How we made The Sarah Jane Adventures: 'We were like a family, and it was beautiful'
To mark the 15th anniversary of the first episode, the cast and crew of the Doctor Who spinoff reflect on their favourite moments, how to tell stories for children, and working with Elisabeth Sladen
By: Alex Moreland
Today marks fifteen years since The Sarah Jane Adventures began, with the hour-long special Invasion of the Bane first broadcast on New Year’s Day 2007. To celebrate, writer/producer Phil Ford and stars Anjli Mohindra (Rani Chandra), Daniel Anthony (Clyde Langer) and Sinead Michael (Sky Smith), as well as Porsha Lawrence-Mavour (Kelsey Hooper) from that very first episode, look back on the series, and explain how The Sarah Jane Adventures was made, tell us their favourite episodes, and remember what it was like to work with Elisabeth Sladen.
After the success of Doctor Who on BBC One, and with Torchwood in development at BBC Three, CBBC approached Russell T Davies about a Doctor Who spinoff of their own. Originally pitching him an idea about the Doctor’s childhood adventures on Gallifrey, Davies instead suggested a show called Sarah Jane Investigates; his plan was to build the series around Elisabeth Sladen, who had recently reprised her role as Sarah Jane Smith alongside David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor.
Over five series and fifty-three episodes, Sarah Jane and the Bannerman Road gang faced Sontarans and Slitheen, Gorgons and Graske, Mrs Wormwood and General Kudlak, Androvax the Veil and Oddbob the Clown, and of course the Trickster too. But what were each of their personal highlights of their experience on The Sarah Jane Adventures?
“The great thing about the show was that it was a huge team effort,” says Phil Ford, who wrote twenty-two episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures. “I didn't find that many shows are quite as collectively supportive as everybody was on Sarah Jane, because I think we all loved what we were doing. I mean, the writers, we were all huge fans of Classic Doctor Who, we'd all been brought up on it – simply the fact that we were writing for Sarah Jane was a massive buzz for all of us. We’d all fallen in love with her as a kid.”
“I was a huge fan of The Sarah Jane Adventures growing up,” says Sinead Michael, echoing the same sentiment experienced decades later, before joining the fifth and final series as Sky Smith, an alien child adopted by Sarah Jane. “It was one of my favourite CBBC shows – I remember the call from my Mum telling me I’d got the part; I was standing in the school playground screaming – so working alongside Lis and the gang in the Attic was surreal alone! Not forgetting K9 and amazing set designs.
“I remember feeling welcomed by everyone. Anj, Danny and Tommy [Knight, who played Sarah Jane’s son Luke] were all a lot older but still had loads of fun on set. I remember Danny got his hands on some water guns one of the days; hair and makeup were not impressed!”
“We had an absolute blast, to be honest,” says Daniel Anthony, who played Clyde Langer. “I'm a bit of a big kid anyway so it was the perfect match for all of us!”
“Truthfully every episode was an absolute blast – every set designed by Arwel Wyn Jones was incredible, you could get lost in the stunning detail,” says Anjli Mohindra, who played Rani Chandra, an aspiring reporter. “I loved the night-shoots on The Nightmare Man, the late nights were fun and slightly mad. I loved getting to wear Victorian garb in Lost in Time and that we all had our own little missions to go on. I adored working with both Matt Smith and David Tennant.
“The show enticed some incredible actors: Samantha Bond, Donald Sumpter, Suranne Jones and Julie Graham, to name just a few. Working with them was just a joy,” she continues.
“One of my most profound memories is going down on to set [when] Bradley Walsh was playing Oddbob, this evil clown,” says Phil Ford. “I met him in full makeup, with a mouthful of jagged teeth, and he goes ‘Hi, I'm Brad!’”
“And of course getting covered in slime when we blasted the Slitheens was an experience I’ll never forget!” laughs Mohindra.
“All the monsters [in Invasion of the Bane] were computer edited in,” remembers Porsha Lawrence-Mavour, who before appearing as Maria’s friend Kelsey in The Sarah Jane Adventures had primarily done theatre and stage work. “Only when I saw it on television did I realise what was really going on. I was used to being involved in [complicated] productions, but to be honest this was a breath of fresh air and a real change of pace for me.”
“Episodes that stand out for me in particular are when we had David Tennant and Matt Smith involved in the show,” says Anthony. “To be working with the Doctor, and on two separate occasions, will always be a personal highlight.”
“Another highlight for me is The Curse of Clyde Langer episode,” continues Anthony, referring to an episode that saw Clyde become briefly homeless. “It was nice to see another side of Clyde, and I'm really grateful to the writers for giving me the opportunity to explore that side of him.”
