Anything goes

I started writing this blog entry yesterday afternoon, before I heard of the sad death of Elisabeth Sladen. I’m going to continue with it, as it should act as a tribute to a very important woman in my early life, and in the lives of others of a certain age. Elisabeth Sladen 1948-2011

I can’t believe I’ve actually found this. It’s the moment in the first Tom Baker Doctor Who story, Robot (or The Giant Robot), where Sarah Jane Smith, frightened by the giantness of the robot in question, runs away and, in true damsel-in-distress style, falls over. This episode aired at the end of 1974, which makes me nine going on ten at the time. All I know is this: when I caught a momentary glimpse of Sarah Jane’s underskirt riding up her thigh, I came over all funny. This can’t have been exactly sexual at that age, but I was aware that I had seen something I shouldn’t have seen, something forbidden, not for my eyes. An underskirt, which is what we used to call a slip in the early 70s, was exactly that: a skirt that went under an outer skirt. It was an undergarment, and I was old enough to know that underwear was secret.

I have had this image imprinted on my mind’s eye ever since, despite having only ever seen it once, that day in 1974. Even 35 years later, I could still see it. And now, thanks to a rare clip of Doctor Who on YouTube (which I think has been edited with some silly music, I didn’t listen to it), I can actually see it again. It’s still pretty racy isn’t it?

I loved Elisabeth Sladen as a kid. Or was it Sarah Jane Smith that I loved? It doesn’t matter. It’s actually both. I loved her in the same way that I loved Tiger on The Double Deckers around the same time. Even though too young to “fancy” fictional characters, or the actors that play them, you develop an attachment to certain among them, and – for obvious reasons – the Doctor Who companions were an automatic focus. (Just as Jon Pertwee was my first Doctor, Tom Baker was the first Doctor I saw regenerate at both ends of his era; following this pattern, Jo Grant was my first companion, but Sarah Jane was the first companion whose first and last adventures I watched – The Time Warrior in 1973 to The Hand Of Fear in 1976, and yes I had to look that up. I am, or was, a Doctor Who fan, not a Doctor Who Fan!)

The point I was going to raise here off that back of that abiding image of Sarah Jane’s underskirt is just how innocent the times were that I grew up in, sexually speaking. It’s 2011. Times have changed. We are, in many ways, more sexually liberated than we were in the 70s, a decade when, despite the progress of the apparently permissive 60s and the political leaps forward made in terms of women’s liberation and gender equality – not to mention attitudes to homosexuality – it was still a dark age. Society and popular culture were inherently sexist (watching Dave Lee Travis drool over Pan’s People in a recent edition of Top Of The Pops on BBC Four from 1976 was particularly repellent). Clearly, aged nine, and even into my teens, I wasn’t aware of this. I accepted things as they were handed down to me, as any young boy in any era might. My confused feelings, the ones that eventually develop into urges, were all heterosexual ones, and within that broad area, I guess they were natural enough.

But in the 1970s, if you wanted to think about women, you were lucky if you could see a picture of any more than an underskirt. It will strike young people of today as either quaint or pathetic that we used to find pictures of models wearing bras in the Kays catalogue oddly illicit. Clearly, Charlie’s Angels were sexy. They sometimes wore bikinis. But not always. And the camera did not linger too long on their bodies. (I saw the latest Fast & The Furious film yesterday; and Gal Gadot, an Israeli actress whose character is nominally a “strong woman”, is seen going undercover in a tiny bikini and the camera sticks to her as she walks, from behind and in front, for what feels an age. It’s a 12A certificate.) You saw busty women and women whose swaying bottoms required saxophone accompaniment on Carry On films; indeed some of the 70s ones were considerably fleshy. But these were framed by silly, falling-over comedy; this was not even the softest porn, not in the context of today’s on-tap titillation. What I’m driving at is that in that faraway era before video, DVD and the Internet, you had to be grateful for anything. Oh how rude we thought National Lampoon’s Animal House was in 1979! This was my first, legal “AA” certificate, which you had to be 14 to see. I suspect today it would look pretty tame – nothing you wouldn’t see on television – but at the time, it felt like Deep Throat. (When I was much older, around 17, a bunch of us went to another boy’s house at lunchtime and he showed us some of Deep Throat, which his parents must have had, on video. I was not only shocked and fascinated by the frankness of it all, I was a bit scared. Maybe that’s just me. Or maybe it’s a sign of more sheltered times.)

The underskirt question, to get back to my point, is simply one of context. A glimpse of bra strap would have had the same effect in 1974. When Sarah Jane was eventually replaced by Leela, a savage who by default wore a suede bikini, you might say that Doctor Who was moving with the permissive times. Certainly she seemed pretty saucy for teatime. (I seem to recall my Dad taking more of an interest in the programme at the time – or am I post-rationalising?) Already, social and sexual mores were changing, right before my eyes!

