It was a real shock to hear of the news of the death of Elisabeth Sladen (19 April 2011). She was a real hero of mine in the ’70s. Of all the figures that I was regularly in touch with via popular television programmes, her character of Sarah Jane Smith, in the original BBC Doctor Who series, was one of the most inspirational. I wanted to be her when I grew up.
I really liked the way they styled her. She wore groovy fluffy coats and cloche hats, flared jeans and fitted jackets with magnificent lapels. She was assistant to Jon Pertwee’s doctor and my favourite, Tom Baker; from 1973-1976. In recent years Russell T Davies reintroduced the character in his revival of the series in 2005 and went on to create The Sarah Jane Adventures for children’s television in the UK.
As Sladen herself commented, the original Sarah Jane could be quite limited in the dimensions of her personality and characterisation, and she was happier with the way in which Davies reconfigured the role and gave her more scope to develop. However, my fondest memories are of her in the original as investigative journalist, Sarah Jane Smith. There were feminine, tough and intelligent qualities about her that even as a small child I could relate to and wanted to emulate.
In a lean time for positive role models for girls on television she stood out. It was as much about her physicality, personality and performance in the role as the way in which it was written that appealed. She could be seen as an archetypal damsel in distress; but I do feel that there was a resonance and energy about how she handled the script. Her style of performance: clipped accent, dynamic and also fragile persona, had diversity and variety.
When a cultural figure, holding such interest and exerting such a positive effect on fans, passes away the loss is two-fold. You feel undoubtedly sympathetic to their nearest and dearest for the grief over a person you will never know; and there is also that sense of something departed from your own life because of their impact. The echoes that they leave behind in the form of their recorded performances; and there were few better female actors on television in the ’70s than Sladen, leave an impression and take on a new poignancy. Not only do they represent something of lost youth, but are now utterly permanent and frozen in time.
Perhaps this is fitting as a memorial to a time traveller’s assistant.
Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane) gone too soon. You will be missed.