Book Review: Elisabeth Sladen: the autobiography

Book Review
Elisabeth Who?
Few answers in Sladen's autobiography

By Geoffrey Dow

Managing Editor
Original published at Edifice Rex Online
It's no secret celebrity memoirs tend either to be vapid, self-serving odes to the celebrity's own remarkable self or brutal tell-all therapy sessions paying back every wrong committed against that celebrity over the course of his or her otherwise wonderful life.
Elisabeth Sladen: the autobiography cover & link to Amazon
Elisabeth Sladen: the autobiography
By Elisabeth Sladen with Jeff Hudson
Aurum Press Ltd, 2011, Paperback 2012
334 Pages, C$17.95
ISBN: 978 1 84513 826 4

There are exceptions. If my 35 year-old memory is to be trusted, Charlie Chaplin's autobiography read like a very 19th century good novel; Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Volume One was an insightful examination of that musician's influences; Patti Smith's Just Kids a deeply moving memoir of young love; and Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace seemed like a fascinating trip deep below the surface of that artist's stream of consciousness.

But most memoirs ain't worth the cost it takes to torrent a pirated copy. Which makes the price of the paper version I have at hand seem doubly-dear.

It's not that Elisabeth Sladen: the autobiography (written with/by Jeff Hudson) is a terrible book, it's just not a very good one. Despite the subtitle (whose use of the lower case is pointless and irritating) the actor's memoir reveals only a woman determined to say as little about herself as possible and who, further, has little enough to say about her times, either.

We learn that Sladen is happily married, that she loves the theatre and adores listening to veteran actors' stories about the old days — though she shares few of those with us. Mostly, the book is about life as The Doctor's companion.

The bulk of the book — and the best of it — recounts her experiences on the set of that iconic program. Though I have only a passing acquaintance with the Third Doctor, Sladen paints what seems a pretty nuanced — sympathetic but critical — portrait of Jon Pertwee that left me feeling I had a real handle on the man. Same for Tom Baker, who comes across as a much happier, and a nicer, man.

Sladen reminisces in considerable detail on the programs production and occasionally, offers some pretty sharp criticisms of various directors and BBC productions types, along with enough amusing anecdotes to keep a fan turning the pages. But beyond that, there is little insight on offer and almost nothing at all about Sladen as a person.

I remember when Jon Pertwee went. He himself had set the wheels in motion but by the time the moment came he was devastated to leave. It was when he was going through his lowest ebb that I was offered a new contract. A year later, when my good friend Ian had just been told that his contract wouldn't be renewed, I was offered a deal for a further twenty-two episodes. The question was: did I want to sign?

It wasn't just Ian's situation that muddied my waters: my epiphany from that conversation with Philip [Hinchcliffe] during "The Sontaran Experiment" still lingered. I was in no doubt — I didn't need this work, it was just another job. The world wouldn't end if I walked away. I stared at myself in the mirror.

Come on now, honestly, Sladen, what's your instinct? What do you want to do?

I considered it for ages. On the one hand this was my livelihood and I owed it to my husband not to throw away good money because as actors it's rare that you're both working at the same time. On the other, it was the perfect springboard to other work. It was make your mind up time. And then the answer came to me.

I want to carry on. [Pages 188-189.]

Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, screenshot from The Sarah Jane Adventures, copyright by the BBC.

And there you have it, the inner workings of Elisabeth Sladen — or as close as we're allowed to get.

Another — and a surprising — missing bit of the autobiography is that Sladen offers us a mere dozen pages tacked on to the end of the book on her four years as the star of The Sarah Jane Adventures.

It seems hard to imagine that she imagined no one would be interested, so I presume she either wanted to protect her young co-stars or, perhaps more likely, she simply ran out of time. Sladen was diagnosed with cancer in February of 2011 and died on April 19th, only two months later. Whatever the reason, that lack was a disappointment. Despite the book's limitations, as a fan, I would have enjoyed whatever stories she chose to tell about her life's final acting triumphs.

Long story short: If you are looking for a portrait of Britain during the turbulent 60s and 70s, or a deep look into the inner workings and life of an actor, give the autobiography a miss.

But if you never saw her at a convention and wish you had, this book is the next best thing. Scan tthe first 70 or so pages and then settle back on with a nice cuppa and enjoy the next 250 pages for what they are: the breezy, superficial reminiscences of an actor performing for her fans even as she protects herself from them.