Siân Phillips

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Siân Phillips

Sian Phillips in "Crossing Borders".jpg
Crossing Borders at Wilton's Music Hall, London, 2011
Jane Elizabeth Ailwên Phillips

(1933-05-14) 14 May 1933 (age 86)
Years active1944–present
Don Roy
(m. 1956;div. 1959)

Peter O'Toole
(m. 1959;div. 1979)

Robin Sachs
(m. 1979;div. 1991)
Children2, including Kate O'Toole

Dame Jane Elizabeth Ailwên Phillips, DBE (born 14 May 1933), known professionally as Siân Phillips ( /ˈʃɑːn/ ), is a Welsh actress.


Early life

Phillips was born in Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen, Glamorgan, Wales, the daughter of Sally (née Thomas), a teacher, and David Phillips, a steelworker who became a policeman. [1] [2] She is a Welsh-speaker: in the first volume of her autobiography Private Faces (1999) she notes that she spoke only Welsh for much of her childhood, learning English by listening to the radio. [3] [4]

Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen village in Wales

Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen is a village and community in the borough of Neath Port Talbot, South West Wales. Historically a part of Glamorgan, Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen is a parish made up of the electoral wards of Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen and Lower Brynamman.

Glamorgan one of the thirteen historic counties and a former administrative county of Wales

Glamorgan, or sometimes Glamorganshire,, is one of the thirteen historic counties of Wales and a former administrative county of Wales. It was originally an early medieval petty kingdom of varying boundaries known as Glywysing until taken over by the Normans as a lordship. Glamorgan is latterly represented by the three preserved counties of Mid Glamorgan, South Glamorgan and West Glamorgan. The name also survives in that of Vale of Glamorgan, a county borough.

Wales Country in northwest Europe, part of the United Kingdom

Wales is a country that is part of the United Kingdom and the island of Great Britain. It is bordered by England to the east, the Irish Sea to the north and west, and the Bristol Channel to the south. It had a population in 2011 of 3,063,456 and has a total area of 20,779 km2 (8,023 sq mi). Wales has over 1,680 miles (2,700 km) of coastline and is largely mountainous, with its higher peaks in the north and central areas, including Snowdon, its highest summit. The country lies within the north temperate zone and has a changeable, maritime climate.

Phillips attended Pontardawe Grammar School and was originally known there as Jane, but her Welsh teacher called her Siân, the Welsh form of Jane. [5] [6] Later she took up English and philosophy at University College Cardiff.

Pontardawe town in Neath Port Talbot, Wales

Pontardawe – bridge on the Tawe – is a town in the Swansea Valley in Wales. The community of Pontardawe, with a population of 7,000, comprises the electoral wards of Pontardawe and Trebanos, is served by an elected Town Council and forms part of the county borough of Neath Port Talbot.

Phillips graduated from the University of Wales in 1955. She entered the RADA with a scholarship in September 1955, the same year as Diana Rigg and Glenda Jackson. [7] [8] [9] She went on to win the Bancroft Gold Medal for Hedda Gabler and was offered work in Hollywood when she left the RADA. [10] While still a student, she was offered three film contracts to work for an extended period of time in the United States, but she declined, preferring to work on stage instead. [11]

Diana Rigg British actress

Dame Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg, is an English actress. She is best known for playing Emma Peel in the TV series The Avengers (1965–68), Countess Teresa di Vicenzo, wife of James Bond, in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), and Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones (2013–17). She has also had an extensive career in theatre, including playing the title role in Medea, both in London and New York, for which she won the 1994 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. She was made a CBE in 1988 and a Dame in 1994 for services to drama.

Glenda Jackson British politician and actress

Glenda May Jackson is an English actress and former Labour Party politician. A professional actress from the late 1950s onwards, Jackson spent four years as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1964, and was particularly associated with the work of director Peter Brook. She has won two Academy Awards for Best Actress: for Women in Love (1970) and A Touch of Class (1973). She has also won awards for her performances as Alex in the film Sunday Bloody Sunday and in the BBC television serial Elizabeth R ; receiving two Primetime Emmy Awards for the latter. In 2018, Jackson won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her performance in a revival of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, and is thus among the select few performers to have achieved the so-called "triple crown of acting".

