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.

Who & Me – Barry Letts

Barry Letts was an actor, writer, director and producer for decades, mainly for the BBC, and is most famous as the series producer of Doctor Who from Jon Pertwee’s second story in 1969 to Tom Baker’s first in 1974 returning as executive producer at the end of Baker’s long run in the part in 1980. He also directed several stories for Doctor Who starting with the Patrick Troughton story ‘The Enemy of the World’ and wrote others although this was done using pseudonyms as the BBC at the time did not approve of the series producer also writing episodes. The front cover shows Barry, in the striped shirt, and Jon Pertwee, in full costume as his dandy Doctor Who leaning on a dalek. Terrence Dicks, who wrote the foreword, was script editor on Doctor Who between 1968 and 1974 and these two men formed a strong partnership which drove the programme back out of the doldrums of the end of the Troughton era and up the viewing ratings. Katy Manning played Jo Grant, one of the Doctor’s companions during this period.

The book doesn’t only cover Doctor Who but delves back into Barry Letts’ decades long acting career and how he progressed into a writer, then director before finally being persuaded to be a producer, which he would only do if he was still allowed to direct the occasional story line. It is worth noting for anyone who only knows the modern re-invention of Doctor Who that back in the 1960’s there would be over forty episodes a year, every year, and stories would normally be told over four, five, six or even seven episodes rather than the at most two episode individual stories in modern Who. The workload was tremendous and Letts was responsible for improving the process by reducing the number of episodes to twenty five a year along with recording episodes in pairs so reducing the need for constantly building and taking down sets so allowing more time for recording along with other changes to scheduling.

Letts is brutally honest about his successes and failures over the years and readily admits things he got wrong such as his first directing job on ‘The Enemy of the World’ which lacked pace in numerous parts especially in the one surviving episode which definitely drags out the material. I watched this again after reading the book and can see why he really wasn’t happy about the end result. In complete contrast he was also responsible for possibly my favourite story of ‘classic Doctor Who’ which was ‘The Daemons’ which came to its climax around my ninth birthday and with it’s story about black magic and the raising of a demon absolutely enthralled and terrified me as a young child. It also has probably the best line for The Brigadier in all his appearances instructing one of his soldiers “Chap with the wings there, five rounds rapid!“. Along the way he explains a lot of what both the director and producer actually did on TV programmes of the time and this was really interesting as it a side of the making of TV that isn’t covered very often. He also covers the work of Terrence Dicks in just how a script comes to be agreed and written from the initial ideas to outlines, then initial script, leading to fine tuning with cuts and additions to make each episode not only the right length but also to maintain the flow of the story.

So here we are at the end of our second season which is where I always intended to end this first volume.

Start of chapter 22 of Who & Me

The final chapter of the book starts with the words above, but sadly Letts didn’t even live to see this volume get released as he died in October 2009 aged 84, shortly before publication, leading to a final short postscript by his family thanking people for their good wishes after his death was announced. The book was an interesting read and he dropped so many hints of things that he wanted to cover in a later volume eventually leading up to Tom Baker’s first story as Doctor Who which would have tied back nicely to the first book in my August Sci-fi autobiography readings. It is such a pity that the cancer he had been suffering from for years got him before he could even start on the second book as I’m sure we would have learnt a lot more about the jobs of producer and director.

Who on Earth is Tom Baker?

Every August I give myself a theme for the books that month and this year it is autobiographies of people associated with British science fiction or fantasy. I’m starting with the twenty five year old autobiography of, for me, the best Doctor Who, Tom Baker, who held the role from 1974 to 1981 and starred in 178 episodes during that time, far more than any other actor in the role.

The book is 262 pages long plus an unnumbered 8 page introduction, he doesn’t get the role he is most famous for until page 191 and leaves the job on page 229 so don’t expect huge revelations about Doctor Who despite the cover photo and indeed the title. In fact my favourite Who story in the book is when Baker desperately wanted to see a particular episode where he had been held underwater despite his deep fear of such a thing happening as he can’t swim and is terrified of water and he had never been able to see the episode as he was doing publicity tours, this is also years before home TV recording was possible. He had reached Preston on his way home by the time the episode was due and after trying to see it in the windows of TV shops none of which had it on eventually knocked on the door of a house with children’s bicycles outside and asked if they were going to watch the show. Being recognised he was led into the living room where the two children were already glued to the TV in anticipation and sat quietly at the back of the room so the children only gradually became aware that Doctor Who was sitting with them watching the show. Perfectly reasonably they couldn’t believe what was happening and it took numerous double takes, checking the TV screen and the person sitting behind them before they accepted the unlikely was actually true. The story was picked up by the local press thereby really making their school friends jealous.

Having said that there is surprising little about Doctor Who in the book Tom Baker’s life is fascinating and it is written with considerable humour. Born in 1934 he came from a poor Liverpudlian catholic family and he was very religious as a child and youth, eventually becoming a novice monk at the age of fifteen and remaining in holy orders for almost six years, initially in Jersey and later near Market Drayton in Shropshire. The description of his time in the monasteries is funny and terrible at the same time, he clearly had an awful time as a monk but this was nothing to the truly awful time he had with the family of his first wife who appear to have regarded him as little more than cheap labour for their various businesses and treated him with disdain. But his earliest ambition, as a young child in wartime Liverpool was to be an orphan… This was due to the gifts such as hats and jackets along with a card from the President that an child orphaned during the war could expect to receive from America and these were highly prized. He even told his teacher at school, when she started going round the class asking what her pupils wanted to be when they grew up, that he wanted to be an orphan and this earned him a swift trip to the headmasters office.

There are plenty of stories about his slowly building acting career, which until Doctor Who never paid enough for him not to have other jobs as well, indeed he was working as a building site labourer when he got the role of Doctor Who. Post Doctor Who there are tales of drinking in Soho clubs and bars with the likes of the artist Francis Bacon and journalist Jeffrey Bernard both notorious heavy drinkers until eventually his third wife, who he is still married to, managed to lure him away from the city to the countryside and a rural happiness that is where the book finishes. Overall it’s a good and entertaining read although I’d like an updated version, he was continued to work on film, TV and radio through most of the last twenty five years so an additional few chapters are certainly called for.

My copy of the book is the 1997 first edition and is signed by Tom Baker.