Siân Phillips

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

Siân Phillips

Crossing Borders at Wilton's Music Hall, London, 2011
Jane Elizabeth Ailwên Phillips

(1933-05-14) 14 May 1933
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

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]

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.

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]


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.

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. In 2017 she played Lady Yvette Bristow in the TV series Strike.

Other work

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.

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. In 2009 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]

Awards and nominations

Year Award Category Nominated work Result Ref
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 [34]
2001 BAFTA Cymru (Wales) Special Award Siân Phillips Won
2013 Olivier Award Best 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]



  1. BBC – South West Wales – Hall of Fame Archived 31 August 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  2. "Sian Phillips Biography (1934–)". Retrieved 7 March 2016.
  3. Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2008
  4. "Sian Phillips" BBC:Wales Arts at Retrieved 12 December 2011.
  5. "Sian Phillips: Stage and Screen Actress" at Retrieved 12 December 2011
  6. Dr Myron Evans. "The Actress Siân Phillips". Retrieved 18 January 2013.
  7. Jenny Gilbert, "How We Met: Diana Rigg and Valerie Solti" The Independent (6 September 1998). Retrieved at, 13 December 2011
  8. "Sian Phillips Biography" at Retrieved 13 December 2011
  9. "Sian Phillips" in Turner Classic Movies at Retrieved 13 December 2011
  10. "Phillips, Siân (1933–)" in BFI Screenonline at Retrieved 16 December 2011
  11. "Wales Video Gallery: Sian Phillips" (video interview) at Retrieved 18 December 2011
  12. CynbytheSea Interview with Sian Phillips (Adrian) at Retrieved 16 December 2011
  13. Terri Paddock, "20 Questions With . . . Sian Phillips" in Whats On Stage (15 March 2004) at Retrieved 16 December 2011
  14. "Siân Phillips: Stage and Screen Actress" at Retrieved 13 December 2011
  15. Sian Phillips Biography in Retrieved 16 December 2011
  16. "Siwan: The King's Daughter" in BBC One at Retrieved 16 December 2011
  17. "TWW (Television Wales and the West) Channel 10" at Retrieved 24 December 2011
  18. "University of Kent: Special Collections Theatre Collections" at Retrieved 12 December 2011
  19. Terri Paddock, "20 Questions With... Sian Phillips" in Whats On Stage (15 March 2004) at Retrieved 16 December 2011
  20. "V&A Search the Collections: Sian Phillips in The Holiday" at Retrieved 18 December 2011
  21. "BBC Wales Arts: Siân Phillips" at Retrieved 18 December 2011
  22. "Sian Phillips: Milestones" in Turner Classic Movies in Retrieved 18 December 2011
  23. "Wales Video Gallery: Sian Phillips" (video interview) at Retrieved 16 December 2011
  24. "V&A Search the Collections: Sian Phillips in The Holiday" at Retrieved 12 December 2011
  25. Mervyn Jones, "Socialist Coventry Scores Another Triumph" Tribune Magazine (23 May 1958). Retrieved from, 13 December 2011
  26. "Sian Phillips" BBC: Wales Arts in Retrieved 12 December 2011
  27. Royal Shakespeare Company Archive Catalogue at Retrieved 16 December 2011
  28. Lily Savage's Blankety Blank. 25 March 2001. ITV.
  29. Lily Savage's Blankety Blank. 13 May 2001. ITV.
  30. National Theatre: Archive Catalogue at Retrieved 16 December 2011
  31. "BBC – Wales Arts: Siân Phillips to star as Shakespeare's Juliet". Retrieved 7 March 2016.
  32. Sanditen, Harold. "Cabaret Scenes Review – Sian Phillips".
  33. Rees, Jasper (17 March 2015). "Siân Phillips: 'Saying yes to work is just a way of life'". ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 28 December 2017.
  34. "Search Past Tony Award Winners and Nominees". Retrieved 7 March 2016.
  35. "Radio lifetime achievement award for Sian Phillips". BBC News. 29 January 2018. Retrieved 29 January 2018.
  36. "No. 61450". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 2015. p. N8.
  37. "New Year's Honours 2016". GOV.UK. Cabinet Office. 30 December 2015. Retrieved 30 December 2015.
  38. "Sian Phillips Biography" in Retrieved 16 December 2011
  39. "When the magic wore off", The Observer, 29 July 2001. Retrieved 10 December 2015.
  40. "Peter O'Toole" in Retrieved 16 December 2011
  41. Pat O'Toole web site Archived 10 February 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  42. "Rolf's tips for budding artists". BBC News. 30 May 2007. Retrieved 7 May 2017.
  43. "British Academy of Film and Television Arts Cymru" at Retrieved 13 December 2011
  44. "BBC News Wales: Welsh Bafta honour for actor Matthew Rhys" (25 May 2011) at Retrieved 13 December 2011
  45. "BAFTA Awards, Wales" at Retrieved 13 December 2011
  • Siân Phillips on IMDb
  • Siân Phillips at Mario Huet's web site
  • Siân Phillips bio, Ammanford Web Site
  • Siân Phillips at the Wales Video Gallery: this video interview was conducted shortly after Phillips performed in Israel Horovitz's My Old Lady, where she played the 94-year-old Mathilde Giffard. The play opened at the Promenade Theatre on Broadway in October 2002.
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