I don’t think any Doctor Who actor’s death has affected me as much as that of Elisabeth Sladen, who died last Tuesday at the age of 65. I heard the news late at night as I returned home from an otherwise-fabulous day at the “Doctor Who Experience” in London, where (among many other things) I’d seen one of Sarah Jane Smith’s suits in the costume display, and met one of Lis Sladen’s friends and colleagues in the cafeteria.
I didn’t know Lis as well as some of my pals who worked with her in TV and audios. For them, this was a particularly unexpected and devastating loss. My main association with her over the years was as a fan of her appearances as Sarah Jane Smith, my favourite Doctor Who companion. And when I had the good fortune to meet her in person, she was personally and professionally a delight.
I’ve watched Doctor Who for as long as I can remember – I am slightly older than the programme, but cannot remember a time before it existed. Nevertheless, it was during Jon Pertwee’s time that I really got hooked, investing the non-Saturday time and energy that marks you out as a fan rather than just a regular viewer. So it had been a big disappointment for me when Jo Grant left at the end of The Green Death.
I was therefore intrigued by the hitherto unheard-of previews for Season 11 in the 1973 Radio Times Doctor Who Special. This was long before the likes of Doctor Who Magazine was a regular in WH Smith. When I spotted a solitary copy of it in the local newsagents, I didn’t have the necessary 30p in my pocket, and there was a tense 24-hour period before I could get back to the shop, throughout which I wondered if I was going to be able to buy it at all.
The Special published a huge photo of Jo’s replacement attempting to hide from a brand new alien meance in some castle grounds. “I must admit,” said the new actress in her first interview, “that I’ve never watched Doctor Who regularly.” She subsequently became one of the most popular and well-known actors on the TV show, in a contribution that spanned almost 40 years.
Sarah Jane helped the Doctor – and viewers – transition between his third and fourth incarnations. When the time came for her own heart-breaking departure at the end of The Hand of Fear, she’d become the benchmark by which all future companions would be judged.
It was no surprise that Lis was chosen as the lead for the first attempt at a Doctor Who spinoff (K-9 & Company), nor that producer John Nathan-Turner supposedly tried to persuade her to return at the end of Tom Baker’s era as another transition to a new Doctor.
The popularity of her character was so strong with the public, rather than just fans, that she was the obvious choice to return in the revamped TV series episode School Reunion. And having secured the affection of a whole new generation of young Doctor Who fans, the character returned in the marvellous CBBC series The Sarah Jane Adventures. Russell T Davies had a vision of Sarah Jane continuing to defend the Earth from whatever the universe could throw at it when the Doctor wasn’t around to help.
My own thoughts about the character’s life after she’d left the Doctor were less imaginative, more modest. Editors Justin Richards and Andy Lane offered me an initial chance for professionally published Doctor Who fiction in 1996, the year of the Paul McGann TV movie. And Sarah Jane was the first character I wanted to write for. I devised a story for the collection Decalog 3: Consequences called “Moving On”, about how she was adjusting to life back on Earth, struggling to re-establish herself as a journalist, and recognising that she and K-9 were getting older. I even included a joke about the dog at the end of The Hand of Fear.
By the end of my story, Sarah Jane demonstrated she could fight off an alien attack quite ably on her own. My “future” Sarah Jane was a self-confident writer of imaginative fiction – based on her experiences with the Doctor, and now on her own. The concluding scene showed an older Sarah Jane (with “salt-and-pepper hair”) being interviewed about her writing.
Well, how wrong I was! Sarah Jane Smith isn’t the type to retire to a life of writing. What’s more, Lis Sladen wasn’t remotely the type to age gracefully – she didn’t seem to age at all! And while 65 is no time at all these days for a life well-lived, and certainly far too soon to lose her, it was impossible to believe she could be as old as that. I’m sure it only added to our shock and disbelief last week.
As a result of that short story, I first met Lis in 2001. I’d been invited to “Dimensions on Tyne”, a convention in Newcastle, as part of a BBC Books Writers panel. Lis was one of the headline guests, and I was introduced to her because she’d heard about my previous Doctor Who work and wanted me to consider writing a script for Big Finish Productions’ forthcoming Sarah Jane Smith audio series. She was charming and enthusiastic. I took all of about three seconds to agree.
Lis was very protective of Sarah Jane – constructively so, and quite right, too. After the convention, she sent me a copy of an interview [linked at the foot of this post] that she’d recently done for MJTV, in which she talked about how she thought the character would have changed over the years, what her attitudes would now be, the sort of person she’d have become. When I submitted the script, Lis had thoughtful and helpful suggestions, too. We spoke on the phone in advance of the production.
Best of all, I got to meet her in person again at the recording day for Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre in February 2002. I arrived just in time to hear her perform the speech from the opening play where Sarah speaks movingly of her late Aunt Lavinia. That was in Terrance Dicks’s opening story, wonderfully script-edited and directed by Gary Russell. The other scripts were by Rupert Laight, Barry Letts, and David Bishop (whose own memories of Lis you can read on his blog).
Lis’s daughter Sadie was cast in the plays, too, though her scenes were recorded on a different day to the one I attended. Nevertheless, I had a most enjoyable lunch with the cast members, at which Lis and I discussed our children and our hopes for them. Sometimes when you meet people that you have admired for a long time, you are disappointed when they do not live up to your hopes or expectations. I can candidly say that this was not the case with Lis, who charmed and encouraged and entertained all of us there.
My other contact with Lis was in 2008 when BBC Audio commissioned me to write “The Time Capsule”, a story for The Sarah Jane Adventures. By this stage, the series was a great success, and I was able to tell Lis how much my children had enjoyed seeing her back on TV as Sarah Jane. She wrote me a charming handwritten letter, thanking me and my family.
Last Saturday, I sat with dozens of fans in The One Tun pub in London for a screening of The Impossible Astronaut, the launch episode of the new Doctor Who series. It was a day of excitement but also great sadness, as we recalled our memories of Lis while also looking to the future. The dedication of the episode, and the CBBC tribute programme afterwards, moved many in the room to tears.
Lis Sladen was an important part of my life since childhood, and latterly in my professional life. Most recently, she became part of my own children’s lives. Sarah Jane will live on in the TV stories and audios that she recorded over a remarkable four decades, and in the stories that we have yet to write. And that’s therefore how I will continue to remember Lis, with admiration and affection.
Updated April 30th: Mark from MJTV pointed out that my link for “The Actor Speaks” is for the old, out of date website. The correct link is here: http://www.mjtv.info/cd_audio.htm And it also contains a clip for people to hear the interview with Lis, as well as where they can obtain a copy.
Updated May 1st: Now includes a link to information about my short story “Moving On“.