A Tribute To Elisabeth Sladen (1946-2011)

Written By: Ken Hulsey
Source: BBC / Wikipedia

I feel really bad that I didn't get a chance to touch on the untimely death of actress Elisabeth Sladen last week. Sladen was best known for her role of Sarah Jane Smith, a companion to the iconic Doctor from the UK sci fi TV series "Doctor Who". Though the Doctor has had numerous companions over the decades, Sladen's Sarah Jane was by far the most beloved by fans on both sides of the Atlantic.

The character of Sarah Jane Smith was so popular in fact that two "Doctor Who" spin-off series where created to feature her, one the short-lived "K-9 and Company" and the other "The Sarah Jane Adventures" has been airing on the BBC since 2007.

Here is a press release from the BBC on Sladen's passing:

Last night (Tuesday) with much sadness the BBC announced Elisabeth Sladen, the much-loved actress best known for her role as Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who and CBBC's The Sarah Jane Adventures, had passed away. She was 63.

Lis first appeared as Sarah Jane in Doctor Who in 1973 alongside the Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, and stayed for three and half seasons working alongside Jon and the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker. She returned to the role on numerous occasions over the years and, in 2007, was given her own spin-off series on CBBC – The Sarah Jane Adventures – where she would appear alongside new Doctors David Tennant and Matt Smith.

The Sarah Jane Adventures brought Lis a whole new generation of fans who grew up to love her alien-busting adventures. The series was hugely popular with fans young and old and won this year's RTS Award for best children's drama.

Controller of CBBC Damian Kavanagh said last night: "I'm deeply saddened and shocked by the news of Lis' untimely death. Lis brought joy, excitement and a sense of wonder to her many fans in her role as Sarah Jane Smith. She was adored by our young audience and I know all of them will miss her as much as I will."

The creator of The Sarah Jane Adventures Russell T Davies said: "I absolutely loved Lis. She was funny and cheeky and clever and just simply wonderful. The universe was lucky to have Sarah Jane Smith; the world was lucky to have Lis."

Steven Moffat, Doctor Who's lead writer and executive producer said: "'Never meet your heroes' wise people say. They weren't thinking of Lis Sladen.

"Sarah Jane Smith was everybody's hero when I was younger, and as brave and funny and brilliant as people only ever are in stories. But many years later, when I met the real Sarah-Jane – Lis Sladen herself – she was exactly as any child ever have wanted her to be. Kind and gentle and clever; and a ferociously talented actress, of course, but in that perfectly English unassuming way.

“There are a blessed few who can carry a whole television show on their talent and charisma – but I can't think of one other who's done it quite so politely. I once showed my son Joshua an old episode of Doctor Who, in which Lis appeared. 'But that's Sarah Jane,' he said, confused, 'In old Doctor Who. From years ago. How come she always look exactly the same?' It's not a comfort today, of course, but children will still be saying that 50 years from now."

Matt Smith said: "What struck me about Lis was her grace. She welcomed me, educated me, and delighted me with her tales and adventures on Doctor Who. And she also seemed to have a quality of youth that not many people retain as they go through life. Her grace and kindness will stay with me because she had such qualities in abundance and shared them freely. I will miss her, as will the world of Doctor Who and all the Doctors that had the good pleasure to work with Lis Sladen and travel the universe with Sarah Jane."

David Tennant said: "I just can't believe that Lis is gone. She seemed invincible. The same woman who enchanted my childhood, enchanted my time on Doctor Who and enchanted generations who have watched her and fallen in love with her – just like I did. I feel very honoured to have shared a TARDIS with Sarah Jane Smith, and I feel very lucky to have shared some time with Lis Sladen. She was extraordinary."

Keith Jones, Director, BBC Cymru Wales, said: "The Sarah Jane Adventures has been one of the most successful children's programmes on television in recent years – and without Elisabeth Sladen it would not have happened. A brilliant presence on screen and on set, she brought the excitement and energy of the Doctor Who family of programmes, of which we are very proud at BBC Wales, to a whole new generation. She will be missed by all at BBC Wales who worked with her."

