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.