Sunday, October 30, 2011

One More Adventure With The Unforgettable Sarah Jane Smith

GUEST article author: Neil Gardner

"I hope I can convey the honour, the joy, the emotion I have felt by being allowed to produce this audiobook..."

When, earlier this year, we lost the incomparable Elisabeth Sladen, I thought about just how fortunate and honoured I had been to have the opportunity to produce some of her Sarah Jane Smith audiobooks, and to have such a laugh in the studio with her. I, like so many millions of others, was heart-broken that Lis was gone, and as time passed, I slowly came to terms with the fact that there would be no more Lis Sladen in my professional life.

And then there was an announcement that Lis had left an almost-completed autobiography in her desk drawer, and that her family had decided to finish it and have it published. What wonderful news for all of Lis’s fans, a little bit more Lis, and an insight into this wonderful woman’s life. And soon enough, there it was, as a pre-order hardback on Amazon… “Elisabeth Sladen: The Autobiography”, due for release on the 7th of November 2011.

Over the summer, I was working on the new Tom Baker 4th Doctor audio series “Doctor Who: Serpent Crest” for AudioGO, and during one of the recording sessions I heard that AudioGO may be recording an audiobook version of the autobiography. What?! Blimey! I immediately fired off an email to the team who decide on who gets to produce what, and I begged (I’m not ashamed to admit this) to be allowed to be the producer. I would happily travel to any studio anywhere in the country to record it. I was almost shaking… one more chance, one more adventure with Elisabeth Sladen… I have never wanted a job so much!

Read by Caroline John, with a foreword by David Tennant and a postscript by Brian and Sadie Miller

Months passed, and no news, but then, all of a sudden it was on. And it needed doing quickly so it could come out at the same time as the hardback. It was going to be a London recording (phew) and after the possibility of it being read by a member of Lis’s family, the final decision was made to have Caroline John read it. Caroline had played Liz Shaw, the Doctor’s companion before Katy Manning and then Lis took on the role. She was a good friend of Lis as well as a real fount of knowledge for those early Jon Pertwee days.

So that was it… we were booked in and waiting on the words. The finishing touches were being made to the manuscript by the family and publishers, so we continued to wait. But, with enough time for Caroline to prepare, and for me to do some fact checking and pronunciation sweeps, we finally had the words and we were studiobound.

We recorded over four days at the end of September, in the fantastic SNK Studios on Tottenham Court Road in central London. I am rarely nervous when working with famous actors, but I have to admit that waiting for Caroline to arrive that first morning, I was nervous as heck. This was Liz Shaw, a real bonafide companion. A close friend of the mighty Jon Pertwee… and I was to be her producer and director for four days. But I needn’t have been nervous, as Caroline is an incredibly warm hearted, kind, compassionate and hilarious person. And not averse to having a good old chinwag about the old days, and indulging a Doctor Who fan. Those four days with Caroline reminded me so much of the fun I had had in studio with Lis. And that’s not the only recollection of Lis, because at times, closing my eyes, I could have sworn it was Lis reading those words. Caroline, as you will hear, sounds uncannily like Lis at times.

And so we ploughed through the story of Elisabeth Sladen. Occasionally we had to pause asone or both of us got a bit emotional… Lis tells such great tales, and they feature a panoply of the great and good from the Whoniverse. But of course, over the years, so many have left us. And for Caroline much more than for me, these were friends and colleagues, and so an occasional lump in the throat was to be expected. And of course, slowly but surely we were heading for the end, the final bit of Lis in her own words. How would we manage the final chapter?

On that last day, we were joined in the studio by Michael Stevens, the commissioning editor at AudioGO who oversees all the Doctor Who audios, and many others as well. He is such a big Whovian, and his passion and love for all things DW is infectious and endearing. And he had known Lis very well, working on many audios with her over the years. And he had had such a big hand in bringing the autobiography in to the audio realm. It was great to have him with us as we started to record the final chapter. Caroline knows him well, and I think it gave her a real boost.

