Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Review: Elisabeth Sladen - An autobiography

When Elisabeth Sladen passed away in April 2011, I was shocked and upset than at the death of any other of my childhood fiction stalwarts.  She consistent, intriguing and still on TV, but her death shook me up more so than even that of her co-star (and my then-hero) Jon Pertwee in 1996, despite that occurring in the midst of my teen-angsty-crying-at-the-drop-of-a-hat phase.

Her most notable role by far was as Doctor Who's best ever companion, Sarah Jane Smith, a role she played, on-and-off for nearly forty years. Her autobiography, released posthumously, is an interesting work which speaks volumes - in hushed tones - about the woman who would have preferred to be known as Elisabeth Miller.  Of course due to the vagaries of Equity, the UK actor's guild, that wasn't ever a possibility but contributes to the defining theme of her memoir, of someone utterly at home in family settings.

It starts out unevenly, with a steady backdrop of Sladen growing up in postwar Liverpool.  However, despite a lengthy spell in her youth, you're left with only the vaguest of family portraits.  It is a sign of things to come.  She mentions family repeatedly - her parents, experiences with theatre groups, first the Pertwee Who family and then as Baker's rock, and finally, her own family - alongside husband, actor Brian Miller - yet you feel a great distance between you and the actually understanding her.

Despite opening up 320+ pages into her life, she simultaneously withdraws - a point she writes in the conclusion: that rather than other actors putting on masks when in character, she's more likely to do so at home.

It's a welcome change when the book accelerates about 80 pages in.  Not coincidentally, it's this time that she begins writing about 1973 and her experiences on Doctor Who.  This occupies the bulk of the 320-some pages as her career post-Who, though successful, is hardly compelling reading.  No-one will purchase the book for her stint in 1982's Gulliver in Lilliput.  She prioritised family and the book tacitly says as much.

As the book progresses, it feels made to be an audio-book, and her voice, one of the most familiar I can think of, just speaks the words out loud.  (Ed: it's curious that the narrator of the audiobook version is her immediate predecessor Katy Manning, whose voice hasn't necessarily aged well over the past forty years).  Although a common cliche, as you read you can hear Sladen's voice emanating from the page, a familiar tone.  I've never read a book in which I could (nor want to) hear the author's words echo around in my sizeable head.  It's a pity that her words are interrupted at times by her ghost writer throwing in verbiage or maladroit adjectives.

That said, this occasional unevenness contributes to the autobiography at times reading more like a sporting autobiography than a television one.  It begins with back story, her big-time career begins with an audition for Who, she moves on and into later life.  Often, the book takes a tone of real significance, an inside account that no-one else would be able to provide.  As most of the UNIT family (ie. Letts, Pertwee, Hulke, Sladen, Courteney) are now no longer with us, it may be one of the last defining insights into a treasured period of Doctor Who's history.

A favourite example occurs when she recounts her initial interactions with Pertwee, and he absent-mindedly called her Katy (Manning) at the bar - only to then burst into tears in front of a crowd of onlookers.

Continuing on the sporting theme, she then goes on to recount serials like sporting events, with each story described with individual highlights and lowlights.  Once her Who career ends - which I was surprised to discover she'd been thinking about since the filming of Tom Baker's second story - the book almost peters out until the introduction of Russell T. Davies in 2005, a consequence of her semi-retirement from acting to raise her daughter.

Sladen obviously took in interactions with the same intuitiveness as her onscreen persona, the journalist Sarah Jane.  The same core certainty of what is right also shines through.  She writes at length about her interactions with Pertwee and, especially, Who producer, Barry Letts, yet her relationship with her husband - while apparently as solid as they come - is only obliquely referred to.  

Further relationships with Who's figures of power were also interesting, especially regarding Sarah-Jane's rebirths in 1981, 1983, 1993 and from 2006-10: the well-meaning cattiness of John Nathan-Turner is now like a familiar friend, while she writes her most glowing words of Russell T. Davies.

It's a wonderful, cosy - but hardly warm - read.  At times it exhibits real significance, while at others is slightly underwhelming and thin.  But it is without doubt a fitting tribute to Elisabeth Miller, nee Sladen.  Footballs.

For more Doctor Who reviews, visit Who. Reviewed.

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