“Oh God! Duh… duh… duh… duh… duh…” That’s the sound of Lis Sladen’s impression of K-9 rushing into action. “If you’re doing a series which is called K-9 And Company , you’ve really got to spend some money on the star. But we had no money, so we were stuck with what we had. There was one point where we were rushing to save the universe, and they asked me if I could hold the door open for the bloody dog!”
It was, by Doctor Who standards, a momentous occasion. Christmas 1981, and Doctor Who had spawned its first ever spin off – a 50-minute vehicle for the Timelord’s robot pooch called K-9 And Company . And Lis Sladen, who played the unlikely-attired Sarah Jane Smith from the late Pertwee and early Tom Baker years, became the first actress to reprise her role as a Who companion.
Momentous indeed – for Who fans. But for Lis Sladen – some 14 years on now, sipping cappuccino in a West London coffee shop – it’s but a dim memory.
“I actually had to ask someone about K-9 And Company ,” she admits. “You probably know more than I do. I’d almost forgotten about the show...”
It begins to appear that Lis might be ever-so slightly embarrassed by the whole K9 And Company debacle...
“I hear that weeks were taken away from the producer by the BBC. Weeks. We just had to get out there and do it. It was very under-timed and under-budget. But hats off to John [Nathan Turner] for getting it off the ground.”
So would she have played the part if it had gone to a series?
“Oh yes. God, yes. It’s work,” she laughs, “and it usually gets better as you go along. My mistake was trying to play the character like the old Sarah Jane. I should have played her in a completely different way.”
Lis, it soon becomes clear, loves the character of Sarah Jane Smith, despite once vowing to “never” play her again. In fact, she’s made more comebacks than Status Quo – most recently returning for Downtime , a Doctor Who Appreciation Society-funded video due out later this year.
The comeback trail, which started with K9 And Company , also includes her appearance in the 20th anniversary special “The Five Doctors” in 1983...
“Well, it just had to be done,” she grins. “It was such a great atmosphere.”
Comeback number three was the Children In Need special in 1993:
“Everyone was doing it and it was a good cause. So I felt I was really obliged.”
Next, in 1993, Sarah was back on radio, with Jon Pertwee, in “The Paradise of Death”...
“It’s wonderful to do her on the radio. I can get away with being 14 years older. The only thing I don’t understand is why they still haven’t scheduled the second radio series yet – “Ghosts of N-Space”. I heard a rumour that it was all to do with the BBC promising Spielberg they wouldn’t put anything out until he got his thing off the ground.”
The latest “farewell tour” is with Downtime . So why did she agree to come back – and this time in the flesh, as it were?
If that sounds like a lot of luvvie, darling self-justification, you might be surprised to find that Lis has a refreshingly pragmatic view on her position in the Doctor Who universe. She is, for example, one of the few female Who companions who doesn’t mind the “screaming girlie” tag...
“Oh, no-one would bloody admit to screaming. I screamed a lot. But listen, if you saw a six foot monster and fell down a 60 foot bloody hole, wouldn’t you scream?”
She also candidly admits to playing the “straight” man... “You had to be clever to make ‘Doctor, look!’ sound different in 78 episodes, I can tell you,” she laughs.
This despite the fact that when she was introduced she was supposed to be a completely new type of companion.
“Ha, ha. They always say that, don’t they? They wanted a more liberated, independent woman, so they gave her this job as a journalist. But if you look at it, the first story (“The Time Warrior”, 1973) was like that, but afterwards they never let Sarah be as strong again. She quickly reverted to format – but then it’s a format that works.”
Recently, Lis has been getting back into the convention circuit after a few years’ break. The comeback queen strikes again?
“Well, it actually feels fresh again. That’s why I stopped doing cons. It also coincided with my daughter being born, but really I thought I haven’t got anything new to add. But now, thanks to the release of the videos, there’s a whole new audience. I didn’t realise that until a couple of years ago when I went to my daughter’s school, and the children were playing Daleks in the playground!”
Suddenly, Lis can start telling all those old stories over again. Stories like how she got to be the Doctor’s assistant in the first place... “The story goes that Barry stood behind me, and went like that to Jon [she does a thumbs up], meaning, ‘She’s done a good audition, does she look right?’ Then Jon went behind me, while Barry came in front and talked to me, and Jon gave the thumbs up too. I was offered the job there and then.”
Sarah’s continuing popularity as a companion is helped by the fact that nearly all her stories have now been released on video. Certainly, her time on Who coincided with the peak of the show’s success. The Tom Baker-Sarah Jane Smith pairing was very popular.
“They called us into the office one day,” Lis remembers, “and the producer Philip Hinchcliffe was nearly dancing on the table. 12 million viewers. It wasn’t until I left that I realised how highly people thought of it.”
And the reason?
“Tom and I just hit it off, and it shows. When that happens it’s wonderful. And he’s from Liverpool too, so we shared the same sort of humour.”
Apart from Doctor Who , Lis has also appeared in a number of other genre TV shows, including an episode of the early ’70s ecological drama Doomwatch (coincidentally written by Terence Dudley, who scripted K-9 And Company ), and then, in the early ’80s, in a BBC classics version of Gulliver In Lilliput , directed by ex- Who producer Barry Letts.
Her latest project is a pre-school educational series, which she’s doing with her husband Brian Miller.
“Oh, what’s it called? Oh yes, Number Time . I don’t know when it’s coming out, but it’s lovely. It’s like Russ Abbott for children. I did eight sketches and Brian did 11. I get to do a Cilla Black impression!”
At which point, our photographer arrives. Lis’s jaw drops at the sight of arc lights, tripods and huge lenses. “Usually, when someone says can they take a picture they bring a little automatic thing.”
It suddenly dawns on me that Lis thinks she’s being interviewed for a fanzine. When I show her a copy of SFX , she’s impressed...
“Oh God. I’m in the glossies!” she laughs. “My daughter will be pleased.”