Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Elisabeth Sladen: The Autobiography

Imagine you move into a new neighborhood, and the woman next door looks familiar - very familiar, but you can't place her.  A few weeks later, you're chatting on the doorstep and she invites you in for coffee.  Walking through the house, you see a piece of memorabilia that tells you where you know her from - 35 years ago, she spent a few years as the star of a long-running TV show.  You ask, and she admits that yes, she was an actress, and with some prompting she tells you about her career.

She tells you about growing up in Liverpool, taking drama classes as a child, and joining the National Youth Theatre (where her classmates included Helen Mirren and Diana Quick).  Back in Liverpool, she joined a repertory theater where a cast mate made her giggle when she was playing a corpse - they've been happily married for decades now, a truly devoted couple.  Opportunity took them to London and fate cast her in a now-iconic role.  Then?   Well, through a combination of typecasting, the relatively low status of her show's genre, and (she admits) tactical errors on her part, her career sort of fades away.  She goes to conventions devoted to her old show, has a daughter, and essentially retires around 40.

That's how Elisabeth Sladen: The Autobiography feels - like a conversation with a very nice lady who happened to be very famous for a few years and while she enjoyed it, has no need to dwell on it.  It's full of warm memories of friends and co-workers (sometimes bittersweet memories of those who have died), descriptions of the mid-70s working conditions at the BBC (let's just say that the actors are not quite as nostalgic about the cardboard-set era as I am), and a few mildly cautionary tales about missed opportunities.  She drops several names - famous, not-so-famous, and hey-it's-that-guy - and usually has nice things to say (although Jon Pertwee still comes off as a complete jerk on occasion).  The overall effect is, well, a pleasant conversation with someone who's had some interesting experiences.

Ms. Sladen's memoir doesn't end with that conversation.  Russell T. Davies brought her, and Sarah Jane Smith, back to Doctor Who in 2005, and then gave Sarah (and Lis) her own spin-off show, making her more famous in her 60s than she had been in her 30s.  Sadly, there will be no follow-up volume, because Ms. Sladen died at age 65, shortly after sending the manuscript to the publisher.

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