Roger Carey, who represented Lis for many years, said: "She was not just a client, but a dear friend. She was so positive about life and her natural energy was intoxicating. She couldn't believe her luck when her career was resurrected in her own series."

Lis had been suffering from cancer. She leaves behind a husband, actor Brian Miller, and her daughter, Sadie.

Here is her bio from Wikipedia:

Sladen was the only child of Tom Sladen, who fought in World War I and served in the Home Guard during World War II. Her mother Gladys' maiden name was Trainor, which is a Northern Irish name commonly seen in Liverpool.

Sladen developed an interest in performing at an early age, beginning dance lessons when she was five, and dancing in one production with the Royal Ballet. She was a primary school contemporary of future politician Edwina Currie (née Cohen), appearing in at least one school production with her; and a grammar school contemporary of Peter Goldsmith, the future Attorney-General, when both attended Quarry Bank School (now Calderstones School).

After attending drama school for two years, Sladen began work at the Liverpool Playhouse repertory company as an assistant stage manager. Her first stage appearance was as a corpse. However, she was scolded for giggling on stage, thanks to a young actor, Brian Miller, whispering the words, "Respiration nil, Aston Villa two" in her ear while he was playing a doctor. Sladen was so good as an assistant stage manager that she did not get many acting roles, a problem she solved by deliberately making mistakes on several occasions. This got her told off again, but she started to get more on-stage roles.

Sladen made her first, uncredited, screen appearance in 1965 in the film Ferry Cross the Mersey as an extra.

Sladen eventually moved into weekly repertory work, travelling around to various locations in England. Sladen and Miller, now married, moved to Manchester, spending three years there. She appeared in numerous roles, most notably as Desdemona in Othello, her first appearance as a leading lady. She also got the odd part on Leeds Radio and Granada Television, eventually appearing as a barmaid in 1970 in six episodes of the long-running soap opera Coronation Street. In 1971, Sladen was in two episodes of Z-Cars. Then, in 1972, she was appearing in a play that moved down to London, and they had to move along with it. Her first television role in London was as a terrorist in an episode of Doomwatch. This was followed by guest roles in Z-Cars (again),[7] Public Eye, Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em and Special Branch.

In 1973, Doctor Who actress Katy Manning, who was playing the Third Doctor's assistant Jo Grant opposite Jon Pertwee, was leaving the series. Producer Barry Letts was growing increasingly desperate in his search for a replacement, when Z-Cars producer Ron Craddock gave Sladen an enthusiastic recommendation.

Sladen arrived at the audition not knowing it was for the new companion role, and was amazed at Letts's thoroughness. She was introduced to Pertwee, whom she found intimidating at the time. As she chatted with Letts and Pertwee, each time she turned to look at one of them the other would signal a thumbs-up. She was offered and accepted the part of investigative journalist Sarah Jane Smith.

She stayed on Doctor Who for three and a half seasons, alongside Pertwee as the Third Doctor and Tom Baker as the Fourth, receiving both popular and critical acclaim for her role as Sarah Jane. When she left the series, in the 1976 serial The Hand of Fear, it made front page news,[citation needed] where previously only a change of Doctors had received such attention. In October, 2009, Sladen paid tribute to her boss and friend, Barry Letts, after he died. She said Letts was her closest friend on Doctor Who.

Sladen returned to the character of Sarah Jane Smith on numerous occasions. In 1981, new Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner asked her to return to the series to ease the transition between Tom Baker and new Doctor Peter Davison. She declined but accepted his second offer of doing a pilot for a spin-off series called K-9 and Company, co-starring K-9, the popular robot dog from Doctor Who. However, the pilot was not picked up for a series. Two years later Sladen appeared in the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors.

She reprised the role in the 1993 Children in Need special Dimensions in Time, and in the 1995 independently produced video Downtime alongside former co-star Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and Deborah Watling as Victoria Waterfield. This was her last on-screen appearance as Sarah Jane Smith for some time.

