not many people retain as they go through life.

Below is a YouTube video that was originally created in 2007 as a tribute to the "long and illustrious career of Sarah Jane Smith." It seems an appropriate video to share today to honor the remarkable woman who gave this character live. The video is set to KT Tunstall's song "Suddenly I See."

Following, with added images and links, is an overview of Lis Sladen's career written by Chuck Foster and first published on The Doctor Who News Page.

Born in Liverpool in February 1948, Elisabeth Sladen took an interest in acting from an early age; she joined the Liverpool Playhouse repertory company as assistant stage manager after drama school, where she would meet her future husband Brian Miller. After a stint touring the country in repertory, she settled in Manchester, during which she had her breakthrough television role in 1970, appearing as Anita Reynolds in Coronation Street. More small roles were to follow in popular shows like Doomwatch, Z Cars and Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em.

Then in 1973 came what would be her defining role as she was cast as the replacement companion for third Doctor Jon Pertwee [right]. Following in the footsteps of popular companion Jo Grant played by Katy Manning, Sladen was to hit the ground running as investigative journalist Sarah Jane Smith in her debut story The Time Warrior, and over the next three years would see her popularity soar as she became part of what is arguably known as the "golden years" of Doctor Who alongside fourth Doctor Tom Baker [below], an era including the story frequently appearing top of fan polls, Genesis of the Daleks.

Despite choosing to leave the programme in 1976, with an emotional departure scene at the conclusion of the serial The Hand of Fear, Sladen later stated in interviews that although she had left Sarah Jane, "Sarah Jane never left me". Although she declined producer John Nathan-Turner's offer to come back as support for the Fourth Doctor's regeneration (being present at his own arrival at the end of this week's DVD release Planet of the Spiders), she did returned to the role for the 1981 pilot: having been described by the Doctor as his best friend, Sarah was form her second long-lasting partnership with his "second-best friend" in the titular K9 and Company.

Sladen was re-united with "her" Doctor, Jon Pertwee, in the 1983 20th anniversary celebration The Five Doctors, and again during the 1990s for the two radio stories The Paradise of Death and The Ghosts of N-Space, written and produced by the person who originally cast her, Barry Letts - the two would also be joined by another popular Doctor Who legend in the form of Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier.

Outside of Doctor Who, Elisabeth continued to work in theatre and television, often alongside her husband Brian; roles included Josie Hall in Take My Wife, a small role in the film Silver Dream Racer, and as Lady Flimnap in a production of Gulliver in Lilliput by her former producer Barry Letts, followed a few years later in his production of Alice in Wonderland as the Cheshire Cat. However, with the birth of her daughter Sadie in 1985, she was to focus more on her family.

However, Sarah would never be far from her life, with the actress continuing to be a popular guest at Doctor Who conventions, and also featuring in a series of audio adventures from Big Finish. Then, in 2005, a discussion with the revived Doctor Who's head writer and long-term fan of hers, Russell T Davies, led to a guest appearance in the second series adventure School Reunion, which re-united Sarah (and K9!) with the Doctor in his Tenth incarnation (David Tennant) - her appearance proved instrumental in cementing the connection between the 20th and 21st century productions in a way that the Daleks couldn't!

The character, and Sladen's performance, proved to be as popular as ever, if not more so, and led to her own starring role in spin-off series, The Sarah Jane Adventures; the CBBC series continued on from her re-introduction in Doctor Who as an independent investigator of alien activity – now joined by her young own assistants as well as her faithful K9 – and winning a whole new legion of fans, both young and old.

It is also a testament to the strength of the show that it has been graced by the appearance of the both the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), and the Doctor himself in both his Tenth incarnation in The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith (and David Tennant's final performance as the Doctor), and Eleventh in the form of Matt Smith in Death of the Doctor - where Sladen was also to come 'full circle' by performing with the actress she 'replaced' way back in 1973, Katy Manning, aka Jo Jones né Grant.

The series itself has gone on to win awards, including the Royal Television Society award for Children's Drama last month.

At the time of her death there are still three stories of The Sarah Jane Adventures to be broadcast on television, and her autobiography, Who's That Girl, is due out later in the year.

Elisabeth Sladen died the morning of 19th April, having been battling with cancer for some time. She is survived by her husband Brian Miller, and daughter Sadie.


And, finally, I share an excerpt from Simon Brew's heartfelt tribune to Lis. His words could readily be my own.

. . . It says so much for the appeal of both the character, and the tremendous actress behind her, that the character of Sarah Jane has been enthralling a fresh generation of fans these past few years, while continuing to appeal to those more familiar with the character. Russell T Davies knew what he was doing when he brought the character back when he revived Doctor Who.

But he knew what he was getting with Elisabeth Sladen, who must ultimately take credit for taking what could have been a simple companion role and turning it into one of the best loved in UK science fiction TV. A genuine one-off, her quality on screen was easily matched by her friendliness away from it. And when you step back and think about it, her achievements have been quite sensational. Where else in the world is a woman in her late 50s and then early 60s headlining a major television series?

Elisabeth Sladen had though, it turns out, been suffering from cancer, and according to the BBC, she had had it for some time. Predictably, she kept that away from the public eye, her absolute dignity shining through right to the end.

It feels unfair, horrible and tragic that she's been taken from us at the age of just 63. But my goodness, she leaves behind some very, very special memories.

Elisabeth Sladen, rest in peace. And thank you.

Pain and loss define us, as much as happiness or love. Whether it’s a world or a relationship, everything has a time and everything ends.

– Sarah Jane Smith
as played by Elisabeth Sladen, 1948-2011
(from the 2006 Doctor Who episode "School Reunion")

For more on Elisabeth Sladen's Sarah Jane Smith at The Wild Reed, see:
Blast from the Past: Sarah Jane Smith Returns to Doctor Who
What Sarah Jane Did Next
She’s So Lovely
Impossible! . . . It Can’t Be!
She’s Back!
Too Good to Miss
The Adventures Continue

Recommended Off-site Links:
Doctor Who Actress Elisabeth Sladen Dies BBC News (April 19, 2011).
Greatest Doctor Who Girl Ever – Dan Sales (The Scottish Sun, April 20, 2011).
Elisabeth Sladen Dies; Best Known As Doctor Who's Sarah Jane Smith – Brenda Daverin (Celebs.Gather.com, April 19, 2011).
Elisabeth Sladen, Doctor Who's Sarah Jane Smith, Dies at 63 – Hanh Nguyen (TV Guide, April 19, 2011).
Elisabeth Sladen Dies Aged 63 – Dan Martin (The Guardian, April 20, 2011).
Elisabeth Sladen Remembered by Doctor Who Stars ContactMusic.com (April 20, 2011).
"Don't Forget Me": A Tribute to Elisabeth Sladen – Kristy Jay (Sarah-Jane.tv, April 20, 2011).
Elisabeth Sladen Obituary – Toby Hadoke (The Guardian, April 20, 2011).
A Tear, Sarah Jane? – Scott Matthewman (The Stage, April 20, 2011).
In Praise of Elisabeth Sladen – Naomi Alderman (The Guardian, April 20, 2011).

1 comment:

Brian Gerard said...

Thanks for introducing me to Sarah Jane, Michael (along with Dr Who!)

She really was a lovely woman, and so very talented.