Actress Sian Phillips from Gwaun Cae Gurwen
Welsh actress Siân Phillips was born Jane Elizabeth Ailwen Phillips on May 14th, 1934, at Ty Mawr farm, on the Betws mountain high above Gwaun Cae Gurwen. She grew up being able to read music and play the piano and was educated at Pontardawe Grammar School, the University College of Wales, Cardiff (where she took a degree in English and Philosophy), and RADA (where she won the Bancroft Gold Medal). She was originally known as Jane but her Welsh teacher at school, Eric Davies, called her Siân, the Welsh form of Jane, and the name stuck. The Welsh language has no ‘j' sound so if ‘j' is present in English words or names imported into Welsh it often gets changed into the closest equivalent sound, in this case ‘sh', written ‘si' in Welsh. Thus Jane becomes Siân (pronounced Sharn), and John becomes Siôn (pronounced Shone). Similarly, the Irish for John becomes Sean (pronounced Shawn).
At the age of 11 she won the National Eisteddfod for the first time (acting the part of an old woman) and has never stopped working since.
Siân Phillips was performing on BBC radio's Welsh-language service at the age of 11. She made her first British television appearance at 17; one year later, she won a Welsh acting award, which paid her way through RADA. She made her London stage debut in 1957, in a charity production of Hedda Gabler. From 1959 to 1979, Siân was the wife of actor Peter O'Toole, with whom she appeared in the 1964 film Becket and the 1969 movie musical Goodbye Mr. Chips. Almost too dynamic for "average" roles, Siân was an unforgettable Livia in the BBC drama series I, Claudius, and brought a properly mystical bearing to her otherworldly characters in the film fantasies Clash of the Titans (1981) and Dune (1984). Her instinctive regality served her well as narrator of the 1967 documentary The Other World of Mr. Churchill and as the Duchess of Windsor in the made-for-TV The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1983). A more grounded-in-reality Siân was seen as Ann Smiley in the 1982 miniseries Smiley's People. More recently she was the American aristocrat Mrs. Archer in The Age of Innocence (1993). A favourite daughter of her home country, Siân Phillips has served in the Welsh Arts Council and as a governor of the National Theatre of Wales and has received the Welsh theatre world's ultimate accolade: a membership in the Honorary Order of Druids. (Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide.)
In 1955 she began work as a BBC newsreader and announcer and was a member of the BBC Repertory Company. She has since appeared in many TV productions including How Green was my Valley; Off to Philadelphia in the Morning; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; and Smiley's People .
She has made a number of films, among them Becket; Goodbye, Mr.Chips; Under Milk Wood; and The Age of Innocence. Her most recent film is The Gigolos (2006) by Richard Bracewell, in which she plays Lady James.
She undertook her first professional singing role when she appeared in Pal Joey in London's West End in 1981 and recently she has been wowing West End audiences with her show Marlene; a tribute to Marlene Dietrich where she sings fifteen songs. She has also taken the show to Broadway.
One of her best known TV roles was the scheming Livia in the 1976 BBC production of I, Claudius for which she won a BAFTA award. Other BAFTAs were given for best actress in How Green was my Valley and for The Borrowers in 1992. In June, 2000 Siân was awarded the CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honour's List.
She is also a leading light in Social, Welsh and Sexy (SWS), the London-based organisation for Welsh socialites.
She is a Welsh-speaker: in the first volume of her autobiography (Private Faces) she notes that she spoke only Welsh for much of her childhood.
She was married to Peter O'Toole and they had two daughters, Pat and Kate, but she subsequently divorced him. She wrote about this tempestuous period of her life in the second volume of her autobiography, Public Places. She later married British actor Robin Sachs, from whom she is also now divorced.
Date this page last updated: October 1, 2010