After a too-long absence from our screens, Sarah Jane Smith is about to return to the Doctor’s side. Aww!
“Once I saw these skinheads running toward me,” remembers Elisabeth Sladen. “I thought ‘Oh my god!’, but they were all smiles, and said ‘Sarah Jane! We love you!’”
It’s a far from improbable tale. As Sarah Jane Smith, time-roaming consort to Doctor Who , Sladen was lovable enough to melt even the hearts of bootboys. She was the Saturday teatime crumpet your dad longed to butter, your dream big sister who saved the cosmos while your real big sister swooned senselessly over David Cassidy. Plucky, determined and no stranger to the lung-bursting end of episode scream, she was a national treasure in the show’s mid-’70s glory years. And now she’s back with a moving, nostalgic encore.
“I went for a meal with Russell T Davies,” Sladen recalls. “I didn’t know how I was going to turn it down. Compared to me, he’s an industry giant.”
Surely he was just as trembly about meeting the immortal Sarah Jane… “No, I don’t think so for one minute!” laughs Sladen. “But it’s lovely that he doesn’t forget the old show. You couldn’t do Doctor Who if you didn’t have the capacity to enjoy it. It would drive you up the bloody wall, it really would.
“My agent said ‘They want to talk to you about Sarah Jane,’ and I really thought it was going to be a little homage – a brief shot of Sarah Jane in Marks and Spencer, walking along the aisles! And I wouldn’t have done that. That wouldn’t have added anything. I’ve grown to be quite protective of my character over the years, because I know how other people feel about her, but what Russell showed me was amazing.”
Paired with a tragically rusted K-9, Sarah returns in “School Reunion”, the third episode of the show’s second season. More than a cute, fanboy-pleasing stunt, it’s a chance to bring some true emotional depth to one of the show’s great icons. While Sarah was touted as the first ball-bustin’, women’s libbin’ Who girl, her brand of feminism always owed more to Nancy Drew and Olive Oyl than Germaine Greer. “If we want to be honest, she used to be a bit of a cardboard cut-out. Each week it used to be ‘Yes, Doctor, no, Doctor’, and therefore you had to flesh your character out in your mind, because if you didn’t then no one else would. The new programme is much more realistic.”
Did she find it easy to slip back into character? “Horribly so! I walked away yonks ago, but it never walked away from me, because of videos and DVDs.”
While Sarah fled from Daleks and Sontarans in the company of Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, “School Reunion” finds her adjusting to the puckish features of David Tennant. “If he says he’s the Doctor, I believe it’s the Doctor,” says Sladen, claiming she had no problem rekindling chemistry with a complete stranger. “Again, I found it horrifically easy! I’m quite simplistic in that I have no problem with believability. You just take that leap of faith and go there 100%. And I’m quite used to the Doctor looking different…”
She gets a particular kick from the all-conquering ascendancy of Billie Piper. “Oh, I am thrilled beyond belief that at last the BBC realise that the companion has something to do with the ratings! That sounds so arrogant, but I’m so pleased… I love it! I love it to bits!”
There have been some changes on the technical front, too. “The corridors are much longer now! With my corridors I was almost running on the spot! But it was great fun back then, and there was nothing else like it. I used to run around shopping at lunchtime and then I’d go back to saving the bloody universe!”
Sladen also returns to the role of Sarah in a series of CDs from Big Finish, creators of the acclaimed range of Doctor Who audio adventures. “They’re well written by David Bishop and have a great cast. It’s so lovely to do these CDs because you have a new peg to hang your hat on. You’re not standing still.”
This time there’s no Time Lord to reverse the polarity at the crucial moment, earning Sarah a promotion from sidekick to hero. “She’s older. She’s learnt a lot, and she always follows the agenda of the Doctor. I think she wonders what her point in life is sometimes. You’re shown this amazing guy with two hearts and a police box that goes around in time and space, and then you come back to planet Earth and think who can I share it with? Am I meant to have something mapped out – is it destiny or was it an accident?”
There was always something a little melancholy about the fate of Doctor Who companions, whisked away from their small lives, shown the almost blinding wonders of the universe and then deposited in Peckham in time for The Generation Game . “Ah, but there’s no way you’d miss that opportunity, given the choice. I wouldn’t. I’d jump in with both hands.
“I’m just pleased and grateful that I’m remembered.”
For more information on Sarah’s audio adventures go to www.doctorwho.co.uk/ drwho_sarahjane/index.shtml