Sladen played Sarah Jane in several audio plays. Two of them were produced for BBC Radio, The Paradise of Death (Radio 5, 1993), and The Ghosts of N-Space (Radio 2, 1996), together with Jon Pertwee and Nicholas Courtney. Big Finish Productions has also produced two series of Sarah Jane Smith audio adventures set in the present day, released in 2002 and 2006. Her daughter Sadie has also appeared in the audios.

In later years, Sladen had also participated re-visiting a few classic Doctor Who serials on DVD in doing audio commentaries and interviews (in the stories she starred in), but as of 2008 she stated in an interview that she was no longer doing them due to "contractual reasons with 2entertain".

Following the successful revival of Doctor Who in 2005, Sladen guest starred as Sarah Jane in "School Reunion", an episode of the 2006 series, along with John Leeson, who returned as the voice of the robot dog K-9, and David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor. Sladen was ever faithful to the character and worked a lot of the characterisation herself, in the lead-up to the broadcast of "School Reunion" she was quoted in The Daily Mirror as saying: "Sarah Jane used to be a bit of a cardboard cut-out. Each week it used to be, 'Yes Doctor, no Doctor', and you had to flesh your character out in your mind — because if you didn't, no one else would." She also spoke favourably of the characterisation in the new series.

Following her successful appearance in the series, Sladen later starred in The Sarah Jane Adventures, a Doctor Who spin-off focusing on Sarah Jane, produced by BBC Wales for CBBC and created by Russell T Davies. A 60-minute special aired on New Year's Day 2007, with a 10-episode series commencing broadcast in September 2007. The programme was nominated for a prestigious Royal Television Society award and was recommissioned for a second 12-episode series which was broadcast in late 2008. The third series was broadcast in Autumn 2009, and again achieved audience ratings well in excess of the usual average figures for the time slot (sometimes even double). A fourth season began airing in October 2010.

Sladen also read two original audio stories for The Sarah Jane Adventures, which were released in November 2007 on CD: The Glittering Storm by Stephen Cole and The Thirteenth Stone by Justin Richards. This was the first time that BBC Audiobooks have commissioned new content for exclusive release on audio. Two new audio stories ("Ghost House" and "Time Capsule") were released in November 2008, both read again by Sladen.

Sladen appeared in the final two episodes of Doctor Who’s 2008 series (season 4) finale "The Stolen Earth" and "Journey's End" and was credited in the title sequence of both episodes. Her final appearance in Doctor Who was a cameo in the concluding part of "The End of Time", Tennant's last episode as the Doctor.

After Doctor Who, Sladen returned to Liverpool with her husband and performed in a series of plays. This included a two-hander with Miller in Moonie and his Caravans. Notable appearances following that include a two-year stint as a presenter for the children's programme Stepping Stones, a lead role with Miller playing her husband in ITV drama Send In The Girls, a BBC Play For Today, a role as a stand-up comic's spouse in Take My Wife, and a small part in the movie Silver Dream Racer as a bank secretary in 1980, only her second motion picture appearance. In 1981, former Doctor Who producer Barry Letts cast her as the female lead in the BBC Classics production of Gulliver in Lilliput.

She continued to appear in various advertisements and in another Letts production, Alice in Wonderland (playing the Dormouse), as well as attending conventions in the United States. After the birth of her daughter Sadie Miller in 1985, Sladen went into semi-retirement, placing her family first, but finding time for the occasional television appearance. In 1995, she played Dr Pat Hewer in 4 episodes of Peak Practice. In 1996, she played Sophie in Faith in the Future, and appeared in 15 episodes of the BBC schools programme Numbertime, which was repeated annually for around ten years. This was her last television acting appearance until the 2006 Doctor Who episode "School Reunion".

In 1991, she starred as Alexa opposite Colin Baker in The Stranger audio adventure The Last Mission for BBV Audio. Sladen also appeared in a Bernice Summerfield audio drama, Kate Orman's Walking to Babylon.

In 2008–09, Sladen appeared in a panto production of Peter Pan at the Theatre Royal Windsor, playing Mrs. Darling and a beautiful mermaid.

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