Childhood & Early Life
Sian Phillips was born as Jane Elizabeth Ailwên Phillips on May 14, 1933 in Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen, Glamorgan, Wales, to Sally (née Thomas) and David Phillips. Her mother was a teacher and her father served in police.
Born in Wales, she spoke Welsh for much of her childhood. It was only after listening to radio that she learned English as a language. Completing her preliminary education from Pontardawe Grammar School, she enrolled at the University College Cardiff studying English and philosophy. In 1955, she graduated from the University of Wales.
Immediately after her graduation in 1955, she gained a scholarship and entered Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). It was at RADA that she polished her acting skills to perfection.
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Sian Phillips journey as a professional actor began at the age of 11. Her first ever acting assignment was with the Home Service of BBC Radio in Wales as a ginger tom cat.
At the age of 17, she made her first television appearance and a year later bagged a prominent Welsh acting award. During her years at Cardiff, she worked as a newsreader and announcer for the BBC in Wales.
From 1953 to 1955, she served as a member of the BBC Repertory Company and the National Theatre Company. She toured Wales and featured in several Welsh and English language productions of the Welsh Arts Council.
In 1957, while still being a student in RADA, Phillips made her first appearance on the London stage in the titular role of the self-titled Hermann Sudermann’s theatrical ‘Magda’. The play was officially her first super hit show in London. She got a lot of appreciation from fans and critics.
In 1957, Sian Phillips performed the title role in Ibsen's ‘Hedda Gabler’. The show took the success story of her London diaries steeply further as it won her the prestigious Bancroft Gold Medal. Next, she was seen as Margaret Muir in John Hall’s ‘The Holiday’ at Oxford New Theatre.
Year 1958 was a busy year for her. She played a variety of characters, starting with essaying the role of Masha in ‘Three Sisters’, Princess Siwan in ‘The King's Daughter’, Katherine in ‘Taming of the Shrew’. She reprised her role of Princess Siwan for the BBC's production ‘Siwan: The King's Daughter’. Same year, her act of Joan in G.B. Shaw’s critically acclaimed classic ‘Saint Joan’ won her a bag full of acclamation and applause.
From 1960 to 1961, she performed as Julia in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version of ‘The Duchess of Malfi’. Later, she played the role of Bertha in ‘Ondine’ at the Aldwych Theatre and as Miss Havisham in ‘Great Expectations’ at Royal Shakespeare Company.
While theatre was her first love, Sian Phillips did give film and television a try as well. In the decade of 1960s, she appeared in a couple of films including ‘Becket’, ‘Young Cassidy’, ‘Laughter in the Dark’ and ‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips’, the latter winning her prestigious nominations.
Her career marked a new high when she bagged the role of Livia in the popular BBC adaptation of Robert Graves's novel ‘I, Claudius’. The series was a major hit and earned her a huge fan base. It also won her the prestigious BAFTA for Best Television Actress. She also featured on the original run of ‘Call My Bluff’.
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Sian Phillips’ other outings on screen include: as Emmeline Pankhurst in the TV mini-series ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’, as Clementine Churchill in ‘Winston Churchill: the Wilderness Years’, as Lady Ann in the BBC1 drama ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ and as the queen Cassiopeia in ‘Clash of the Titans’.
Towards the end of the 1990s and beginning of 2000s, she appeared in seasons 2 and 4 of the Canadian TV series ‘La Femme Nikita’ as Adrian.
In 2001, she appeared as herself in Lily Savage's ‘Blankety Blank’. She made a guest role as faith healer Consuela Dunphy in Episode 7 of ‘Ballykissangel’.
Sian Phillips most recent appearances include the 2006 Richard Bracewell’s film ‘The Gigolos’ in which she played Lady James. She also starred in a guest role in the television show, ‘New Tricks’. Her last outing on screen has been for the fifth season of the television series ‘Lewis’ in the episode ‘Wild Justice’.
Her later theatrical endeavours include London's West End production ‘Calendar Girls’. Additionally, she played Juliet in ‘Juliet and her Romeo’. Her increasing participation in musicals such as ‘Pal Joey’, ‘Gigi’ and ‘A Little Night Music’ won her the critically and commercially acclaimed one-woman cabaret show ‘Marlene’ for which she was nominated for both, Tony and Olivier award. The show was a runway success and opened to rave reviews. Lately in 2011, she appeared in a new cabaret show, ‘Crossing Borders’
Awards & Achievements
In 1970, Sian Phillips won with the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Supporting Actress for ‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips’.
In 1976, she won the prestigious BAFTA TV Award for Best Actress for ‘I, Claudius’ & ‘How Green Was My Valley’.
In 2001, she was honoured with the BAFTA Cymru (Wales) Special Award for her contribution to Welsh and English films and television.
Apart from the film and television honors, Phillips was bestowed with national honors as well. In 2000 Birthday Honors, she was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Later, she was awarded Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2016 New Year Honours for services to drama.
Personal Life & Legacy
Sian Phillips has been thrice married in her lifetime. Her first marriage was to Don Roy in 1956. The couple divorced in 1959. At that time, Phillips was expecting her first child.
She then married Peter O'Toole in December 1959. The couple welcomed their two daughters Kate and Patricia in 1960 and 1963. Not all was well between Phillips and Toole and the marriage hit the rocks in 1979. Meanwhile since 1975, she was in a relationship with actor Robin Sachs, with whom she tied the knot in 1979. In 1991, her divorce with Toole legalized.
In 1999, she came up with the first volume of her two-part autobiography ‘Private Faces’. Two years later, in 2001, the second volume followed titled ‘Public Places’.
The BAFTA Cymru in Wales in 2005 initiated the Tlws Sian Phillips Award that is awarded to a Welshman/woman who has made a significant contribution in either a major feature film or network television programme. The award has been presented every year since then.