“For me, that was one of the most moving stories that we did,” agrees Phil Ford, who wrote the series five episodes in question. “When you have Clyde in the rain on that night, when he's lost his home, he's crouching in a doorway and it's chucking it down with rain, and he's in tears? I challenge anybody not to feel touched by that.”
The Curse of Clyde Langer was one of a number of times when The Sarah Jane Adventures touched on more mature themes, and the series was often praised for never talking down to its child audience.
“Russell always was of the opinion there was really no story that you couldn't tell kids, as long as you told it in the in the correct way,” explains Ford. “We never really pulled our punches so much on The Sarah Jane Adventures, and I think that's one of the things that made it such a big hit with kids and with their parents as well.
“In The Eye of the Gorgon [Ford’s first script for the series], a lot of it is about a woman who has dementia. I remember, very early on, Russell talking about the responsibility that we had, because there would be kids who would have grandparents who were going through the same thing.
“We didn't want to magically take that away from her through the sci-fi story: it was important to Russell and to us that we were true to the condition,” he continues. “We didn't want to tell kids ‘it's okay, because your grandparents who are suffering awful conditions could be magically made well again’. Telling mature stories and finding the truth was something that we tried to do all the way through.”
“Children’s television needs to be able to cover a variety of topics and issues,” says Anthony. “Something I think the writers for The Sarah Jane Adventures managed to do so well.”
“I think that with a relatable character, a good storyline, and a bit of education you can’t go wrong,” agrees Lawrence-Mavour.
“What I loved about Phil Ford’s writing in [The Day of the Clown, Rani’s first episode, which was about children going missing] and in fact the tone that Russell T Davies had set from the very first pilot, was that it didn’t shy away from the darkness of the subject topic,” says Mohindra.
“The spotlight was thrown onto how we teens felt about it and onto how younger members of society don’t necessarily want to forget the darker side of reality and distract themselves with other stuff.”
“I did often lean into the drama and the reality more than was fit for children’s television, and the directors had to remind me not to go ‘full-harrowing’ so much,” admits Mohindra. “To be fair, it felt like my mum Gita went missing almost every series!”
“Children don't need to be told that dragons exist,” says Phil Ford, quoting the writer GK Chesterton. “Children already know that dragons exist. What the fairy tale does is teach them that dragons can be defeated. That was something that was very strong through all of The Sarah Jane Adventures: those monsters are out there, but you can survive them.
“And I suppose if The Sarah Jane Adventures is any kind of metaphor, that’s what its message is – that there are all kinds of obstacles that we all face through life, but they can be overcome.
“One of the one of the great things about writing for children is that you can inspire them to go on to do other things,” Ford continues. “Maybe one of those things they want to go and do is actually write themselves. I mean, that's what happened to me: I became a writer because I was inspired by old style Doctor Who, by episodes with Jon Pertwee and Sarah Jane.”
Elisabeth Sladen (who passed away in 2011) appeared in nearly one hundred episodes of Doctor Who as Sarah Jane Smith, playing the character for almost forty years; she was absolutely and entirely beloved by multiple generations alike. And as much as Sarah Jane was at the centre of the Doctor Who universe, everyone remembers Elisabeth Sladen as the heart of the spin-off's production.
“Lis would laugh so hard she snorted,” says Mohindra. “And then we’d all laugh even harder. Sometimes we couldn’t breathe for laughter. And when even the unflappable crew started looking at their watches because we were getting so behind, we’d struggle so hard by the sudden seriousness that we AND the crew would burst once more into uncontrollable hysterics. And then we’d take a breath and dive back into the scene and everyone would smash it!
“All of our eyes glowing with that mix of repressed laughter, gratitude and mischief. If it looked like we loved each other and were having a good time, it’s because we really did.”
“Lis would support me on set, giving me massive encouragement,” remembers Michael. “She was such a kind-hearted and beautiful soul. We had lots of laughs, hugs and I feel privileged to have known her, even for the short amount of time.”
“Elisabeth Sladen was amazing to work with,” says Lawrence-Mavour. “Lovely soul, and down to earth. I have a memory of her making me laugh a number of times on set, and sharing a moment with my mum also.”
“Lis was such a dream to work with,” agrees Anthony. “So humble and genuine. We all learned so much from her, and I'm so glad we all got to make so many memories together. She truly was a remarkable person, and a remarkable actress.”
“She was a fabulous actress,” says Ford. “Some of the stuff that she did on Sarah Jane should've won her awards, she was that good.
