I don’t like doing R.I.P./Memorial posts – because very often, even if famous/well-loved performers or actors have died, I don’t have much to say other than “Oh dear, that’s sad.” But news hit last night, on the 19th of April 2011, and frankly I’ve got to say something about this one, because this one feels terribly personal. It was bad enough when we recently lost Nicholas Courtney (the actor who portrayed Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart), but now Elisabeth Sladen has died, aged only 63. She was the actress who played the tremendously popular assistant Sarah Jane Smith from 1973-1976 in the classic series of Doctor Who, and who ended up returning to the role more times than anyone (especially her) expected, going on to appear several times in the relaunched version of Who, and getting her own children’s TV spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures.
Of course, the question is – why? Why was Sarah Jane quite so popular and remembered as a Who companion? My Twitter feed over the last twelve hours has been a genuinely touching outpouring of disbelief, sadness, and a genuine affection for a performer who brought a serious amount of warmth and happiness into people’s lives – it’s a testament to how much impact Doctor Who has had, and it’s also a testament to exactly how bloody good Sladen was in the role.
Because, let’s be honest, when you’re looking at the classic series of Who, the companion is pretty often a fairly thankless role – they’re there to ask questions, get into danger, be kidnapped, undergo hypnosis, almost be sacrificed, and generally be an audience identification figure. There’s not much depth, and it’s up to the performer in question to actually make this slightly thin collection of ticks and story devices into a character the audience cares about.
There were few actresses in Classic Who who were as good at this as Elisabeth Sladen – Sarah Jane starts out in her first year (Jon Pertwee’s final season as the Third Doctor) as a deliberate ‘Women’s Lib’ character, a bolshy journalist who pokes her nose in places and willingly gets into trouble, but she soon settles down into a far less deliberately spiky character, and it’s in her first season with Tom Baker that she truly starts to shine. It’s partly because Sarah Jane is the prototype for what the companion would eventually become – she’s the point where the Doctor/companion relationship goes from one that had been largely parental in nature (especially with characters like Victoria and Jo Grant), to one that’s on a rather more equal footing, with the Doctor and companion as genuine friends. There are companions who followed who were even more capable, violent or intelligent than Sarah Jane, and one (Ace) who got a far more detailed emotional life than she ever did – but there’s something effortlessly likeable about Sladen in the role, coupled with the very obvious onscreen chemistry between her and Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor. Sladen and Baker got on really well, and it truly shows in their stories – the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane are a pairing who are such fun to watch, it’s hard not to be charmed silly by their adventures (a fact that’s helped by Sladen’s run on the show being largely in the Phillip Hinchcliffe era, a hugely acclaimed run of stories which features few (if any) actual duds, and several stone-cold classics).
It was lovely seeing her return to the show in 2006’s ‘School Reunion’ (I’m not a huge fan of the episode, but Sladen’s work is sensational), and everything I’ve heard and seen of Sladen’s offscreen persona suggests that she was an impossibly lovely person to work with. It’s tremendously sad that she’s gone, and a piece of my childhood is gone tonight – but her work, and Sarah Jane, will live on as a part of Who’s imaginative and thoroughly British history.
R.I.P. Elisabeth Sladen. You really will be missed.