<i>Hedda Gabler</i> play by Ibsen

Hedda Gabler is a play written by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen was present at the world premiere, which took place on 31 January 1891 at the Residenztheater in Munich. It is recognized as a classic of realism, nineteenth century theatre, and world drama. The title character, Hedda, is considered one of the great dramatic roles in theatre.


Early radio, television and stage

Phillips began acting professionally at the age of 11 with the Home Service of BBC Radio in Wales. Her first role was as a ginger tom cat. [12] [13] At the same age she won her first speech-and-drama award, for her performance at the National Eisteddfod held at Llandybïe in 1944, where she and a schoolfriend played the parts of two elderly men in a dramatic duologue.

BBC Home Service

The BBC Home Service was a British national radio station that broadcast from 1939 until 1967, when it became the current BBC Radio 4.

BBC Radio division and service of the British Broadcasting Corporation

BBC Radio is an operational business division and service of the British Broadcasting Corporation. The service provides national radio stations covering the majority of musical genres, as well as local radio stations covering local news, affairs and interests. It also oversees online audio content.

She made her first British television appearance at 17 and won a Welsh acting award at 18. In 1953, while still a student at Cardiff University, she worked as a newsreader and announcer for the BBC in Wales and toured Wales in Welsh-language productions of the Welsh Arts Council. [9] [10] [14]

From 1953 to 1955 Phillips was a member of the BBC Repertory Company and the National Theatre Company and toured Wales performing Welsh and English plays for the Welsh Arts Council. For the Nottingham Playhouse in 1958, she was Masha in Three Sisters . She performed as Princess Siwan in Saunders Lewis' The King's Daughter at the Hampstead Theatre Club in 1959 and as Katherine in Taming of the Shrew for the Oxford Playhouse in 1960. She was Princess Siwan again in the BBC's production of Siwan: The King's Daughter alongside Peter O'Toole with Emyr Humphrys as producer. It was broadcast on BBC One (Wales only) on 1 March 1960. [15] [16] From October 1958 to April 1959 she was compere of the Land of Song (Gwlad y Gân) monthly programme at TWW (Television Wales and the West) Channel 10 with baritone Ivor Emmanuel. [17]

She made her first appearance on the London stage in 1957 when she appeared in Hermann Sudermann's Magda for RADA. [18] Magda, about an opera diva, was her first real success in London. The play did well and benefited her career greatly; although she was only a student at the time, she was the first since Sarah Bernhardt to play the role. [19]

In 1957 (some sources say 1959) Phillips performed the title role in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. [20] [21] [22] Many sources consider this her London stage debut but she actually did Magda before Hedda Gabler. [23] In September 1958 she was performing as Margaret Muir in John Hall's The Holiday at Oxford New Theatre. [24]

In May 1958 Phillips performed as Joan in G. B. Shaw's Saint Joan , at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, which had opened just six weeks before, produced by Bryan Bailey. An observer described her performance: "Sian Phillips' portrayal of Joan defies the law of averages, since, after seeing Siobhan McKenna in the 1955 Arts Theatre production, I reckoned it impossible to equal within half a century. Like the Irish girl, the Welsh girl is perfect... 'This girl doesn't act Joan – she is Joan.' In short, perfection." [25]

She was Julia in the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1960–1961 version of The Duchess of Malfi . [26] Her Royal Shakespeare Company performances are:

Later film and television

Her long career has included many films and television programmes, but she is perhaps best known for starring as Livia in the popular BBC adaptation of Robert Graves's novel I, Claudius (BBC2, 1976), for which she won the 1977 BAFTA Television Award for Best Actress, and for many appearances on the original run of Call My Bluff . She also appeared opposite her then-husband Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton in Becket (1964); as Ursula Mossbank in the musical film Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), again starring O'Toole; once more opposite O'Toole in Murphy's War (1971); as Emmeline Pankhurst in the TV mini-series Shoulder to Shoulder (1974); as Clementine Churchill in Southern Television's Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years (1981) starring Robert Hardy; as Lady Ann, the unfaithful wife of Alec Guinness's character George Smiley, in the BBC1 espionage dramas Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and Smiley's People (1982), adapted from John le Carré's eponymous novels; in Nijinsky (1980); and as the queen Cassiopeia in Clash of the Titans (1981).

