Shortly before the transmission of the first season of The Sarah Jane Adventures in 2007, Elisabeth Sladen sat down with Paul Simpson to discuss the spin-off series. This is the full version of that interview.
“We had a lot of fun, we really did.”
What was the difference filming 10 episodes rather than the special [Invasion of the Bane]?
Emotionally it was incredibly different. All of a sudden it wasn’t quite so much on trial. You’re going into areas in the special where you’re seeing things for the first time, trying things for the first time – everyone is, on the production team and on my side. Even seeing the attic for the first time – there’s so much in that attic. I don’t think I was ever ready for a take, I was always rehearsing because I would find something new or something on the wall. It’s all over the place, God I should have used that! But by that time we’ve done the master and you’ve got to pick up.
How did the change in cast affect things?
For me, it’s brilliant: Danny, playing Clyde, is slightly older anyway so off screen he doesn’t need tutoring, which is an enormous help. It’s also lovely for Tom [Tommy Knight, who plays Luke] – he has another mate-in-arms, it’s not all girls. The dynamic is much better spread. It gives him more scope because Luke is not a real child, therefore the only thing he can do is copy, and if the only example is Clyde, it opens avenues we didn’t have before. For my character, he’s someone who absolutely gets in the way because he wants to know so much. On an actor/actor level, he makes me laugh, and not many people can make me do that on camera. I went a few times, even the cameraman went when Danny was there. It was very refreshing.
We filmed episodes 3 and 4 first, then 1 and 2, then 7 and 8, then 9 and 10, last 5 and 6, and then we had new scenes because some of them were underrunning. Although it was a bit of a pain, and it had to be included in the schedule, it was lovely to have another stab at the beginning of the story, and quite a number of them were for Clyde and I.
I’m finding so much. When I went back for [the Doctor Who story] School Reunion I was thrown in – that was a very different character to what I played before. There’s a lot of knocks that come in between. With the special, then as a character, she was on a better grounding, she had a surer footing. She’d moved on. Once you’ve got the Luke character in, that he’s going to be in her life forever… Russell [T Davies] sent a lovely message to me when he’d seen episodes seven and eight: “It’s amazing, this Sarah Jane. There’s so much more to find! I can’t believe it, there’s so much more to find!” That’s what he and the writers have given me. I so enjoyed it.
It’s a lovely thing to go back and relish on such a different level. I loved it, I ate it up, I absolutely adored doing it, I really did, even when it was tiring. There are always times when they come in and say, “We know we’re asking a lot of you…” and you know you’ve got to do it, but you feel so supported. What this team have never lost sight of is their love of what they’re doing. It comes, I think, from the classic series and whatever holes you want to pick in it. It so bounces on the walls of Torchwood, Who and Sarah Jane. The kids will ask me questions: “Why will she do that?” I’ll say, “Because back in…” and it’s really lovely.
I’m not working with children and young adults who were actually fans, I don’t think, who actually watched it. The first time they saw the Bane was really difficult. I think it was more difficult for Yasmin, because she’s more truthful in what she does. And you have her family, which add a lovely total different perspective to how it is approached.
The kids are very tactile. At their age, they may very well not be. They could be spawn of the devil at that age. I didn’t know what I was going to get: they’re teenagers. But they’re so lovely and tactile. They put up with a lot from me. There’s lots of hugs and lots of supports. Yasmin will come in the caravan and have little chats. But then they have their own time totally away from me, where there’s the three of them together.
Does it feel odd playing someone who’s just become a mum?
As a mum to Tom on set, it’s not a problem at all. He’s so lovely with me. He’s the sweetest lad and I’m incredibly fond of Tom.
But for Sarah, no, you have to remember she used to leap before she thought. Now she has to think before she jumps, because she is responsible. That’s where the first story goes: she is so committed that Luke will have as normal a life as possible that you lose track of what your intuitions are. Do everything by the book and you don’t see what actually makes you tick, and that’s where the problems start.
There’s a lovely moment in the first episode when you see Clyde and there’s a look of “Oh no, another one to be responsible for…”
The reactions are real, they’re what you’d do in that situation, if that situation occurred. I’ve not met the Slitheens before, and Paul [Kasey] who is so much a part of Who – I think he’s a dancer. I seem to remember a wrap party where I danced with a Slitheen… What he does with his body language, as he goes into Slitheen mode… you don’t need much imagination.
There are more prosthetic aliens than CGI ones in Sarah Jane…
I was very surprised to be working with the amount that I did of the aliens. I wonder if Russell did that for the kids. I don’t know – but if so, that was a very clever move. Kids can use their imaginations, but there comes a point where they feel stupid, which I think if you’ve been at it longer, you get over.
At the wrap party I saw the clips with these lovely kids and then this old woman – it gave me such a shock. My imagination when I think of Sarah doesn’t go to where it should go. It’s quite bizarre: it’s like I’m lost in a time bubble.
