There’s nothing “only” about being Sarah Jane Smith

Oh I can’t pretend to write a tribute to Elisabeth Sladen. I didn’t know her. But I know Sarah Jane Smith, the character she made real for millions of viewers like me.

Sarah’s a character who doesn’t come across particularly well on the page. Looking at the scripts for mid-70s Doctor Who, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether she had any personality of her own at all. But Lis Sladen’s magical performance lifts the “strident investigative journalist” to a different level. She fills her with warmth, mischief, and a sense of adventure. She makes her completely human. Paired with Tom Baker at his most distant and alien, she becomes the eyes, and voice, of all of us. Faced with the wonders and horrors of the whole universe, what would we do? Don a series of increasingly ridiculous outfits and plunge into adventure with a sense of fun and a sprinkling of sarcasm? I’d like to think so.

Watch any of her classic episodes. Her reactions, her readings, her ‘choices’, as they say in the biz, are always extraordinary. She lifts the most mundane of scenes into something captivating. As a character, she brings the Doctor down to size, and she brings us up to his. Her ordinariness becomes iconic. Brilliant.

Her death feels particularly sudden and awful because she’s been so much a part of the modern Who family recently, brought back to front the excellent The Sarah Jane Adventures on CBBC for the last few years. When she first reappeared in School Reunion she had the opportunity to best Rose in a roll call of the terrors she’d faced: “Mummies!… Robots, lots of robots!… Daleks!… Anti-matter monsters!…. Real life dinosaurs!… THE Loch Ness Monster!” An impressive list to which I’d only add the essential “Been menaced by a giant tentacle in a cottage!”

I can’t sincerely say “R.I.P.” because I don’t believe in an afterlife. I believe we live in a random, uncaring universe that’s mostly shit but can be lightened with moments of silliness and joy. We’re all just dogs walking on our hind legs. But once in a while we might be a dog that’s in a street somewhere that’s probably not South Croydon, and someone might pass through our lives briefly, with a playful tap of a tennis racquet, who reminds us to keep whistling in the face of an uncertain future. Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith.

5 responses to “There’s nothing “only” about being Sarah Jane Smith

  1. blackwatertown

    I didn’t know Elisabeth Sladen either, but I was lucky enough to meet her a few months ago – she was astute, friendly and impressive. She stood out.
    Her character is a big hit in our house in The Sarah Jane Adventures.
    Sad news.

  2. You’re dead right about her choices; her best was to give Sarah a sense of humour. She sends the Doctor up when he’s being pompous or simply moving too quickly for everyone else, but you know that it’s affectionate. She conveyed brilliantly the dangers of the universe, so that you believed the peril (“Lynx!”), but she also showed how much fun it would be to travel through it, in a ludicrous, old Police Box with that preposterous man.

    It takes something to match Tom Baker on screen. She matched him, and he knew it, which is why he’s generous with her in a way that he wasn’t always subsequently. Think of them tied together, alternating watching Voga approach, in Revenge of the Cybermen. He called her his “best friend” in Seeds of Doom – commonplace now, shockingly intimate then. And remember that the two of them rewrote, together, that final scene of Hand of Fear. “Oh, Sarah…”

    Silliness and joy. I loved her.

  3. Shocking news indeed. I rarely shed a tear over the passing of a famous person, but she was more than just that. A deeply felt loss.

  4. Pingback: The Project76 Blog » Blog Archive » Goodbye Sarah Jane

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