I like to think I have grown up without hang-ups. I certainly prefer to use my imagination than have images served up on a plate. When I actually came of age, in the early 80s, the girls round our way wore long pinafore skirts, and multiple layers. It was the fashion. You wouldn’t see midriffs, or bra straps, or legs. (A girl called Heidi wore a midriff-revealing cut-off t-shirt at a sixth form party in 1983 and it was the talk of the school.) The kind of Goth girls my friend Kevin and I revered in mid-80s Northampton wore three of everything, layers upon layers. I realise now I sound like someone who grew up in Victorian times, but ironically, with those elaborate clothes, always done up to the neck, that’s exactly what they were like. (I’m free-forming now. if I was writing this as a think-piece for a magazine, I’d get on with the second draft.)

I know I’ve gone off the subject of Elisabeth Sladen, but I hope, elliptically, I have positioned her in my life and expressed how important she was to me. Not just as a woman on the telly whose skirt once rode up in front of a giant robot – once! – but as an iconic figure, someone with whom I identified and someone whose adventures I followed, religiously, at a formative age. I always liked her more than I liked Kate Jackson from Charlie’s Angels.

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7 thoughts on “Anything goes

  1. Thanks Andrew, that was indeed a fitting tribute to Lis. I’m 25, and part of that generation which grew up with no Doctor Who on our saturday evenings (except of course for the one-off Paul McGann TV movie and the occasional re-run), but I discovered the classic adventures from a young age thanks to the BBC video releases and then later, the DVDs.

    I am immensely fond of the Lis Sladen / Jon Pertwee/Tom Baker era. I believe this was the programme at its best, even by today’s standards! The unbroken string of outstanding stories, the unforgettable scares, the influx of mary whitehouse complaint letters, the endless quarries, the masterfully written scripts, but above all else, that convincing plutonic friendship between The Doctor and his companion, as opposed to the modern equivilent, that being the ever-present sexual chemistry demonstrated almost weekly in the current series.

  2. I went on a sponsored walk at Blenheim Palace with my primary School and ‘Leela’ was a ‘guest walker’ and when you said

    I loved Elisabeth Sladen as a kid. Or was it Sarah Jane Smith that I loved? It doesn’t matter. It’s actually both.

    I know exactly what you meant. Indeed I can remember (or am I post rationlizing too?) that for the whole walk she was surrouned by rather awkward young boys (myself included).

    I’d forgotten all about that until this Blog. Thanks for the happy memory.

  3. Another little piece of my TV childhood gone. A lovely & fitting tribute. Yes: she was ‘hot’ in the way only a truly beautiful person could be. (We’re still allowed to say ‘hot’ aren’t we?)

    My kids heard about it on twitter yesterday evening before it was confirmed. They were upset and the fact that this lady spanned both generations in a good way. I was shocked when I was reminded of her age. She’ll always be a young lady to me. Maybe I’m showing my age 🙂

  4. I think it was Flipper or Skippy or something. A young girl in shorts was tied up in a barn (or something). You can never say how old you were with memories like that but I can’t have been much older than six or seven. I just remember being really excited about whether they’d find her in time. I mean really excited. Climbing the ropes at school excited. I didn’t understand it at all. My mum’s young dog looks similarly bemused when he’s humping… anything.

    It’s not that rare an occcurrence these days but I saw what was definitely still only a baby in a pram the other day and it had big earrings in its pierced ears. It just made me feel so depressed. I know you’re supposed to feel like this as you get older but it’s no consolation: there’s something wrong with us.

    Elisabeth Sladen was just before (and after) my time. But Gideon Coe played the 70s Dr Who theme last night and I cried a bit. And they showed a 70s photo of her this morning and I nearly did it again. I know it’s to do with my age and my lost childhood. But it’s also because she looked so young, and it doesn’t feel very long ago. Still all about me. Sorry.

  5. Lis Sladen’s passing is deeply sad. I’m just about old enough to remember her on Dr Who and she remains my favourite assistant. Like a lot of others in some ways she became a kind of early reference for an appealing woman.

    The rudeness of underskirts was a bit of a grey area for me as a child. I knew that underwear was rude, but were underskirts underwear? I wasn’t sure. I may have asked older siblings for advice on this.

    I know what Dave means about certain seemingly innocent things on TV being unbelievably exciting when you’re young. I remember when I was maybe about six years old seeing a trailer for the film ‘The Heist’. There’s a bit where someone says to Goldie Hawn ‘What are you doing?’ and she nonchalantly replies ‘I’m robbing a bank’. I completely flipped when I saw that. It turned my world upside down. A sweet young woman? Robbing a bank?

  6. Lovely tribute, thanks. My whole family is saddened by her death.

    Re: underskirts, yes they were definitely rude. I remember sniggering at the names of two radio programmes “Petticoat Line” and “Many a Slip” because they both had underwear in them. But I am a bit older than you (I think Jaws was my first legal AA).

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