BBC Radio Collection

Elisabeth Sladen

To celebrate the July 2001 release of Doctor Who – Genesis of the Daleks & Exploration Earth on BBC Radio Collection CD, we spoke to the actress who played one of the Doctor's best-loved companions, Sarah-Jane Smith.

Radio Collection: What are your thoughts on listening to Exploration Earth, 25 years on?

Elisabeth Sladen: It was recorded around the time that I was leaving Doctor Who. I do remember that it was only a morning's work. As it was only a small thing, we would have received the script just a day or so before recording. If you listen carefully you'll hear that my voice is quite high – a sign that I'm not quite sure what I'm doing! The Doctor has all the ammunition, and what Sarah does is whinge! I think Tom underplays it all beautifully, but if one actor underplays then the other one can't.

I know some people believe the assistant in Doctor Who has no substance, but I was generally well served by the writers. If not, it was up to me to find something to do with a bad line, or for them to let me cut it. For my sins, on Exploration Earth I didn't speak up about it. You never have much time for radio, though. Sarah-Jane works better on television. Quite often you've been established in a scene but there are lulls where you're in the background. In those instances I used to have a sub-plot in my head. That's easier to do on telly than on radio! It's almost finding out what isn't in the script, because what you say is often not what you really think. I sometimes used to try to make what I was doing contradict what I was saying – it's often more interesting.

Elisabeth Sladen
as Sarah-Jane Smith, 1975

 

RC: Genesis of the Daleks was originally transmitted as a six-part serial.

ES: I love six-parters! Sometimes they're viewed as being over-long, and if the story's weak you can't drag it out. But I felt that Genesis held. I loved doing that one. It was Tom's first season, we'd done our first Outside Broadcast on Dartmoor for The Sontaran Experiment, and it was such fun to film in these grubby, mucky conditions as long as there was a nice hotel to go to at the end of the day! Ian Marter [who played fellow TARDIS traveller Harry Sullivan] was good company and the director, David Maloney, has such an impish sense of fun. He also knows what he's doing and is a really, really good director. You never got much attention from him on the studio floor, but you knew that he was looking out for you and you were alright.

We filmed the scenes where Sarah and the Mutos climb to the top of the rocket tip at Ealing, and that was hard work! I suppose that story is the nearest I got to The Perils of Pauline! The tone of the regular characters changed as Tom, Ian and I got used to each other. By the time we got to Genesis I was enjoying the ride in the TARDIS, and that made all the difference. Because Sarah wasn't Earthbound she forgot about things like Marks & Spencer's! If you're travelling in the TARDIS you're not thinking 'what am I going to have for supper tonight?'

There's the famous scene where Tom is going to put the two probes together and prevent the Daleks ever being created. When we came to do it David Maloney said to us,'Now look, this is serious!' They really tried to emphasise that this was a crucial point. The ethics of genocide were being debated, and they didn't sidestep it. The programme had a conscience, and it showed. That's why I thought it was terribly unfair of Mary Whitehouse to criticise us. At the time it was shown, all the family were around. Dad had been watching the football results, Mum was getting the eggs and bacon or the chips in the kitchen, and it was very much a family affair. I feel that for any child watching in a family environment there's no terrible fear there. With Doctor Who it's a healthy fear. Everyone has to be frightened at some time in their life.

Genesis of the Daleks, 1975

Doctor Who –
Genesis of the Daleks & Exploration Earth
CD £9.99
ISBN 0563 478578

 

Seeds of Doom, 1976

RC: Was it exciting to work at the BBC in the 1970s?

ES: We used to call the rehearsal rooms the Acton Hilton. You had such an input of talent in that place! On any day you might have the Two Ronnies, Morecambe & Wise, Cilla Black there. I saw Sean Connery one day, trying to find a seat in the canteen with his tray of goodies. There were six or seven floors in all, with reception on the ground and floors 1 to 5 given over to rehearsal rooms. Each floor had three large rehearsal rooms, and at the time I was working there every single one was full. The talent which would at one time wander around there! And then on the top floor was the self-service restaurant. I remember lovely Ruby, with the red hair, and the first aid lady who was always coming up to me and asking about my bruises [sustained from falls and stunts in the course of making the show]! Fulton Mackay would be there doing Porridge. Everyone wanted to be on the Doctor Who table, 'cos we had so much fun! I was in the queue one day waiting to pay when Ronnie Barker came up to me and said,'Oh god, haven't they killed you off yet!'

