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Phillips, Siân (1933-)


Main image of Phillips, Siân (1933-)

Throughout the 1960s, Sian Phillips was perhaps best known for being Mrs Peter O'Toole; only their friends Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were as glamorous and famous a showbusiness couple. However, Phillips and O'Toole actually made few films or stage appearances together, only occasionally turning up in the same projects, and Phillips' career was definitely overshadowed by a husband who once said that she did not have a career, she just did jobs.

Yet Phillips had been performing since a very early age in her native Wales. An only child encouraged by her drama teacher mother, she began her professional life aged 11 at BBC Radio Wales. She went on to work as a BBC duty announcer while studying English at Cardiff University, appeared with the Welsh National Theatre, and won awards for verse speaking at the Welsh Eisteddford. Awarded a scholarship to RADA, she went on to win its prestigious Bancroft Gold Medal for 'Hedda Gabler' and was offered a Hollywood contract when she left. But at RADA she had met and married O'Toole, and for nearly 20 years, while bringing up their two daughters, she worked only in the occasional television drama or the provincial theatre.

Born on 14 May 1933 (or 1934; accounts vary) to a preaching and farming family, Jane Elizabeth Ailwen Phillips was brought up in a remote farmhouse in south west Wales and spoke only Welsh for most of her childhood. Explaining her passion for acting, she has said that "Wales is one long entertainment full of thwarted actors". Despite her striking looks - in 1980 the critic Shaun Usher called her "sexily elegant, greyhound lean, with sculpted features" - she felt for many years unsuited to film, preferring to work, when she could, on stage until she found her niche on television in middle age. Her feature film debut was as the ill-fated Gwendoline in Becket (UK/US, d. Peter Glenville, 1964), a still, dignified centre in a film dominated by the outsize personalities of O'Toole and Burton. She was a match for O'Toole in Murphy's War (d. Peter Yates, 1971), playing a feisty, principled doctor in a film which owed something to The African Queen (d. John Huston, 1951), and was a memorable Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard in Under Milk Wood (d. Andrew Sinclair, 1971).

None of this gave much hint of the triumphs to come, but all that began to change in 1974, when she was cast as Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst in the BBC Suffragette drama series Shoulder to Shoulder. In episodes which focused on the tensions within the Pankhurst family, Phillips' Emmeline was hugely charismatic yet sensitive, introducing a militant approach into the campaign while trying to contain the extremist views of her daughters, especially Christobel. She followed this with a great turn as the witty and outrageous Mrs Patrick Campbell in Jennie, Lady Randolph Churchill (ITV, 1974), then made everyone fall in love with her as Beth Morgan, the devoted wife and mother of the hard-pressed family in How Green Was My Valley (BBC, 1976).

At this time, she separated from O'Toole, and went on to play perhaps her most vivid and memorable role - the evil, scheming, murderous Livia in I, Claudius (BBC, 1976), for which she won the best actress BAFTA award. Some had expressed doubt that the same actress who had played strong but caring Beth Morgan was now to portray one of history's most infamous women, but Phillips was heard to murmur "well, I suppose I'd better do a bit of acting then".

Clearly she can play imperious or fierce, witty or nurturing, dignified or enigmatic, but somewhere she is also always very Welsh, with a musical lilt which colours her distinctive, low voice. She seldom actually plays Welsh characters, but all of her acting seems imbued with a native sensibility. Released from her marriage, she began a torrent of work which continues to date, both on stage and the small screen, playing a series of formidable women - Boudicca, Katerina Ivanovna, Clementine Churchill, Ann Smiley, the Duchess of Windsor and the bald-headed Mother Mohiam in the film Dune (US, 1984). She took a new, younger husband, and became, if possible, even more glamorous. On stage she reinvented herself as a cabaret artist, starred in a one-woman show as Marlene Dietrich, cropped her hair and posed for photo shoots wearing oversize leather jackets.

Now in her late 70s, she is more likely to be seen in small character parts in series such as Agatha Christie Poirot (ITV, 2003-) and Midsomer Murders (ITV, 1998-), often playing eccentric or embittered aristocrats, in that still distinctive voice. In 1999 she published the first volume of an autobiography, 'Private Faces', followed two years later by volume two, 'Public Places', which told her version of the tempestuous years with O'Toole. In 2010 she appeared at the Bristol Old Vic (scene of many of O'Toole's early stage triumphs) as a geriatric Juliet - a role she had never played when young - in a version of 'Romeo and Juliet' set in a care home. As she said at that time, "I have always played above my age". She may not have had quite the career of contemporaries such as Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, but she is a national treasure in her native Wales, and a much-loved and admired actress everywhere.

Janet Moat

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Borrowers, The (1992-93)Borrowers, The (1992-93)

Children's drama series about six-inch people

Thumbnail image of I, Claudius (1976)I, Claudius (1976)

Epic, gory and salacious drama of murder and intrigue in ancient Rome

Thumbnail image of Shoulder To Shoulder (1974)Shoulder To Shoulder (1974)

Dramatisation of the struggle for women's suffrage

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Thumbnail image of O'Toole, Peter (1932-)O'Toole, Peter (1932-)