The Sarah of your first Doctor Who story, The Time Warrior, is a very different character…
That was such a lovely story. I don’t think they knew what they wanted, and I don’t think I ever got such a strong story again, but that was fine because it was the first one. That was what I had to draw on as the years go by.
I loved Time Warrior: it’s quite theatrical, fortunately for me, because I came from a lot of theatre and not a lot of television. Once you get in a medieval castle you get big, big characters. The stones are big. Everything is enlarged, so it will take it.
There’s a lot of location shooting. What [the director] Alan Bromley was very clever at was casting, and I loved his shots – he’s very cinematic. What he didn’t do was direct the actors a lot, so I got away with a lot of what I wanted to do. But I actually thought I was so bad he’d given up on me, so I went for it. I wasn’t getting any notes, and normally you get a lot of notes, and I didn’t realise that if you didn’t get a lot of notes, it was because there was no time, and you were fine.
What are you finding new about Sarah now?
I open the scripts and I think, “I never thought of that” which is lovely. I’m allowed to say, because I can’t stop my mouth. There’s nothing else I would ever have so much input on, ever; I would just think everyone else knew better than me. I know you can’t do certain things, she wouldn’t do that. Some things just come laughably easy.
In episodes 5 and 6 we’re in space, and our lovely director, Charles Martin, had not done anything like this before. “You’re coming out of the Transmat and going down that corridor…” I did it and I looked around. He said, “I would have come out of there and been zapped, man, I wouldn’t have thought of that, Space Captain. You’ve got to look this way and that!” He collapsed on a sofa and said, “I’ve been doing this 16 days and I’m knackered and you’ve been doing it for weeks!” He got us when we were at our tiredest, and on his first day he got every special effect and shot and animal and whatever in the Attic. It’s a horrific place to shoot because you’ve got this hole in the middle supporting the whole set, and then the level going down to Mr Smith. When Mr Smith is opening up, you can’t stand in his way otherwise you get bashed. You’ve only got a short little way before you fall if you’re not looking down the steps. My absolute goal on any Sarah Jane was to run down those steps to Mr Smith, but I couldn’t do it. I’m going to save the universe, but I must see where those steps are! Then the place where the books are is like a hellhole sauna, you just drip out of there. Charles had everything on the first day, I felt so sorry for him. He called me “babe” at one point, and then said, “I’m so sorry,” and I said, “Would you mind just doing that again? I quite like that!”
What’s been the most challenging thing about doing the series?
Going from one episode to the other. We finished the first block [episodes 1-4] and then we went onto the next block, 7 and 8. I didn’t see it coming, that it would be so difficult. I did find it difficult. The last shot of the first block was in the Attic, and if you used the Attic, you had to dress it, so if you’d dressed it, you used it first in the next episode. I spent a very tiring three or four days in the Attic. Last shot, I’m running up and down the stairs putting something on Mr Smith’s console. After about 10 takes we realised it should be switched on!
First shot the next day, it was such a change of pace and my head was just not there. Same place, same character but the change in pace, the switch in story… that was the hardest. That’s what I will have to watch out for.
How long was the shoot?
Three months. We had the wrap party but then Yas and I had to work the next day. Everyone else was done.
Where does it go from here?
I would love to do more. A lot will depend on things totally out of my control.
A friend of mine watched two children buying a Who DVD, and they were asked if they knew who I was. They said, “She’s Sarah Jane: she’s very lonely but she’s very brave.” That was such an encapsulating little sentence.
I think they’ve got everything right: I believe she would live in that house. I thought they might have changed the car… Charles said to me, “They told me not to let you drive.” That tree is very difficult to avoid, but I screeched out, and he told me I was better than the First AD! My spatial awareness for parking could be bettered, but the only way I can drive is as if I have stolen it. It’s a bloody difficult car to drive: you’ve got to press something before you can turn it on, and there’s a whistle that drives everyone mad. The door is big and heavy, so you can’t do a tight shot.
What’s the appeal of the show to a new non-Who audience?
I think it has an entertainment value that you don’t have to dig for. It’s there on the screen. You can turn away from it and come back to it. I think you’ll like the characters. I think you’ll find things that are amusing that you don’t see every day. I don’t know any other programme, not even Who, like this. There is a pull on it that will bring people from the classic series – whether they’ll follow it at 5 p.m. I don’t know – but it’s something for people who enjoy watching Who and people who are maybe a little anxious, if they’re a little younger, about things in Who. It has a better safety net, even though the Doctor is the hero. It’s not as bumpy a journey. There’s loads of people they can identify with. There’s the mum and the dad, there’s the constants like the children. It’s nice to come out of school and have an adventure. You don’t have to sit down and see fragmented things – it’s something to go home and be excited for.