“My Sarah Jane Smith.”

There’s nothing ‘only’ about being a girl.” – Sarah Jane Smith, The Monster of Peladon

I don’t usually blog about TV deaths, real or fictional. For example, the recent demise of Being Human’s Mitchell (fictional), while it made me shed a tear, didn’t move me to jot anything down. And even the sad loss of all round gentleman and paragon of Englishness Nicholas Courtney (real) didn’t provoke an outpouring of writing. But the news last night of the shocking, unexpected death of Elisabeth Sladen, Doctor Who’s Sarah Jane Smith, has surprised me by how much it’s affected me. And to judge from Twitter, Facebook and the internet in general, I’m far from the only one. I’ve seen tributes from sources as varied as Stephen Fry, Charlie Brooker and NME.

I’m not one of those fanboys who invests so much emotionally in their favoured shows that the characters, and the actors who play them, seem closer than real life friends. But one of the most common phrases that’s been cropping up in tributes to Lis Sladen is that, “a little piece of my childhood died today”. For me and anyone of my age, that’s by far the best way of putting it. And the thing about Lis, and the character she created, is that she was a link to that childhood, who was still enthralling the children of today – and I’ve no doubt they’ll be as upset as the rest of us. Because she almost seemed to have never changed, I think we thought she’d be around forever.

Elisabeth was a jobbing actress with a solid CV of character parts when she was recommended to Doctor Who producer Barry Letts by Z Cars producer Ron Craddock. Letts was trying to cast a new companion to replace the phenomenally popular Katy Manning as Jo Grant, and by all accounts she hugely impressed both Letts and Jon Pertwee. As Sarah Jane Smith, a ‘liberated woman’ and journalist, she was meant to be a break from the Who tradition of ‘companion screams/twists ankle/needs to be rescued twice an episode’.

Of course, like other similar attempts, this initial character brief soon slid into the standard Who companion template. It used to be typical that a companion would only be clearly defined as a personality in their first and last stories, the rest of the time reduced to something of a cipher. Lis was once quoted as saying, "Sarah Jane used to be a bit of a cardboard cut-out. Each week it used to be, ‘Yes Doctor, no Doctor’, and you had to flesh your character out in your mind — because if you didn’t, no one else would."

And she did, taking the standard “What’s going on, Doctor?” type of scripts and investing them with a belief in the character as she saw it. And that’s when the five-year-old me made her acquaintance.

It’s true to say that her time in the classic series is something of a golden age. Most notably, the three seasons she did with producer Philip Hinchcliffe and star Tom Baker cemented her in my, and everybody’s, mind as the archetypal Who companion. That run included stories renowned as all time classics – Genesis of the Daleks, Pyramids of Mars, The Seeds of Doom, and many more. Tom Baker hadn’t yet slipped into self parody and was a warm, commanding and humourous presence as the Doctor, and the shows were just scary enough to thrill little boys like me.

And, it seems, Russell T Davies. Russell and I are of a similar age, as are most of the fans who were instrumental in bringing Doctor Who back to television. I think we all have the same place in our hearts for Sarah Jane, the companion in the stories that really formed our love of the show. Even John Nathan-Turner could never quite let her go, trying to bring her back to bridge the Baker/Davison regeneration, then succeeding in K9 and Company and The Five Doctors. Sarah Jane, due in no small part to Lis’ spirited performance, was the companion everyone remembered.

So when Russell wanted to bring an old companion into the new series, who better than Sarah Jane? Lis had been retired from acting for a decade, and was initially sceptical. But one of the strengths the new series has over the old is its depth of characterisation, and the scripts persuaded her.

2006’s School Reunion was a thing of beauty, bringing Sarah Jane back in a way that cleverly informed the development of the Doctor’s relationship with Rose. Obviously, fanboys like myself loved every minute of it, and couldn’t hold in a tear at the obvious, real, affection shown to Lis by David Tennant – another fanboy, of course. Their final scene together showcased Lis’ marvellous ability to play dignified, restrained emotion, in the same movingly understated way as her farewell scene in the classic series story The Hand of Fear.

