Elisabeth Sladen: The Autobiography – Book Review

There’s nothing “only” about being Sarah Jane Smith

Elisabeth Sladen was the sort of person who makes a memorable first impression. This reviewer’s came on a scorching summer day, standing on the corner of “Bannerman Road”, observing filming on The Sarah Jane Adventures . Entirely unprompted, Lis wandered over to greet the assembled hacks. Her first words after introducing itself: “It’s a really hot day, are you all okay? Do you need some bottled water?” It was a small gesture, but one whose thoughtfulness was characteristic of one of the loveliest women you could ever hope to meet.

Doctor Who fans will not feel shortchanged by this biography, completed a couple of months before her diagnosis with cancer in February 2010. There are reminiscences about every Who TV story she worked on, from “The Time Warrior” to “The End Of Time”, as well as Sarah Jane’s many returns to the fold – the Big Finish CDs are about the only thing left out.

Though you couldn’t exactly call it a tell-all, there is some forthright criticism – mostly of TV directors who were more concerned with technicalities than their cast, or had a bullying approach; for example, we’re told that Paddy Russell (director of the classic Who “Pyramids Of Mars”, amongst others), “didn’t care who or what she trampled on”. Although Sladen strives to give an even-handed portrayal, it’s very clear that she was annoyed by many of Jon Pertwee’s habits, and found some them – a “proprietorial hand around the neck” to steer her about; accusations of “women’s problems” if she dared to disagree with him – deeply patronising. She was far more sympatico with Tom Baker, who treated her as an equal, and didn’t share Pertwee’s constant need to be the centre of attention.

Lis didn’t feel the need to be the big star either, and the book succeeds in giving you a sense of her humility and down-to-earth nature. Her approach to her career was never calculating, or even ambitious; she just went with the flow. She couldn’t understand why people were so interested in her. Whether she was sweeping the stage at a Liverpool theatre, winning the adoration of millions as Sarah Jane, or shooting a Cointreau ad, her attitude was the same: she was just an actor, doing her job – what’s so remarkable about that?

The last time I met Elisabeth Sladen, I had the privilege of interviewing her on stage. Her one request, before we went on, was to be introduced as Elisabeth; “After that, just ‘Lis’ is fine”, she added. Elisabeth Sladen was the public face, but once the front door closed she was Lis Miller, and it was clearly a role she relished even more than Sarah Jane. Further chances for stardom after she left Who went begging because she’d rather go on holiday with her hubbie – variations on the phrase, “I just wanted to be with Brian” recur throughout the book.

The further you read on, the more a common-sense fact comes into focus. Millions of us experienced a sense of loss on hearing of Elisabeth Sladen’s death: the disappearance of a favourite actor, a charming convention guest, a generous interviewee. But the really great tragedy of her passing is the loss of a fantastic wife and mother.

Ian Berriman

Read our review of The Sarah Jane Adventures series four .

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