We recorded those last lines, and even now I am welling up a bit. They are so positive, so full of life and hope and love for her family and friends, colleagues and fans. When it was recorded, I went straight through to the booth and gave Caroline a long hug. I don’t know who needed it more, but it was most definitely needed! We had been on an adventure with Lis and Sarah Jane for the past four days, and now it was over. A drink, right then and there, would not have gone amiss!

Recording over, I had to speed home to start editing. This audiobook needed turning around in double quick time. In the past this has been my job, endlessly editing on my own for hour after hour, day after day. However, for a few months I had been training my fiancé, Tanja, to be a ‘first-pass’ editor, someone who can race through the raw recordings removing the mistakes, retakes and extraneousnoises. She had already been editing each day’s audio as we went along, so by the time I got home half the audio was done. For a few days, between us we edited the audio, having a good laugh at the out-takes (so many “Harry Roy” mentions… which will make sense once you hear the book) and reliving Lis’s story one more time. We then had to listen through to the completed audiobook again to check for any editing mistakes, and then I had to edit on some especially composed music that AudioGO sent.

But something was missing! No, we hadn’t forgotten to record a line or two. At the final moment, the publishers had a special Foreword and Afterword for the book… very special indeed. Lis spoke at length about the impact of coming back to DW with David Tennant as the Doctor. As much as Sarah Jane was Jon and Tom’s companion, she was in many ways also David’s. And so who better to pen a few words for the Foreword? We raced David in to a studio, and you can hear his lovely Scottish voice opening the audiobook, reminding us all of how wonderful and unique Lis and Sarah Jane were.

Lis also, unsurprisingly, speaks a lot about her family. Throughout the book you learn as much about her as a wife and mother, as you do about her as an actor. Completing the autobiography had clearly been an unbelievably difficult task for her husband and daughter (and they have done a beautiful job). But here, at the end of the book, Brian and Sadie manage to wrap up the story with elegance, grace, emotion and Lis’s trademark good-humour and generosity. Brian recorded the Afterword and it is a wonderful closing for the book. But I promise you, you will shed a few tears as he reads those last words.

And now the production work is done. The book is released on the 7th November, and the audiobook is out at the same time. It is spread across 12 CDs and is one of the titles I am most proud of producing. It was also the first big project on which Tanja was able to fully contribute (we’ve since set up a new audiobook production business together… huzzah!) which I know Lis would have loved, she was always so encouraging of other people, and when I last worked with her was upset not to meet my (at the time) ‘new’ fiancé. Now THAT would have been some getting together… I’m not sure who would have told the worst stories about me!

I could never have made this audiobook in the time we had without Tanja, and she has become an incredibly skilled editor, someone I truly rely on. She is as much of a Doctor Who fan as I am, but came very late to the party as back home in Germany they didn’t show DW before the Christopher Eccleston series. But having been hooked, she went searching for more Who, and who did she encounter first? The inimitable Sarah Jane Smith, of course! Tanja isn’t one for writing lengthy prose in English (fair enough, I can’t write ANYTHING in German) so let me say on her behalf that Lis Sladen was HER companion, the character that really helped bring home to her what Doctor Who was about. She loved the Big Finish audios, and was frustrated not to have met Lis when I was producing the audiobooks. But Lis knew of her, and was so happy to hear we had gotten engaged. Somehow, in everyway, Lis crept in to our lives and made them immeasurably better. What a pair of weepers Tanja and I were that night Lis passed!

I hope I can convey the honour, the joy, the emotion I have felt by being allowed to produce this audiobook. As a lifelong Doctor Who fan, as someone who grew up with Tom Baker as MY Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith as MY companion, as a producer who had such a blast in the studio working with the beautiful Elisabeth Sladen… this was such an important production for me. Call it cathartic… maybe even a little indulgent… but I got to have my one final adventure with Sarah Jane Smith. And, if you buy the book, and especially the audiobook with Caroline John’s fantastic reading, you can also have one more adventure with Lis. It is something I know she will be smiling and laughing about, loving the ride and revelling in all our enjoyment of it.

RIP Elisabeth Sladen – you inspired, entertained, encouraged and befriended me. You were the world’s companion and you remain in our hearts and minds forever. May the adventure never end.

Neil Gardner, audiobook producer/director
Tanja Glittenberg, audiobook editor

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