Review: Elisabeth Sladen - The Autobiography / Author: Elisabeth Sladen / Publisher: Aurum Press Ltd / Release Date: Out Now
2011 hasn’t been a good year for die-hard fans of ‘classic’ era ‘Doctor Who’ with the death of Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s) in February rapidly followed by the shocking passing of Elisabeth Sladen in April. Elisabeth was a four-star ‘Doctor Who’ icon long before the resuscitated 21st century series eased her out of retirement and thrust her centre-stage again, firstly as a guest star in an early David Tennant episode and later into her own starring role in her slick and assured children’s spin-off ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’. Elisabeth appeared in ‘Doctor Who’ just as it hit its peak of popularity in the 1970s - one early Tom Baker episode pulled in a staggering 13.6 million viewers - so it’s no wonder she’s generally regarded as the definitive ‘Doctor Who’ girl or, as Tennant observes in his warm tribute to her in Elisabeth’s disarmingly honest and typically-unassuming autobiography, “the Doctor’s one true assistant.”
Elisabeth’s book, its first draft completed at the end 2010 and secreted away by the actress so she could concentrate on far more important family festive matters, is a bittersweet affair, written by Elisabeth, it appears, almost in sufferance as she really couldn’t understand why anyone would want to read about her. This is the chronicle of the life of an actress who never realised just how good she was; this reviewer is firmly of the opinion that, if she’d had the breaks (and, as the book reveals, she so nearly had them but chose not to follow them up - at one point a top Hollywood agent promised her she could become a huge international star if she’d just relocate to the States) she could have been as respected a British thesp as Helen Mirren or the redoubtable Dame Judi Dench. But the book tells the story of an actress who never really believed in herself. As a child she was fascinated by performing and quickly fell under the hypnotic spell of the theatre where she learned her craft the hard way. She married actor Brian Miller in 1968 and together the pair slogged up and down the UK performing in theatre productions and nabbing the occasional TV role. A guest shot in ’Z Cars’ led to Elisabeth being brought to the attention of ’Doctor Who’ producer Barry Letts who was looking for an actress to cast as a new assistant for Jon Pertwee’s Doctor. The rest is, if not TV history, then very definitely ‘Doctor Who’ history as Elisabeth settled into a three year run as perky journalist Sarah Jane Smith, the character who would live with her for the rest of her life and who, in many ways, served ultimately to stifle her career when the time came for her to move on from the series in 1976.
As Elisabeth herself observes, when a ’Doctor Who’ girl moves on these days it’s big news and, such is the modern show’s media profile and popularity, a glittering - or at least, busy - career is pretty much assured. Back in 1976 things were a bit different and even though news of Elisabeth leaving the series made the front page, the actress was never able to properly capitalise on her popularity - or, as the book makes quite clear, it never really occurred to her to try. She became a jobbing actress again, appearing in odd episodes of random shows here and there and even spending three years presenting a pre-school children’s show called ‘Stepping Stones‘. Elisabeth fell pregnant at the age of 38 and quickly decided it was time to put her career on the back-burner and become a full-time mother and wife.
It’s quite clear from Elisabeth’s book that here was an actress who never really appreciated her full worth and was never given the opportunity to show what she could really do. In an era when any halfwit with a smile can get a job on TV, her modesty and self-effacing nature are as refreshing as they’re frustrating but equally impressive is the picture she paints of a woman who didn’t suffer fools gladly (if at all) and who was never afraid to speak her mind and stand up against the bullies. Her frosty early working relationship with Jon Pertwee eventually blossomed into a genuine friendship (although it suffered an eight-year hiatus when Pertwee took offence when he and his wife weren’t invited to see Elisabeth’s new-born daughter) and whilst Elisabeth has often spoken of the on-screen chemistry between her and Tom Baker it’s surprising that they rarely socialised out of working hours. Elsewhere Elisabeth is brutally honest about those she didn’t get on with, whether they’re fellow actors (she gives a certain ‘Coronation Street’ legend short shrift) or ‘Doctor Who’ directors who gave her a tough time. This is very much the story of a feisty, no-nonsense actress who did what she wanted, the way she wanted to do it and when she wanted to do it, perhaps to the detriment of her longer-term career.
For ‘Doctor Who’ fans the book is a treasure trove of stories and anecdotes about the making of the show in its glory years - Elisabeth clearly had almost total recall of her time on the show and she remembers every story she made with startling clarity - and her gradual acceptance and embracing of her place in the series’ ongoing legend. Elisabeth Sladen was notoriously private, rarely speaking about her personal or home life in public and her book reinforces the popular view of her as a woman who never liked to give away too much about herself. So while she details her career in intricate detail, personal moments hurry by - the death of her parents dismissed in a quick paragraph or two, her life with her husband Brian not much elaborated upon, an apparent earlier battle with cancer unmentioned - and yet this is somehow refreshing in an age when every tinpot supermodel and reality-show reject feels the need to spew out every detail of their desperate-to-be-loved lives whether we’re interested or not.
But Elisabeth was never one to complain about her lot, she never seems to waste much time wondering what might have been. Those of us who grew up with her aboard the TARDIS in the 1970s and marvelled at her reinvention thirty-odd years later and feel her loss probably just as much as her junior ‘Sarah Jane Adventures’ audience can take solace from the fact that her career and her life ended with her still playing the role she was born to play and that in Sarah Jane Smith she’ll somehow live forever. With the last of the ‘Sarah Jane Adventures’ recently screened and ‘The Autobiography’ published, it really feels like Lis is gone now. This book, like the series, is a fitting and fascinating memorial to the Doctor’s one true assistant.