As a kid at my school, we played at Dr Who en-masse. I was usually the third Doctor or sometimes the fourth. Other kids would play the Brigadier, Benton, Yates or other members of UNIT. Other kids would be Sea Devils, Autons, Yeti, Axons (spaghetti men, we called them), Daleks, Zygons, Krynoids or Cybermen. But the girls; they all wanted to be Sarah Jane Smith.
Sarah was the companion to many people. She was beside the Doctor in many of his most memorable adventures. Never just a yes-girl or a helpless shrinking violet, Sarah was often just as instrumental in saving the day as the Doctor himself. When she came to the role, Liverpudlian actress Elisabeth Sladen was relatively unknown, having had small roles in Some Mothers Do Ave Em, Doomwatch, Coronation Street and Z-Cars.
When the brilliant Katy Manning bowed out of Dr Who, Z-Cars producer Ron Craddock recommended Elisabeth to Berry Letts who was Dr Who’s producer at the time. She proved an instant hit with both Letts and Jon Pertwee.
Her character was one of the most fondly remembered companions in the history of the series. Especially fondly remembered is the team of Tom Baker, Liz Sladen and the late Ian Marter as the fourth Doctor, Sarah and Harry Sullivan.
Such was her popularity that the character was brought back time and again, firstly in 1981 for the ill-fated spin off K9 And Company, then in 1983 for the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors.
With Dr Who’s triumphant return Sarah Jane teamed up with David Tennant in the story School Reunion. Finally - perhaps inevitably - Sarah Jane got her own series, The Sarah Jane Adventures, aimed at younger viewers, but still intelligently written and well acted.
She was brought back for a showdown with Davros and the Daleks in Stolen Earth and Journey’s End, again with David Tennant. She had last encountered them in the 1975 epic Genesis of the Daleks. Davros even comments on remembering her face. Liz worked alongside the new Doctor, Matt Smith, and her predecessor Jo Grant in Death of the Doctor.
I met Katy Manning shortly after and she eulogised on what a joy Liz had been to work with.
It was great for many of the old fans who recalled Sarah Jane as a heart throb from the ‘70s to see her back, now like an eccentric, lovable favourite aunt. Liz died suddenly on April 19th. She had been suffering from cancer but few fans knew; she looked so well and had carried on with her acting regardless. It feels as if a part of the universe has fallen away leaving a bottomless void.