We had a stream of visiting actors on the programme. They'd be like little boys, rubbing their hands together with glee at doing a Doctor Who. People would break from doing serious roles and peek through the two glass portholes of our rehearsal room to see what we were doing! We used to wave to them and tell them to go away because we were saving the Universe! We in turn would go and watch things like The Brothers being recorded, and feel sorry for them 'cos all they seemed to do was drink gin and tonics! We were very cheeky actually.

Tom Baker was always very sweet to me. It was in our interests to get on, but it was never forced. I adore seeing him now. No-one else understands what it was like. I was very sad when Jon Pertwee died. Doing the two radio stories (Paradise of Death and The Ghosts of N-Space) had brought a great deal of enjoyment to us both and given us a new relationship. We had both mellowed. Although I hadn't seen him much since then, when he died I realised how much I missed him because he was my Doctor. If I go to a convention now, Ian isn't there and Jon isn't there and you feel a bit lonely! Jon and Tom were two very different gentlemen in the way they worked – Jon enjoyed being much more protective towards the companion – and I liked the difference.

Genesis of the Daleks

 

 

Pyramids of Mars, 1975

RC: Could you describe the process of recording a DW story?

ES: Initially for each story we'd have a read-through, and around the table there'd be the producer, director, all the production assistants, representatives from make-up, sound, camera – someone from every department. You'd have the read-through, and then the actors would go away for a coffee whilst the production staff discussed issues which had arisen from it – perhaps things they wanted to cut for timing, or things we had raised. Then we'd come back and be told where and when we were going to start rehearsing. Make-up might say to me, 'Can you come and see us after rehearsal tonight?' or costume would say, 'We need to go out shopping, Lis.'

We mostly had the weekends off, although I remember once we were very behind on Terror of the Zygons. The director, Douglas Camfield, gathered us together and said, 'Now look, this is the A-Team! We're behind on the scripts, who'll come in on Sunday? Put your hands up, men!' We didn't get paid, but we came in. I brought some things in to eat, and Tom brought wonderful pork pies and soup, because the canteen wouldn't be open. It was rather like the war effort! That's what happens on a long-running series. You almost have two lives. I didn't see Tom socially. I once met him on Regent Street, and he asked me to have a Guinness, but I think it freaked us both out – the Doctor and Sarah-Jane drinking on Regent Street! The relationship worked so well that we didn't want to spoil it.

So we'd rehearse Monday to Friday, and on the Friday you'd have your technical run in the morning and your producer's run in the afternoon. You'd have the weekend to digest any changes, then you'd go into studio on the Monday and Tuesday. On studio days I'd get into work for about 8am, so they could put a rinse on my hair and sort out costume. Camera rehearsals then began at 10am, we'd have lunch and later a tea break, and then start recording at 7.30pm. Special effects were always difficult, because they could work once and then go wrong for the next twenty times. If there was anything especially tricky we'd shoot it separately in the daytime – so then you had the added hassle of getting all made up and costumed for 2pm, just for half an hour. Then in your evening break, usually from 5.30pm or 6pm, you'd have a make-up call and would have to be ready to go at 7.30pm.

But a quarter of an hour before that you used to have to be ready for the BBC library photographers. Having watched a bit of the run-through they would decide where they wanted to take your photograph. Barry understood that I hated this! They'd say, 'Now Lis, go behind this rock, and can you peer out and look frightened?' I used to find that so off-putting, it made me feel unreal and plastic. Barry used to let me go after I'd done just a few!

Doctor Who –
The Paradise of Death
CD, £13.99
ISBN 0563 553235

 

 

Doctor Who –
The Ghosts of N-Space
CD, £16.99
ISBN 0563 477016

 

Planet of Evil, 1975

 

Interview conducted by
Michael Stevens. Our thanks to Elisabeth Sladen for giving her time.