It was no surprise that this appearance was a hit with the fanboys. More of a surprise was how much the new generation of fans took to Sarah Jane, and to Lis. She’d worked so well in the context of the new series, bridging its world with that of the old, that she soon became a regular part of Russell’s expanding ensemble of players. And ultimately, she was so successful that she got her own spin off show, The Sarah Jane Adventures. Captain Jack Harkness may have had a spinoff show too, but counting K9 and Company, only Sarah Jane had two!

Because of that then, there are two generations of fans feeling devastated today. I’ve seen comments on the internet from old guard fans wondering how they can tell their children the news. That’s tragic, but it’s also heartwarming – the children of today hold Sarah Jane Smith in the same place in their hearts as the five year old me. And that’s something very special indeed.

Finally, though, I have to say that beyond bringing this iconic character to life, Elisabeth Sladen was a charming, funny and lovely person. Even when she wasn’t ‘officially’ acting, she kept up with the world of Doctor Who, going to signings and conventions, and, like Nick Courtney, being one of the most patient and entertaining people to be with.

I met her at the 2005 Gallifrey One convention in LA, at which point she must have been playing her cards close to her chest about her imminent reappearance in the show. But what I remember most about her was chatting to my childhood heroine like a friend, about the movies we liked. It turned out we had similar tastes – we both think Casablanca is one of the best films ever made. She pointed out to me Van Nuys airfield – just behind the hotel – and told me that that was where they filmed Bogart and Bergman’s classic farewell scene, suitably dressed up with wooden flats to make it look like North Africa. I’d never known that. And she remembered my partner Barry looking after her daughter for her at a convention a decade previously!

Barry and I joined Steve Roberts and Sue Cowley in keeping Lis company during the interminable wait for the flight back to the UK, and she was very nervous. TARDISes and spaceships might not have been a problem, but she was terrified of flying. She still found time to try and blag a seat upgrade at the Virgin Atlantic desk on the pretext that she knew Richard Branson though!

Her death was a shock – I’m only really taking it in this morning. 63 is pretty young to go these days – in fact I was amazed to discover she was that old. And the fact that she kept working while so ill, and didn’t make a fuss about it, is a testament to how professional she was. There are a lot of people out there on the convention scene who knew her better than I who must be feeling pretty upset this morning, not to mention those she’d worked with on Who and SJA, and those who simply loved her from watching her on screen. To them, and to her family, my heart goes out.

“You know, travel does broaden the mind.”

“Mmm. Till we meet again, Sarah Jane.”

The Hand of Fear, 1976

Elisabeth Sladen 1948-2011

Lucas, Sarah and Jo

“Do you have a hobby?” the spiky haired, unconvincingly American hacker girl asked Lucas in Spooks this week. Of course he does – Lucas’ hobby is brooding. Although he also enjoys scowling, and thumping the steering wheel of his car.

Reliably barmy as usual, this week’s episode saw a group of cyber terrorists from the Russian and Chinese secret services compromise the Grid. This caused Ruth’s usual pinched frown to virtually collapse in on itself as she tried to communicate this information to Harry without the Cybermen seeing. The voyeurs themselves were based in the usual empty high rise office with full length windows that nobody looks out of. Except Lucas when he’s brooding. Quite why Section D doesn’t maintain a special database of empty offices with big windows I have no idea. Perhaps because it would make the episodes shorter?

This season, Lucas has more than usual to brood about. After three years on the show, he’s been confronted by a shifty looking Iain Glen, who knows his secret identity. Apparently, before he was Lucas North, he was Guy of Gisburne. Or something. Anyway, in order to prevent this becoming public knowledge, Lucas has framed an office junior at MI5 and allowed the aforementioned hacker girl to bleed to death so she didn’t spill the beans about the Albany file that Glen is so keen to get his hands on. But he’s getting his hands on it from Malcolm! Yes, the least cool and yet most lovable techie the series ever had has come back to hint that he knows more than we thought he did. Or something. Which leaves me torn between wanting him back on the grid full time, or sticking with the less lovable but much prettier Tariq.

Also in the pretty camp is new boy Dimitri, played by Max Brown. You can tell Max is quite a talent from his background in Hollyoaks. But he is nice to look at, and sensibly, the writers don’t give him much to say. His usual function is to defuse bombs, which he seems to have done in every episode he’s been in. So, logically, this week he was practicing defusing bombs. With an actual bomb. As you do. Still, this came in handy when the cyber freaks locked the Grid down and Dimitri was able to blow his way out. Or something.

