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Siân Phillips

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

(1933-05-14) 14 May 1933 (age 90)
Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen, Glamorgan, Wales
Occupation Actress
Years active 1944–present
  • Don Roy
    (m. 1956; div. 1959)
  • (m. 1959; div. 1979)
  • (m. 1979; div. 1991)
Children 2, including Kate O'Toole

Dame Jane Elizabeth Ailwên Phillips DBE (born 14 May 1933), known professionally as Siân Phillips (/ʃɑːn/ shahn), is a Welsh actress. She has performed the title roles in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan.

Early life

Phillips was born on 14 May 1933 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.

Phillips attended Pontardawe Grammar School and originally was known there as Jane, but her Welsh teacher 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 the RADA with a scholarship in September 1955, the same year as Diana Rigg and Glenda Jackson. She won the Bancroft Gold Medal for Hedda Gabler and was offered work in Hollywood when she left the RADA. 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.


Early career

Phillips began acting professionally at the age of 11 with the Home Service of BBC Radio in Wales. 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 school friend 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 University College, Cardiff 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's 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, Phillips performed the title role in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. West End opening at The Duke of York's Theatre, December 3, 1957, with Fredrik Ohlsson as Tesman. They also performed at Det Nye Teatret in Oslo and at The Vanbrugh, RADA . 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 a production of Shaw's Saint Joan by Bryan Bailey, at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, which had opened just six weeks before. 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."

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

  • Julia in The Duchess of Malfi: at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (Stratford, 30 November 1960, opening night).
  • Julia in The Duchess of Malfi: at the Aldwych Theatre (London, 15 December 1960, opening night)
  • Bertha in Ondine: at the Aldwych Theatre (London, 12 January 1961, opening night)
  • Miss Havisham in Great Expectations: at Royal Shakespeare Company (Stratford, 6 December 2005).

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. 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. In 2022 she appeared in the series McDonald & Dodds.

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:

  • Lady Britomart in Major Barbara: The Lyttelton Theatre (18 October 1982, opening night)
  • Madam Armfeldt in A Little Night Music: Olivier Theatre (18 September 1995, opening night)
  • Hope in In Bed With Magritte (1 December 1995, opening night).
  • Madame Neilsen in "Les Blancs": Olivier Theatre (2016)

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.

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."

In 2015 she played the lead character Fania Fénelon in the Arthur Miller stage version of Playing for Time at Sheffield Theatres.

Awards and nominations

Year Award Category Nominated work Result Ref
1969 Golden Globe Award Best Supporting Actress Goodbye, Mr. Chips Nominated
1970 National Society of Film Critics Best Supporting Actress Goodbye, Mr. Chips Won
1976 BAFTA TV Award Best Actress I, Claudius and 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
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.


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.

Personal life

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

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 Public Places, the second volume of her autobiography.

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, shortly after her divorce from O'Toole. Williams and Sachs divorced in 1991.

Her great aunt was the Welsh evangelist Rosina Davies.

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.



Year Title Role Notes
1962 The Longest Day WREN
1964 Becket Gwendolen
1965 Young Cassidy Ella
1969 Laughter in the Dark Lady Pamela More
Goodbye, Mr. Chips Ursula Mossbank
1971 Murphy's War Hayden
Under Milk Wood Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard
1980 Nijinsky Lady Ripon
1981 Clash of the Titans Cassiopeia
1984 Dune Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam
1985 The Doctor and the Devils Annabella Rock
1989 Valmont Madame de Volanges
1993 The Age of Innocence Mrs. Archer
1997 House of America Mam
2006 The Gigolos Baroness James
2012 Love Song Maggie
2016 Checkmate Prosperity
2017 Hochelaga, Land of Souls Sarah Walker
2018 Voyageuse Erica Voice
Miss Dalí Anna Maria
2019 Be Happy! Maria
2020 Dream Horse Maureen
Summerland Margaret Corey
A Christmas Carol Grandmother


Year Title Role Notes
1958 Television Playwright Alice Blackwell Episode: "A Game for Eskimos"
1958 Granite Judith TV film
1959 A Quiet Man Megan TV film
1959 BBC Sunday Night Theatre Countess Else von Dietlof Episode: "Treason"
1959 ITV Television Playhouse Barbara Episode: "The Breaking Point"
1960 Siwan the Kings Daughter Siwan TV film
1961 Theatre Night Bertha Episode: "Onedine"
1963 It Happened Like This Paula Episode: "Coincidence"
1963 Drama 61-67 Carole Blair Episode: "Drama '63: This Is Not King's Cross"
1964 Espionage Anna Episode: "A Free Agent"
1975 How Green Was My Valley Beth Morgan
1976 I, Claudius Livia
1978 Off to Philadelphia in the Morning Lina Van Elyn
1979 Barriers Mrs Dalgleish
1979 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Ann Smiley
1981 Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years Clementine Churchill
1982 Smiley's People Ann Smiley
1985 Ewoks: The Battle for Endor Charal TV film
1987 A Killing on the Exchange Isobel Makepeace
1991 The Chestnut Soldier Nain
1992 The Borrowers Mrs. Driver
1993 Heidi Frau Sesemann
1998 Alice through the Looking Glass Red Queen TV film
2001 Ballykissangel Consuela Dunphy Episode: "Getting Better All the Time"
2003 The Last Detective Vera Dulciman Episode: "Moonlight"
2003 Arena Narrator Episode: "Alec Guinness: A Secret Man"
2005 The Murder Room Marie Strickland 2 episodes
2006 Midsomer Murders Lady Annabel Butler Episode: "Vixen's Run"
2007 Kitchen Morag White TV film
2007 Holby City Lily Sinclair Episode: "Something's Gotta Give"
2008 Agatha Christie's Poirot Mrs. Upward Episode: "Mrs McGinty's Dead"
2008 Shortland Street Vivienne Lindstrom 2 episodes
2010 Missing Beth Murphy Episode: ##2.7
2010 New Tricks Lady Elizabeth Linden Warner Episode: "Coming Out Ball"
2011 Lewis Adele Goffe Episode: "Wild Justice"
2013 Playhouse Presents May Episode: "Gifted"
2014 Under Milk Wood Mrs. Pugh TV film
2017 Casualty Bridget Haas Episode: "Reap the Whirlwind - Part One"
2017 Strike Lady Yvette Bristow 2 episodes
2018 Doctors Joan Bartlett Episode: "Face-Off"
2020–2021 Keeping Faith Judge Owens 4 episodes
2021 Silent Witness Beattie Elleston 2 episodes
2022 McDonald & Dodds Agnes Gillian Episode: "Belvedere"

Video games

Year Title Role Notes
2018 Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom Boddly Voice
2020 World of Warcraft: Shadowlands Overseer Kah-Delen Voice

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Siân Phillips para niños

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