On the afternoon of Tuesday 19th, 2011, I received a phone call from my wife asking me if I had heard anything as Elisabeth Sladen was trending on Twitter with tweets to the affect that she had died. Elisabeth Sladen is the captivating and charming actress that brought the character of Sarah Jane Smith to life in the classic series of Doctor Who; a show I practically ate, slept and breathed from the age of 8-18. I have spent 25 years of my life as a fan of the classic series, and Sarah Jane Smith was my (and my wife’s) favorite of the Doctor’s companions / assistants. No, that makes it seem less than it was. Sarah Jane is, for us, THE best companion there ever was.
My initial reaction was disbelief, particularly due to the source. However, as has been proven in the last year or so, when celebrities names start trending on twitter it usually does mean something bad. Part of me knew I was being too optimistic to hope this was some stupid joke. We stayed on the phone, quietly, for 15 minutes as we searched the internet for confirmation. Sadly, it was confirmed by the BBC. To my total shock, Elisabeth Sladen, an actress only one year younger than my mother, had suddenly died. I assumed it may have been some terrible accident, but it turns out, as is so often the way, she was taken from the world by cancer. She was, as Tom Baker later wrote, a very private person, and he had no idea she was ill.
When I was about 11 or 12 years old, back in 1990-1991, I was a hardcore fan of the show and I would buy the latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine every month. In the pages of Doctor Who magazine I learned of the British Doctor Who Appreciation Society and other fan organizations. One of those was the Elisabeth Sladen Information Network, a fan club with a regular newsletter. The only fan club I ever belonged to was the New Zealand Doctor Who Fan Club, and I was one of its youngest members at that time. But it says something about how I felt about Sarah Jane Smith back then, that I sent away for information and a membership application from the ESIN (as it is abbreviated). I remember finding it was too expensive for me to afford the membership and so I never did become a member. However, this memory reminds me just how important that character was to my imagination and my fandom of the show.
Elisabeth Sladen brought Sarah Jane to life so effortlessly. From what limited non-WHO work I’ve seen from her, she was an excellent character actress. I’m sure I had some form of a crush on her, but perhaps what really drew me to Sarah was that she shared a lot of the Doctor’s qualities: his curiosity and his confidence. Barry Lett’s described Liz’s magic as managing to portray fear and bravery at the same time. I think this is another heroic quality that appealed subconsciously to me. Her character was popular enough, beyond all the others, to return for two Spin Off series (the star of both), and make guest appearances in the Five Doctors (20th Anniversary celebration) and the New Series (2006). Although I am not a fan of the New Series, I do feel proud that she was honored in this way and her character and the magic of Sarah Jane was discovered by a new generation of fans.
This year we also lost Nicholas Courtney (the Brigadier) at 81 years old, and I don’t mean to take away from that loss in any way, but with Elisabeth Sladen (at just 65) it seemed she still had so many years left to her. There are cherished actors and actresses that you just know, as a fan, will only be with us for so much longer. But to lose Liz so suddenly, before my wife and myself ever had the chance to meet her in person and thank her for the magic and for touching us… It is a difficult feeling.
I couldn’t write anything about this for the first couple of days. I needed time to let the feelings and the realization settle. I still feel it’s almost too soon to write this and that I’m somehow allowing a closure I’m not yet ready to accept. Upon reflection, there is something positive despite her early passing. Elisabeth Sladen reached out through her performances and made people care and love her characters. She made many people’s lives just a little bit more magical and it is the reason so many will miss her. That is an achievement of which to be proud. For millions of children since the 1970s Elisabeth Sladen became our companion, Sarah Jane Smith.
My heart goes out to her family and many friends.
Elisabeth Slade Gallery