Elisabeth Sladen: The Autobiography
By Elisabeth Sladen (Preface by David Tennant, Postscript by Brian and Sadie Miller)
Published by AudioGO Ltd
Read by Caroline John (Preface read by David Tennant, Postscript read by Brian Miller)
Elisabeth Sladen is best remembered as Sarah Jane Smith, arguably the most popular Doctor Who companion in the entire fifty-year run of the series. So popular, in fact, that when Russell T. Davies resurrected the series, her character was the first one to return from out of the past – Daleks and other baddies don’t count. Most of them are not individual characters in any case.
I must admit that when I heard that Lis Sladen would be appearing in School Reunion with the relatively new Doctor played by David Tennant, I had no access to BBC America at the time, so went out of my way to find a copy of the program on UseNet where thoughtful fans had it posted almost immediately after it had aired in Great Britain. And I was in love with Sarah Jane all over again.
But while Lis Sladen is best known as Sarah Jane. Ms Sladen was a versatile actress who played many parts in many venues and who never forgot her roots in the Theater.
Her autobiography, left nearly finished just prior to her diagnosis with terminal cancer, starts with her initial read-through of the scripts for School Reunion, how it felt to be pulled out of retirement for the episode and her initial nervousness and awe at meeting the new Doctor (David Tennant) – something I would not have expected from such a veteran thespian. And then she goes back to her childhood, her dreams of being a dancer and her eventual decision to act.
If I have any complaint with the book (and I don’t really) it is that while she covers her early theater career in reasonable detail, once she gets to her years in Doctor Who, it is her experiences as Sarah Jane that dominate the book. That is fair since it seems obvious this was written for the Who-fans, but I am sure she had as many fascinating stories to tell about the other productions she acted in and it is as though I am being told, “Oh you wouldn’t want to hear about that. It’s not Who-related.”
But indeed, I would have been. I have been to various parties where various actors and other theater people were swapping stories and usually found them interesting. Elisabeth Sladen’s stories were at least as interesting and usually more so. Therefore it was mildly annoying that projects that occupied her for months or years were fluffed off with a few quick sentences so as to pave an expressway to the next Who-related experience. So we only hear a little of her experiences on Coronation Street, Z-Cars and the host of other shows and plays she was in. However, if my complaint is that she did not open her entire acting career up to us, well, I have to admit that is her right and privilege.
While she had a co-writer on the project, the words are hers and as her husband and daughter (Brian Miller and Sadie Miller) say in the epilogue, it sounds as though Lis Sladen is talking directly to us as though we were in the same room and she was just sharing old “war stories.” It is a mark of how much she put of herself into the character of Sarah Jane that I sometimes thought I was hearing the Doctor’s companion telling these stories.
So if you’re a fan of Doctor Who, I highly recommend this book. Even if you are not, you may find this an interesting life-story.
David Tennant reads his own preface to the book and it is fun to hear his take on that first day of script-reading with Elisabeth Sladen, the Doctor’s companion from his childhood, across the table, of his awe and comfort at meeting and getting to work with her. We later hear Lis Sladen’s view of the day and how it paralleled almost exactly what Tennant was feeling. It cast the episode School Reunion in a whole new light and you can see these feelings coming out in the actors’ performances.
I am not sure if Carolyn John was chosen because she was a friend of Elisabeth Sladen, because she too was one of the Doctor’s companions (Elizabeth Shaw) and therefore knew many of the people involved, if her voice was similar enough to that of Ms Sladen or all of the above, but she reads the book marvelously and it is hard to remember it is not Lis Sladen reading her own book.
So, all in all, this was a fun book to read or listen to and a must-have for any Who fan. I dare say it would be interesting as well to aspiring actors or those who know them. I do not read many biographies, not for pleasure in any case, but this is a fun exception and one I expect to come back to several times.