Remembering Elisabeth Sladen

Last Christmas I was given a copy of Elizabeth Sladen’s autobiography. I reacted in the required way, did all the usual things, gasped, smiled, placed it pride of place on the bookshelf and told my wife it’s what I really wanted – but was it?

About eight months earlier I, along with countless other Who and SJA fans discovered the tragic news about Elizabeth Sladen’s death. I recall stumbling across the news on this very website and quickly entering a sort of dreamlike state of disbelief. I wasn’t just sad, I was devastated and in an odd way I was perhaps more stunned by precisely how sad I was – but why? This is a question I thought about for a long time. Was it Lis’ connection to the golden era of who? was it the fantastic revival of Sarah Jane? was it the much-loved ‘bridge’ Sarah Jane provided between the classic series and the new series? My pondering was placed on hold as I began to consider a much bigger question – How do I break the news to the biggest Sarah Jane Smith fan on the planet! – my five-year old daughter Imogen…

Perhaps other mid-30 something fathers will sympathise here, but this was a big deal. It’s very rare that dads get to watch TV programmes that they enjoy completely on a level with their kids!

I stumbled around a bit, talked about how the next series of SJA would be special because it would be the last one and then, thankfully, Imogen understood completely what I was hinting at. The rest of the conversation was a bit of a blur but I think Imogen was content that Sarah Jane was in heaven with her friends and family and quite possibly our cat, Minky. After that conversation it all fell into place – why I was just so sad. It was simple – my daughter and I had the same hero. Not in a subtle or patronising way, but we were genuinely inspired by this gutsy, clever, brave lady who also happened to be the Doctors best friend.

I think I was holding back on reading that autobiography because my inner-kid didn’t want to break the spell. Would understanding more about Lis somehow take something away from my final memories of Sarah Jane? battling aliens for the rest of time…occasionally hooking up for tea with the Doctor? I started reading Lis’ autobiography last month and just finished it today and I’m so glad I read it.

I won’t spoil it for those fans who haven’t read it, but in the end, it felt like the best possible tribute to Elizabeth Sladen after her sad death.

Having read the book I now feel that I finally understand why Elisabeth Sladen was so loved as a companion – because she was a damn talented actor! It seems an obvious thing to say but, in the Doctor Who universe, where everything is so fantastic, with plots on the verge of belief and (in the case of the classic series) sets that were a bit wobbly…we needed someone to make this surreal, absurd and brilliant place seem real. Not too real either – but just believable enough to help us connect the dots, to see past the limitations and to become fully immersed in our imaginations. Acting on that level is an extraordinary skill.

As a Dr Who fan of the VHS generation – Sarah Jane is where it all began for me, she fuelled my imagination in the same way she fuelled the imaginations of the current generation (including Imogen) and I love her for that.

So, as this Thursday approaches, rather than wallow in the sadness of losing a magical actress, I’m going to dust off my VHS copy of The Time Warrior, pour myself a glass of something and be thankful that Elizabeth Sladen said yes to Barry Letts all those years ago…

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