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A tear, Sarah Jane?

Elisabeth Sladen, pictured at The Stage 2008 New Year party

The news, when it came last night, was devastating. Elisabeth Sladen, who played Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who and associated spin-offs from 1973, has passed away after a battle with cancer. She was 63.

When I first came to Doctor Who in the very early 1970s, Sarah was already part of the warp and weft of the series. Through her, I came to see the role of the companion as something that is taken for granted today: independently minded, funny, and for whom terror was a trigger for thought and action instead of just screaming.

Sladen’s performance did more than anything to convey the scariness of those episodes. Sarah frequently found herself in situations where she was clearly frightened, given away by the quiver of a lip, a tremble in the voice. If Sarah was scared, my five-year-old self surmised, it was okay for me to be too. But at the same time, her reactions were reassuring: in those situations she would do her best, like the Doctor she and I both idolised, to think her way out.

Sarah ended up travelling with the Doctor for three and a half years, spending a year with Jon Pertwee’s incarnation before he regenerated into Tom Baker — at which point the Doctor/Sarah relationship really flourished. When, at Sladen’s choice, the character was written out at the end of 1976’s The Hand of Fear, there was still the sense of a story unfinished. Whether the Doctor had unceremoniously dropped her off in Croydon or Aberdeen, there was the sense of a life that would continue beyond the TARDIS.

And so it was maybe no surprise that the character of Sarah Jane was top of the list whenever a previous companion was thought of. Having declined the offer from series producer John Nathan-Turner to return to Doctor Who to bridge Tom Baker’s regeneration into Peter Davison, he gave the character a pilot for a new series, K9 and Company, uniting her with the tin dog which had itself been just written out of the series.

Perhaps thankfully for Sladen, that spin-off was not commissioned to full series. But Sarah Jane returned to Doctor Who proper in the series’ 20th anniversary special, The Five Doctors. As usual, the actress flung herself into the role with nothing less than 100% commitment — never has rolling down a gentle incline by the side of a road been made to look so perilous.

After that, the character continued to be remembered with fondness. Occasional audio drama work surfaced — first in two mid 1990s BBC dramas in which she starred with Jon Pertwee’s Doctor and Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier, and later in a series of Big Finish audio dramas.

But it was thanks to Doctor Who’s revival that Sarah Jane Smith became a household name once more. A year into the series, executive producer Russell T Davies and his team were confident enough to bring back more elements from the “classic” series — and Sarah was their first port of call. The episode School Reunion addressed that dangling question mark that The Hand of Fear had left in the air for thirty years, and exposed the frailties that existed on either side of the Doctor-companion divide. The chemistry between her and David Tennant was palpable, and when it was later announced that Sarah Jane Smith would be getting her own TV series it felt the most natural thing in the world.

The resulting CBBC show, The Sarah Jane Adventures, seemed to achieve the impossible — for kids, it made the prospect of spending one’s days hanging out with a grown-up seem laudable. But Sarah never felt fully adult, even though in this series she became an adoptive mother. There was the same mischievous streak that had been present ever since 1973, helping Sarah Jane seem timeless: she was grandmother, mother, aunt, big sister, best friend, all in one. She was cool.

And now she’s gone.

Parents all over the country are struggling today to explain to their children how the role model that their respective generations have been lucky enough to share is no longer with us. Those of us who met Elisabeth are having to cope with the knowledge that someone who always seemed so joyous and full of life has gone.

And together, we all know that, while we have lost a well-loved character and friend, her husband and daughter have lost far, far more — a beloved wife and mother.

Our thoughts are with them today.

12 Comments

She will be missed - we watched her on sarah jane adventures and was amazing. xxx

I just wanted to say how shocked I am by my reaction to this news. I just hadn't realised how much she meant to me. My condolences to the family, I can't imagine what you're going through

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Very sad loss to us all.Was brought up with dr who,and even reaching the grand old age of 60, still watch.
Condolances to her husband and daughter.

Lots of kids up and down the country still believes in miracles and Dr Who. A lot will hold back tears and believe the Doctor to bring Sarah Jane back to us.

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At the age of 48 I was raised on the original Doctor Whoand my triplet daughters now aged 12, were raised on the new Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures. We are all shocked and saddened to hear today of Elisabeth Sladens death. We would like to send our deepest condolences and our thoughts to her husband,daughter and her extended family

So sad, i really enjoyed her in doctor who and the sarah jane adventures!! gonna miss her loads!! but i wonder if they're gonna still show the new series of the sarah jane adventures?

I totally concur with all the comments; like Nicholas Courtney, she was someone I felt I knew personally, even though sadly I never got to meet her. I am also 48, and so was an early teenager when Sarah Jane Smith first appeared, and she made a big impact on my formative years!
She was always my favourite companion of the 70s, and Iwas so thrilled when she returned during David Tennant's tenure, She just oozed class and style. It was like I was 12 all over again...........
Poor Tom Baker too, he must be devastated losing two close colleagues in such quick succession.
My condolences to her family

When Doctor Who returned in 2005, another grateful 48 year old got a little of his childhood back. And when Sarah Jane Smith encountered the 10th Doctor in 'School Reunion' a year later, I blubbed, just as I blubbed at her parting from the 4th Doctor all those years ago. Sarah Jane wasn't just the Doctor's companion; she was our companion too.
Thank you, Lis, for so many happy memories; from Doctor Who to The Sarah Jane Adventures - something to console us in the heartbreak that so many of us are experiencing now.

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I am quite saddened that this article, is more of a goodbye Sarah Jane Smith and a history of doctor who and SJS than a commemoration to a well loved actress whom many, many of people followed in her career, through so many other characters, as well as SJS.
She has done so much more in her stage and screen career, and yet, none of which has been commemorated nearly as much, if at all, as sarah jane has!!

It Upsets me as an actor to think, someone like Elisabeth Sladens work can go as unmentioned as it has here.

Still a very moving and relevant article, but...

Also my condolenses to all family and friends. xx

@Gordon: I appreciate your comments -- but it was a deliberate choice to restrict this post to Lis's role as Sarah Jane Smith, for the purposes of this TV blog.

The Stage will be publishing a full obituary for Elisabeth in due course, which will of course cover her extensive theatrical and television career.

so sad and shocking
when i first heard about this i did not believe it
i used to watch the sarah jane adventures
there is a tribute to her on the cbbc channel at 6 45 today
ELIASABETH, you will be missed

I'm sorry I have but one heart, because it's broken. She's left an indelible mark on so many lives. I never met the lady, but she was the soul of the Whoverse and made a real connection to the audience. As a tireless advocate of the Doctor, I believe she played an enormous part in keeping it alive during the dark years until its eventual comeback.

Hats off to Russel T. Davies for allowing her to grace our screens to win the hearts of a new generation before she was taken. Thank you Lis. God speed. Given your humility and modesty I imagine you might say you were "only an actor", but I, like millions of others, feel we've lost one of our finest Angels to the Heavens, so whenever I gaze up at the night sky, I'll look for your bright star.

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