Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Lis Sladen: If You Think I'm Going To Spend My Time Making Cups Of Coffee...

Just a few weeks after the death of Nicholas Courtney, sadly, we have another unwelcome departure from the Doctor Who family. Elisabeth Sladen who played one of The Doctor's most well-remembered companions, Sarah Jane Smith in both the show and in two spin-offs - the one-off K-9 and Company in 1981 and The Sarah Jane Adventures - has died at the age of sixty three after a battle with cancer. Doctor Who Magazine reported the news on Twitter: 'With great sadness, DWM must report the loss of our beloved Sarah Jane, actress Elisabeth Sladen. The best of best friends. Too, too sad.' In a BBC statement, the current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat paid tribute to the actress. '"Never meet your heroes", wise people say. They weren't thinking of Lis Sladen. Sarah Jane Smith was everybody's hero when I was younger, and as brave and funny and brilliant as people only ever are in stories. But many years later, when I met the real Sarah-Jane - Lis Sladen herself - she was exactly as any child ever have wanted her to be. Kind and gentle and clever; and a ferociously talented actress, of course, but in that perfectly English unassuming way.' A BBC spokesman said: 'It is with much sadness that we can announce Elisabeth Sladen, the much-loved actress best known for her role as Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who and CBBC's The Sarah Jane Adventures, passed away this morning.' CBBC controller Damian Kavanagh said he was 'deeply saddened and shocked by the news of Lis's untimely death. Lis brought joy, excitement and a sense of wonder to her many fans in her role as Sarah Jane Smith. She was adored by our young audience and I know all of them will miss her as much as I will,' he said. Russell Davies, the creator of The Sarah Jane Adventures, said: 'I absolutely loved Lis. She was funny and cheeky and clever and just simply wonderful. The universe was lucky to have Sarah Jane Smith, the world was lucky to have Lis.' Born in Liverpool in 1948 Lis developed an interest in performance at an early age, beginning dance lessons when she was just five. She was a primary school contemporary of future health minister Edwina Currie and Peter Goldsmith, a future Attorney-General. She eventually turned to acting, and after finishing grammar school, attended drama college for two years. Following this, she began work at the Liverpool's legendary Playhouse repertory company as an assistant stage manager. Her first stage appearance was as a corpse. However, she was scolded by the director for giggling on stage, thanks to a young actor, Brian Miller, whispering 'Respiration nil, Aston Villa two' in her ear while the scene was played. Lis would subsequently marry Miller in 1968. She made her first, uncredited, screen appearance in 1965 as an extra in the Gerry and the Pacemakers vehicle Ferry Cross the Mersey. After their marriage Lis and Brian moved to Manchester, where Lis's stage career began to take off in numerous roles, most notably as Desdemona in Othello. She also got parts on Radio Leeds and with Granada Television, eventually appearing as a barmaid in 1970 in six episodes of Coronation Street. In 1971, she guested in two episodes of Z-Cars. Moving to London soon afterwards, Lis was cast as an eco-terrorist in an episode of Doomwatch. This was followed by a further role in Z-Cars, and appearances in series like Public Eye, the sitcom Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em and Special Branch. 'In Corrie, I played Anita Reynolds, Len Fairclough's new girlfriend,' she recalled. 'I loved Z Cars. If you see it a clip of it now it still holds up incredibly well - really good actors, great directors, and flying by the seat of your pants. You kept on learning and there were always places for you to learn, which there aren't so many of for young actors now.' In 1973, Doctor Who's producer Barry Letts was looking for a replacement for the character of Jo Grant as Katy Manning had recently announced her decision to leave the popular family SF drama. Z-Cars producer Ron Craddock gave Letts an enthusiastic recommendation of Lis's abilities. According to an almost mythical casting story, she arrived at the audition not knowing that it was for the new companion role and was amazed at Letts's thoroughness in talking to her about what she assumed to be a one-off part. She was then introduced to Jon Pertwee, whom she initially found very intimidating. As she chatted with Letts and Pertwee, each time she turned to look at one of them the other would signal with a thumbs-up. She was offered and accepted the part of investigative journalist Sarah Jane Smith. She stayed on Doctor Who for next three and a half years, bridging the gap between Pertwee's departure in 1974 and the arrival of Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor before eventually leaving the show in 1976. After a string a fine performances - in The Time Warrior, in The Ark in Space, in Pyramid of Mars and The Brain of Morbius and, especially, in The Seeds of Doom where Robert Banks Stewart effectively rewrote the character as a quasi Emma Peel. She also returned for the series' twentieth anniversary episode in 1983. Post-Doctor Who, Lis returned to Liverpool with her husband and performed in a series of plays. This included a two-hander, Moonie and his Caravans. Notable appearances following that include a two-year stint as a presenter for the ITV children's programme Stepping Stones, a lead role with Miller playing her husband in an ITV drama Send In The Girls, in a BBC Play For Today, a role as a stand-up comic's spouse in Take My Wife, a small part in the movie Silver Dream Racer in 1980 and an appearance in Dempsey & Makepeace. In 1981, Letts cast her as the female lead in the BBC Classics production of Gulliver in Lilliput. She continued to appear in various TV advertisements, fan organised Doctor Who-related video and audio productions and in another Letts production, Alice in Wonderland (playing the Dormouse), as well as attending many Doctor Who conventions. After the birth of her daughter, Sadie, in 1985, Lis went into semi-retirement from acting, but still found time for the occasional television appearance. 'When Sadie was about two, I went up to see lovely Paddy Stone, then casting director for Emmerdale about becoming one of the regulars,' Lis noted. 'I'd had to work extra hours on another TV job and I kept looking at the clock. I just thought "My God, I'm not giving this one hundred per cent. Someone else should have this job." Paddy said to me after "Why did you talk yourself out of that job?" But you've got to be available, otherwise casting people don't like it, quite rightly, and there's always ten or twenty people waiting to replace you.' In 1995, she played Pat Hewer in four episodes of Peak Practice. The following year, she played Sophie in Faith In The Future, and appeared in fifteen episodes of the BBC schools programme Numbertime. This was her last television acting appearance until Russell Davies asked her to recreate the Sarah Jane role in the 2006 Doctor Who episode School Reunion. 'The agent rang up. I think he was more excited than I was, and said "Russell Davies and Phil Collinson want to take you for a meal and talk to you about an episode of Doctor Who,"' she told the BBC in 2008. 'I'd seen one or two of the new series. I knew the people who are now making it watched the series when they were growing up and that they had a love for it. I got there and they started to talk about the character and what they thought about the character and where she would actually be now, so many years later. A scene had already been written and all of a sudden I realised this would be an episode where I'd have an integral part so we ordered more wine, became a very rowdy table, and I said, "Yes, okay."' This would lead to several further appearances opposite David Tennant's Doctor and four series of her own popular spin-off children's series, The Sarah Jane Adventures (including a recent appearance with the current Doctor, Matt Smith). 'I sometimes think, "If I knew what made Sarah Jane so popular, I'd bottle it"' she recalled. 'I love her as a character, and I credit Barry for instilling something special in the character. He is a true gentle and honourable man and has such a wonderful take on life. I took some of that influence for Sarah. You also scavenge some of what you are as well. But, I wish I was more like her.'

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