Elisabeth Sladen the Autobiography

2005, My first day on the new job.

I took my place in front of my little paper sign and glanced around the table. And there, just across from me and down to my left, a face from my childhood leapt out from among the throng.
Sarah Jane Smith was quietly leafing through a script and composing herself for the afternoon ahead

If Sarah was here, there was nothing to worry about. Later that afternoon she would be calling me Doctor. The little eight-year-old in my head (who was frankly reeling at the fact I was in that room at all) was soothed, and of course thrilled, that the Doctor’s one true assistant was there to look out for him.

Extracts from the Foreword of this book by David Tennant

The final book in my August selection of Sci-fi autobiographies had to Elisabeth Sladen, best known for her role as Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who in the mid 1970’s, but who re-appeared in David Tennant’s fourth broadcast episode (but the third filmed) as the Doctor in 2005 and later went on to have her own programme ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ which ran for five series up until 2011. David Tennant was clearly a fan, and so was I, although not to the extent of having posters of her on his childhood bedroom walls as he did. This book was a joy to read and despite its 334 pages plus the foreword and acknowledgements from her daughter Sadie it positively flew past it is so well written. The final draft of the book was delivered for her to read through just before Christmas 2010 but family was always more important than work for Elisabeth so it was put in a drawer and she was always so tired recently. The scripts were coming through for series five of the Sarah Jane Adventures and she need to prioritise those before her own project but in February 2011 she was diagnosed with cancer and just two months later she died aged only sixty five. In a heart breaking final chapter her husband, Brian Miller, and her daughter describe picking the book up some months after her death and reading it, then deciding that it had to be published, I’m so glad they did.

The book is far more than her involvement with Doctor Who, Elisabeth was an established theatre actress for twenty years before getting the role that truly made her name and that part of her career is given proper coverage as she learnt her craft, met and married Brian and toured all over the country with occasional TV, radio and film parts. We also get her time post Doctor Who back in theatres and various TV roles as well as the times she spent in America on the convention circuit with her first Doctor, Jon Pertwee, where she was always a popular speaker. Unlike Tom Baker’s autobiography which I reviewed first in this brief series Sladen does focus on her time in Doctor Who. She was cast for the role by Barry Letts and also worked on the first two series of Tom Baker’s Doctor and frankly we learn more about the start of his time in the role from this book than in his own autobiography. The story continues up until she decides to retire from acting in the early 2000’s as the roles simply weren’t coming through, then in 2005 she gets a call from Russel T Davies who had restarted Doctor Who after more than fifteen years off the TV screens and suddenly she ended up busier than ever.

It’s a fascinating book and her memory for details going back decades adds a lot to the enjoyment of reading it but is sadly out of print. I bought my copy when it first came out and read it then and it was fun to get it back off the shelf eleven years later. Frankly I’ve been building up to this book all month, deliberately including Tom’s and Barry’s books and finishing with Elisabeth’s. I was eleven when her first Doctor Who story, ‘The Time Warrior’, was broadcast and she was in a total of eighty episodes in that first time in the role so for me she will always be, as David Tennant put it in his foreword ‘the Doctor’s one true assistant’ and so sadly taken from us when her career was blossoming all over again.

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