“She was always so professional,” he continues. “In the table read, she would put her all into it - a readthrough can be a funny beast, because sometimes people just see it as something they've got to do, and they don't necessarily act properly all the way through. But when you've got somebody like Lis at the head of the table, leading the cast, which she very much did do, she led the cast, everybody else upped their game.”
“And at the wrap parties, she would always come around with a lottery ticket for everybody: ‘Here's a little bit of luck for you’” says Ford. “She was more than thoughtful. She was just absolutely gorgeous.”
“She took us all under her wing,” remembers Mohindra. “She was kind and loving. She had the wildest sense of humour and the bravest heart. And she was insistent we all ran slower than her, so we always let her be up ahead! I loved her so much.”
During lockdown last year, Russell T Davies wrote Farewell, Sarah Jane, a special mini-episode that checked in on The Sarah Jane Adventures characters again. It was written, filmed, and edited over the course of a single weekend, with everyone involved participating from home.
“I was organising tweetalongs of old episodes and alongside each tweetalong, I was producing new little webcast minisodes which acted as prequels, sequels or codas to the episodes we were revisiting,” explains producer Emily Cook, whose series of Doctor Who community tweetalongs often involved actors and writers from the show.
“The [The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End] tweetalong was taking place on the anniversary of Elisabeth Sladen's death, and as Sarah Jane featured in the episodes, we thought it might be nice to do something in memory of her,” continues Cook. “Russell then said he'd write the final Sarah Jane Adventure - the farewell that never happened on screen.”
“I was so excited to receive Russell’s email,” remembers Mohindra. “He said he was putting together a little tribute. I read the script and cried. It was perfect. Such a beautiful way of thinking of Lis, and of Sarah Jane, both working magic in the stars.
“And then I felt terrified. What if I couldn’t find Rani again?! But my wonderful boyfriend grabbed my phone, stuck it on a tripod, and pressed record. She came back to me straight away and I was so moved by Russell’s magical way with words that there were two realities playing at once, me missing dear Lis and Rani missing dear Sarah- Jane. Pretty special, huh?”
“The show has such a special place in my heart, and any opportunity to reprise my role I'd immediately snap up,” says Daniel Anthony. “It was an emotional moment, but I think it was the perfect tribute to our Lis, and I know that she would've been proud.”
“The response when it was released was overwhelming. When you're paying tribute to such a beloved character, you don't want to get that wrong. But I think we got it right. The project was made which a deep love and respect for Lis Sladen and Sarah Jane,” says Cook.
“We knew we were creating something special so I'm glad it touched people in the way it did. Farewell, Sarah Jane is something fans often talk to me about now. I'm really proud of it.”
How do they each feel about their time on the show, looking back on it now?
“I wish we could do it all again!” says Anjli Mohindra. “Rani was just so much fun to breathe life into and so not a wallflower. I hadn’t played a lead in anything before, so I had lots to learn, and I felt that the show was my training ground.
“That can be quite a strange thing. Knowing that my earliest work, where I was definitely still in the early-discovery stages, is immortalised for people to see. But the angst of that is trumped by the feeling of being so proud to be part of something so boundary-pushing and iconic, and feeling so lucky to have had so much fun.”
“[It gave me a lot of] confidence!” says Sinead Michael. “Everyone battles with self-doubt: to have the honour of being cast for such a successful show gave me immense gratitude and self-belief. Also, independence! [I was] twelve years old running around Cardiff without my parents (chaperone in tow, of course)!
“It lives with me every day,” she continues. “I love chatting with the fans of the show. It was unbelievable to be part of the Doctor Who Universe, and definitely left me with great stories to share. Always makes me laugh when friends of similar ages figure out I was in The Sarah Jane Adventures as they never put two and two together!”
“It is and always will be a part of me,” says Porsha Lawrence-Mavour. “I was fourteen years old, a growing teen that was given an amazing opportunity that I will never forget. I met some nice people, and got a better understanding of how television and film works – which I believe is priceless.”
“Clyde is one of the most enjoyable characters I've had the pleasure of playing,” says Daniel Anthony. “To be given the opportunity to flesh a character out over such a long period of time, and to truly make them ours, is something I'll always be grateful for. We all really were the guardians of our characters.
“I'll look back on The Sarah Jane Adventures with nothing but fond memories,” he continues. “I had the opportunity to work with such a talented cast and crew, and I truly believe that we created something so special. Something that is still enjoyed to this day.”
“As a writer, we seldom get to write for our childhood heroes,” says Phil Ford. “I did that with Sarah Jane. I've been lucky three times, I did Doctor Who and Captain Scarlet as well – but the one that stands out the most is The Sarah Jane Adventures, just because it was such a joy to work with Lis and the rest of the cast. We were like a family back then, and it was just beautiful.”