Born in Liverpool on 1 February 1948, Sladen was best known for her portrayal of time travelling companion Sarah Jane Smith from 1973 to 1976 opposite Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, and had in recent years returned to the role thanks to an appearance in the 2006 episode School Reunion and the subsequent spin-off series, The Sarah Jane Adventures, as well as the finales The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End and The End of Time, Part Two.
In the intervening years, Sarah Jane Smith had also been allowed to breathe in the failed pilot K-9 and Company, 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors and various fan-funded productions, before taking Sarah Jane off on her own with a series of popular audios produced by Big Finish.
Easily one of the most popular and enduring characters in Doctor Who’s history, Sarah Jane Smith was always played with the right tone, never for laughs, and Elisabeth Sladen was always absolutely true to the character who she clearly came to love, and be very protective of.
Like Tom Baker after her, Elisabeth Sladen came to Doctor Who to replace a very popular actress, in this case Katy Manning’s Jo Grant. Her difference to her predecessor made her an instant hit as the feminist journalist Sarah Jane Smith, while her similar background with new co-star Tom Baker (both were born in Liverpool to part-Irish families) saw her become a vital part of the show following the departure of Jon Pertwee.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course. Sarah Jane Smith’s restoration to the TV Whoniverse in School Reunion in 2006 made perfect sense, as did The Sarah Jane Aventures, a show that made Elisabeth Sladen a much loved figure for children of a completely new generation, something that her energy and enduring good looks will surely have helped.
Beyond her commitment to Sarah Jane and the love fans had for both actress and character, Elisabeth Sladen was more than an actress who repeatedly played the same part over a 36 year period. Indeed, she made regular appearances on TV before and after Doctor Who.
Sladen’s other roles included Len Fairclough’s girlfriend Anita Reynolds in Coronation Street back in 1970, as Sarah Collins in the barely-remembered cult classic Doomwatch in 1972, as both Valerie Hollingsworth and Rose in two Z Cars serials in 1971 and 1972 and even as fruit shop girl Judy in a 1973 edition of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em opposite Michael Crawford.
Post-Doctor Who, Elisabeth Sladen starred with Victor Spinetti in Take My Wife as Josie Hall, as well as appearing as a bank secretary in the David Essex movie Silver Dream Racer. With appearances in The Bill and Dempsey and Makepeace in the 1980s, a regular role in Peak Practice came along in 1996 as Dr. Pat Hewland.
That’s quite a varied career, one that was conducted around giving birth to and raising daughter Sadie with her husband, actor Brian Miller, whom she married in 1968. Interestingly Sladen’s autobiography is due for release on April 25th, while Doctor Who Magazine’s Sarah Jane Smith special is due to appear in newsagents today.
News of Elisabeth Sladen’s sad passing, attributed to cancer, has swarmed the Internet (via news sites, Twitter and Facebook) with quite remarkable fervour since it was first rumoured on Tuesday evening. We have been informed that online news services in territories where Doctor Who is largely ignored are running this as major stories; meanwhile the reaction to this news, which comes just a few weeks after the loss of another enduring Doctor Who star, Nick Courtney, has been nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Elisabeth Sladen was a true legend of Doctor Who, graceful, passionate and clearly hugely loved.
Further news and obituaries can be found at:
- BBC News
- BBC.co.uk/Doctor Who
- The Guardian
- The Telegraph
- Doctor Who News Page
- Digital Spy
- Den of Geek
Meanwhile the following (very different) tributes are particularly moving: