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Crossing Borders at Wilton's Music Hall, London, 2011
|Born||Jane Elizabeth Ailwên Phillips
14 May 1933
Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen, Glamorgan, Wales
|Occupation||Actress, author, singer|
(m. 1956; div. 1959)
(m. 1959; div. 1979)
(m. 1979; div. 1991)
|Children||2, including Kate O'Toole|
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. 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.
She attended Pontardawe Grammar School and was originally known there as Jane – but her Welsh teacher, Eic Davies, called her Siân, the Welsh form of Jane. Later she took up English and philosophy at University College Cardiff.
Phillips graduated from the University of Wales in 1955. She entered RADA with a scholarship in September 1955, the same year as Diana Rigg and Glenda Jackson. She went on to win the prestigious Bancroft Gold Medal for Hedda Gabler and was offered work in Hollywood when she left RADA. While still a student she was offered three film contracts, entailing her to work for an extended period of time in the United States; but she declined, preferring to work on stage instead.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
She made her first appearance on the London stage in 1957 when she appeared in Hermann Sudermann's Magda for RADA. 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.
In 1957 (some sources say 1959) Phillips performed the title role in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. Many sources consider this her London stage debut but she actually did Magda before Hedda Gabler. In September 1958 she was performing as Margaret Muir in John Hall's The Holiday at Oxford New Theatre.
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."
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. 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.
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 until 24 April 2010.
In January 2011 she appeared in a new cabaret show, Crossing Borders, at Wilton's Music Hall in Cable Street, London. Reviewing the show for cabaretscenes.org, Harold Sanditen 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."
In 2015 she played the lead character Fania Fénelon in the Arthur Miller stage version of Playing for Time at Sheffield Theatres. In 2017 she played Lady Yvette Bristow in the TV series Strike.
|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|
|1996||Olivier Award||Best Supporting Performance in a Musical||A Little Night Music||Nominated|
|1998||Olivier Award||Best Actress in a Musical||Marlene||Nominated|
|1999||Tony Award||Best Actress in a Musical||Marlene||Nominated|||
|1999||Online Film & Television Association Award||Best Guest Actress in a Cable Series||La Femme Nikita||Nominated|||
|2001||BAFTA Cymru (Wales)||Special Award||Siân Phillips||Won|
|2013||Olivier Award||Best Supporting Performance in a Musical||Cabaret||Nominated|
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.
In January 2018, Phillips was recognised for her illustrious career spanning more than 70 years at the BBC Audio Drama Awards, and was given a Radio Lifetime Achievement Award.
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. Patricia is a theatre practitioner, 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.
She is a patron of the Bird College of Dance, Music & Theatre Performance, based in Sidcup, Greater London.
Her two volumes of autobiography – Private Faces and Public Places – were published in 1999 and 2001, respectively.
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.