Another popular role was that of the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam in David Lynch's Dune (1984) and Charal from Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (1985). She also appeared in seasons 2 and 4 (1998 and 2000) of the Canadian TV series La Femme Nikita as Adrian, the renegade founder of the powerful Section One anti-terrorist organisation. In 2001, she appeared as herself in Lily Savage's Blankety Blank . [28] [29] and in Ballykissangel as faith healer Consuela Dunphy in Episode 7 ('One Born Every Minute' or 'Getting Better All the Time'). Her most recent film is The Gigolos (2006) by Richard Bracewell, in which she played Lady James. In 2010, she appeared in New Tricks in the episode "Coming out Ball" and in 2011 she appeared in the episode "Wild Justice" in the fifth season of the television series Lewis .

Phillips's West End credits include Marlene (in which she portrayed Marlene Dietrich), Pal Joey , Gigi and A Little Night Music . She has also appeared on the American stage in Marlene.

Other work

Her National Theatre performances have included:

She provided spoken-word backing to a track on Rufus Wainwright's 2007 album Release the Stars and appeared live with him at the Old Vic Theatre in London on 31 May/1 June 2007. Phillips starred in London's West End production of Calendar Girls . Phillips played Juliet opposite Michael Byrne's Romeo in Juliet and her Romeo at the Bristol Old Vic from 10 March to 24 April 2010. [31]

In January 2011 she appeared in a new cabaret show, Crossing Borders, at Wilton's Music Hall in London. One review said: "Her cabaret shows are always of the more traditional type. She’s had a long and very impressive career, and her show followed its progression, with backstage anecdotes about the people she’s met and worked with along the way. It may not be edgy, but it’s a truly delightful evening, by a truly delightful performer, in a truly delightful venue." [32]

In 2015 she played the lead character Fania Fénelon in the Arthur Miller stage version of Playing for Time at Sheffield Theatres. [33] In 2017 she played Lady Yvette Bristow in the TV series Strike.

Awards and nominations

YearAwardCategoryNominated workResultRef
1969 Golden Globe Award Best Supporting Actress Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969)Nominated
1970 National Society of Film Critics Best Supporting Actress Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969)Won
1976 BAFTA TV Award Best Actress I, Claudius & How Green Was My Valley Won
1977 Royal Television Society Best Performance I, Claudius Won
1980 Olivier Award Best Actress in a Musical Pal Joey Nominated
1996Olivier Award Best Supporting Performance in a Musical A Little Night Music Nominated
1998Olivier AwardBest Actress in a MusicalMarleneNominated
1999 Tony Award Best Actress in a Musical MarleneNominated [34]
2001 BAFTA Cymru (Wales) Special Award Siân PhillipsWon
2013Olivier AwardBest Supporting Performance in a Musical Cabaret Nominated

In January 2018, Phillips was recognised for her career spanning more than 70 years at the BBC Audio Drama Awards and was given a Radio Lifetime Achievement Award. [35]


Phillips was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2000 Birthday Honours and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2016 New Year Honours for services to drama. [36] [37]

Personal life

Phillips' first husband was Don Roy, a post-graduate student at the University of Wales. They were married in 1956 and divorced in 1959. [38] [39]

Already pregnant with their first child, Phillips married Peter O'Toole in December 1959. They had two daughters: Kate, born 1960 and Patricia, born 1963. [40] Patricia is a theatre practitioner, [41] and Kate is an actress. The couple divorced in 1979, and Phillips wrote about this tempestuous period of her life in the second volume of her autobiography, Public Places.

Her third husband was actor Robin Sachs, who was 17 years her junior. Their relationship began in 1975. They were married on Christmas Eve 1979, very shortly after the divorce with O'Toole. They divorced in 1991. [39]

She is a patron of the Bird College of Dance, Music & Theatre Performance, based in Sidcup, Greater London.

Her great aunt was Welsh evangelist Rosina Davies. [42]

Her two volumes of autobiography – Private Faces and Public Places – were published in 1999 and 2001, respectively. [39]


Since 2005, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Cymru (BAFTA in Wales) has presented the Tlws Sian Phillips Award to a Welshman or woman who has made a significant contribution in either a major feature film or network television programme. [43] [44] [45]


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