Without even a brief pause for the audience to figure out how he did it, Harry was onto the cyber agents in a flash, displaying the customary cool that’s left him the only original cast member standing. But as yet, he knows nothing about Lucas’ treachery, all for the love of Laila Rouass, with whom he shares no chemistry whatsoever. The flaringly nonsensical and yet compellingly watchable saga continues next week…

Meanwhile Laila Rouass was also busy as an equally treacherous UNIT Colonel in this week’s guiltily enjoyable Sarah Jane Adventures. This series has gone from strength to strength, with some intelligent, perceptive writing acted by a talented cast who deserve to go on to bigger things.

Joe Lidster’s season opener The Nightmare Man was one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever seen in children’s television, bolting its dream haunting bogeyman (played with astounding creepiness by Julian Bleach) onto a character heavy story that directly and indirectly summed up the tumultuous changes when children grow up and leave the nest. Luke, played by the sweet Tommy Knight, was written out as he went off to uni, and the script cleverly drew on his, his friends’ and Sarah Jane’s fears to enhance an ethereal, Neil Gaiman like tale of a creature who wants to destroy the world’s dreams. One of the most talented writers working on the show, Lidster too deserves to go on to bigger things.

After this haunting, Sapphire and Steel like opener, Phil Ford’s follow up Vault of Secrets was a broadbrush comedy romp that felt far less sophisticated, with aliens, android Men in Black and a comedy UFO group ‘amusingly’ called BURPSS. Still, it was just a brief interlude before the story all fans were talking about – Russell T Davies’ Death of the Doctor. (Not The Death of Doctor Who – that was episode 5 of 1965 serial The Chase).

So, how would new boy Matt Smith bond with Sarah Jane, who’d already forged a real chemistry with David Tennant? In order to make it even more challenging, Russell upped the ante by bringing in yet another old companion – none other than the much loved Jo Grant, played by the incomparable Katy Manning.

As makes sense for a show revolving around one of the Doctor’s companions, it was the companions themselves who had the lion’s share of the action – the Doctor didn’t even show up until the end of part one! That gave Katy Manning the chance to… well, be Katy Manning. Scattily running around spouting enthusiastic nonsense while knocking things over, it didn’t seem like there was much actual ‘acting’ involved. It was a joy to see Katy again, and she managed to perfectly upstage Lis Sladen at the funeral, leaving her gaping speechlessly. Although, a more cruel mind than mine might have assumed Sarah Jane was simply jealous at the far larger amount of work Jo had had done to her face.

The Doctor noticed too. “You look like you’ve been baked,” he cried, with his usual marvellous lack of tact. Matt was as excellent as ever, and if anything forged a better chemistry with Jo than he did with Sarah Jane. Fittingly, the script allowed Jo the most screen time with him, and while it was basically a retread of the similar scenes involving Sarah Jane in 2006’s School Reunion, the interplay between Matt and Katy did bring a lump to the throat.

The Doctor was also more satisfactorily involved in resolving the plot than he was in his previous Sarah Jane appearance, where he just ran about and frowned a lot while caught in a parallel timeline. This time, it was a joint effort – the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Jo were all instrumental in defeating the less than convincing giant vultures’ plan to break into the TARDIS.

And what a joy to see so many and such well-chosen flashbacks. Hopefully the kids of today are already asking their mummies and daddies about Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. It was of course, a typical Russell tear-jerking stunt, and you could say that there were, well, rather too many flashbacks, actually. But it’s hard to carp about that when the resolution of the plot depends on an overload of memories. And I can forgive Russell – just – for having Jo officially remember her visit to Karfel as referred to in that 1985 trash heap of a story, Timelash.

But, as I say, a romp and a good tearjerker. As a piece of writing, it wasn’t up there with Joe Lidster’s opener, but as a fanboy wet dream it was second to none. The cherry on top was Sarah Jane’s final eulogy to every Earth based companion still – in the show’s continuity at least – alive and kicking. Especially affecting were the references to Harry Sullivan and Ben Jackson, both sadly no longer with us in real life.

So, typically of Russell, the tale was “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. But good fun, nonetheless. I can’t help feeling that the next three stories will have very hard work not seeming like an anticlimax. Perhaps Sarah should meet Lucas North and Harry Pearce? Or something…