Shiny Shelf

Elisabeth Sladen

By Jonn Elledge on 20 April 2011

Elisabeth Sladen was not the most successful actor to play a companion in ‘Doctor Who’. Nor, at the risk of sparking controversy, was she the best. But she has a claim to be the most important.

Sladen starred as Sarah Jane Smith for more than three years in the mid 70s, opposite both Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker’s Doctors. That in itself would have been enough to make her a big part of ‘Doctor Who’ history – few companions make it past two years – but in the decades that followed, she made a series of return appearances, in spin offs, specials and radio plays. On top of that, her era was one of the first to be widely available on video. All this cemented Sarah Jane’s status as the ‘default’ companion.

So when, in 2006, the producers of the new show decided to bring back an old companion for one episode, Sarah Jane seemed the obvious choice. ‘School Reunion’ was meant to remind the audience that companions could and did leave, ostensibly to prepare a new generation of kids for the impending departure of Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler. To do so it brought back not just Sarah Jane, but her tin dog pal, K9 – a combination that never really existed in the show, yet somehow seems to have become the ultimate expression of its mid-seventies heyday.

This, the producers were saying, is what ‘Doctor Who’ used to be.

Two more appearances in the show followed. More importantly, so did five seasons of her own spin-off. CBBC’s ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ saw Sladen team up with a motley crew of teenage assistants and a pair of smug computers, to battle alien threats in the oft-invaded suburbs of West London.

What happens next with that show is not currently clear – but that’s not why Sladen’s sudden death yesterday has shocked so many. Her return made her the only actor to play a significant role in both incarnations of Doctor Who. People born in five different decades grew up with Sarah Jane Smith as a major part of their childhood, and her passing sparked tributes from everyone from Charlie Brooker to David Morrisey to Stephen Fry.

On Twitter, people you’d never even noticed were fans suddenly seem to be devestated. This tweet, from the blogger @Press_not_sorry, seems to sum up the mood: “You were there when I was a child. You were there when my children discovered Dr Who.” Sarah Jane will not be there any more.

Elisabeth Sladen was born in Liverpool in 1948. As well as ‘Doctor Who’, she appeared in shows including ‘Z Cars’, ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Peak Practice’, but it was only the return of Sarah Jane Smith over the last five years that brought her back to public attention. That her life should be cut short, just as she had achieved the mainstream success that had long eluded her, seems particularly cruel.

Elisabeth Sladen died yesterday morning after a short battle with cancer. She was 63. She is survived by her husband and daughter.

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By Jonn Elledge

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