Saturday, 11 February 2012

Elisabeth Sladen - The Autobiography

Good Bye Sarah Jane...

Elisabeth Sladen - The Autobiography
Aurum Press. ISBN: 978-1845134884

You know, from when I was a young ‘un, my earliest memories of Doctor Who are from the first Jon Pertwee serial Spearhead From Space. I was two years old.

His assistant in that story was Liz Shaw (played by Caroline John) but it wasn’t too long before Jo Grant (as played by Katy Manning) came into the series and I’d have to say that, with all my earliest memories of Doctor Who, come the ones of getting a Jo Grant badge from Selfridges at the time and assembling jigsaw puzzles with The Doctor, Jo and the Daleks on them. I was very little and this stuff used to keep my mind agog.

I remember when Lis Sladen started in the show during Jon Pertwee’s last haul and I remember her being there when he regenerated into Tom Baker and continuing her adventures and, in some ways, Sarah Jane never really left me over the years as one of those companions you just remember and who sticks in your mind as one the anchor points of the show. One of the things you’d look forward to while having to hear Basil Brush sing that damned Bulldog Basil song for the umpteenth time before the show started.

And when you think about it, it’s really not that surprising that Lis Sladen is one of those companions who endures the most, almost becoming a national treasure in the process. Since leaving the show she’s made loads of returns as the character. First there was the pilot film spin off for a TV show that never got picked up, K9 And Company, which I remember loving and I was always cross that they didn’t make any more of them at the time. This was where The Doctor sent her a new model of the Leeson voiced robotic dog and Sarah Jane and K9 go around solving mysteries together.

Then there was her reappearance opposite Pertwee’s Doctor in the anniversary special The Five Doctors, which carried on the continuity established in K9 And Company and also, briefly, reunited her with Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart from her UNIT days again. There was a long gap after that when anyone who is right and proper in the head would have assumed that this particular assistant would never see the light of day again but, when the new reincarnation of the series had hit its stride, spearheaded by Russel T. Davies, he brought Sarah Jane (and K9) back for the David Tennant episode School Reunion... and it was a big hit with audiences. This paved the way for more appearances in Doctor Who (the last two episodes of Catherine Tate’s regular run on the programme and, of course, a brief scene in the final David Tennant story... but more importantly, it spawned her own regular show, The Sarah Jane Adventures, some of the episodes of which are reviewed on this site (check out the index by title in the top right hand corner and scroll down to the TV section).

This show was a really great childrens TV programme (especially for us so-called adult children) and in some ways was more similar to the way the old Doctor Who stories were put together “back in the day”. It was a roaring success too, so when the news came that Elisabeth Sladen had died from cancer without a heck of a lot of warning during the shooting of Series Five, the fans (including myself) were somewhat shocked to say the least. It was like another link from my childhood had died for me... even though I’d never met her.

When her autobiography came out shortly after her death, it was a chance for me to find out more about the Doctor Who assistant that I’d always just relied on being there without really stopping to catch my breath and take a proper interest in her while she was alive. Having read her book now, I have to say that I wish I’d gotten in line just once at one of those fan signings because, frankly, she seems to have been quite a special lady.

The book is well written and fleshes out little bits of her life without ever really straying too far in the text from Doctor Who. Although her early life before Doctor Who, acting alongside her husband in various “actorly” engagements is certainly recounted, quite a lot of the book is given over to her time in the original TV shows. I guess this is what she thought most people would be interested in reading? But, to be honest, the whole lot will hold your attention once you make a start on it.

The lack of faith, or perhaps that should be financial and creative support, from the BBC in the show in the early days comes through clearly enough and it’s no real surprise (a lot of ex-Doctor’s have shared similar viewpoints), but there’s loads of interesting snippets of information here to keep most fans of her work and her most famous character engrossed. Her working relationship with Jon Pertwee was less bubbly than I’d expected (I have heard a few things about Pertwee over the years) but also not unfair and certainly she had some good times with him and his wife in later years. Her brilliant relationship with Tom Baker is also recounted and there’s some real nuggets of information about her time on the show which I suspect some people at the BBC in the old days may not have expected (or wanted) to come out... but I’m not going to tell you what those things are, you’ll have to read it yourself to find out.

I was glad to hear that she got on so well with Russel T. Davies... enough to email him about choices on what to wear for awards shows and the like... but I was a bit surprised at how little there is of her time working on The Sarah Jane Adventures in the book. I suspect there would have been more to come by way of interesting anecdotes if she’d have lived longer. The end of the book where she speculated as to where the show might be going in the future is poignant and sad to read when one realises that she had no idea she was dying. By the time I read the last little end piece by her husband and daughter, I was pretty much crying too many tears onto the page to be able to read the text properly. I must be getting old.

This was a much more emotional read than I’d expected and Elisabeth Sladen comes off as nothing but an absolute professional when it comes to her working life. An absolute gem of a book and something any longtime fan of Doctor Who, and of Sladen, will not want to miss out on. Definitely pick this one up if you want to be entertained and moved.

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