As a child actress, Sian Phillips worked on stage and for radio and television in her native Wales. After early years as an announcer, newsreader and presenter, she won a scholarship to RADA, with her adult acting career taking off while she was still a student.
In a long and varied stage career, embracing everything from comedy to musicals, classical drama and cabaret, Phillips’ many credits have included Marlene, A Little Night Music, An Inspector Calls, The Lion in Winter, Ghosts, The Manchurian Candidate, Paris Match, The Duchess of Malfi, The Night of the Iguana, Gentle Jack, Ride a Cock Horse, Man and Superman, The Burglar, A Nightingale in Bloomsbury Square, Major Barbara, Pal Joey, Gigi, The Peg of My Heart, St Joan, The Taming of the Shrew, A Woman of No Importance, Othella, Hedda Gabler, Three Sisters, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Huis Clos, Lettice and Lovage and Almost Like Being in Love.
On screen, Phillips has appeared on television in the likes of The Last Detective, Ballykissangel, Out of Time, Crime and Punishment, Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor, How Green Was My Valley, The Quiet Man, Heartbreak House, Vanity Fair, I Claudius, A Mind to Kill and Perfect Scoundrels. Amongst her films are Dune, Goodbye Mr Chips, Murphy’s War, The Age of Innocence, Clash of the Titans and The Borrowers.
Phillips was most recently on stage in the 2003 touring production of The Old Ladies. She also frequently performs her own one-woman cabaret, which was featured in the 2001 Divas at the Donmar season.
She returns to the Donmar Warehouse this month to star in the world premiere of The Dark, the latest play by Charlotte Jones, the award-winning author of Humble Boy.
Date & place of birth
Born 14 May 1934 in Bettws, Carmarthenshire, Wales.
RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art)
Lives now in…
I moved in the summer to Islington (north London), the south side of the Angel.
First big break
I don’t know what that would have been – I was a child actor so it’s all lost in the mists of time. My first real success in London was a play called Magda, about an opera diva. It did very well and did me a lot of good. I was only a student at the time, and playing a part that hadn’t been played since Sarah Bernhardt did it.
Career highlights to date
I love Tennessee Williams’ plays so doing The Night of the Iguana in the West End was a highlight. Also Pal Joey. That was my first-ever musical. I did it 20 years ago and it started me on a new career.
What do awards mean to you?
I’m a bridesmaid not a bride when it comes to awards – it seems like I mostly get nominated rather than winning them. In any case, it’s the show that you remember. Sometimes they don’t do well at all but you like them anyway and remember them fondly.
I’m sorry, I can’t choose. There have been an awful lot in a long career. The truth is I like most things I do.
Again, it’s invidious to choose. I will say that I’ve been very lucky with some of my leading men, including Rex Harrison, Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton and Denis Lawson.
Peter Gill, Frith Banbury … it’s a bit hard to choose there too. It’s easier to say who are my least favourites. Since I was 11, there have only been two directors I’ve hated working with. Who were they? I can’t say that. But all directors are so different. That’s why I don’t like to choose favourites. Part of your job as an actor is learning how to work with a wide range of people. Different directors make different demands of you and you learn to adapt.
Williams I’ve mentioned. His plays are so wonderful. I also like George Bernard Shaw. I like plays with marvellous language. That’s one of the things that drew me to Charlotte Jones’ work. Charlotte is only the second female playwright I’ve ever worked with. Pam Gems was the first. She’s also a favourite.
On stage, you’ve thrived doing both plays & musicals. Do you have a preference?
I don’t have a preference. I spend a lot of my time now on my concert career. That keeps me busy. It all came about by accident, from when I was playing Marlene Dietrich in Marlene. People assumed because she was a cabaret artiste that I too must be a cabaret artiste. So about five years ago, Thierry Harcourt put together a show for me. We went to Israel on a four-month tour and have since taken it all over. My show during the Divas at the Donmar season in 2001 was a version of it. We’re doing variations all the time. Performing cabaret is completely different to acting and I found it very difficult to start. It took me 18 months to stop being terrified. I love it now.
Why do you like to return to the stage?
I’d say the reverse is true now. During most of my career, I’ve maintained a mixture of theatre, film, television and also radio, which I love. But over at least the last ten years, it seems like I’ve gone from play to play to play. It’s not a choice I’ve made, it just happens. I do sometimes miss opportunities because I’m tied up in a play, but that’s the way it goes.
Do you think theatre is still important today?
It will always be important. It’s the cradle for actors, the place where you learn your craft, and there’s no substitute for it. Also, in terms of writing, the most original and daring work always starts in the theatre. That’s where the experimentation happens, before it’s transmogrified into something more acceptable for more commercial, mass-market audiences through film and television. People have always been worried about the state of theatre, and it’s good to worry - the patient’s always dying, but it hasn’t died yet, and it won’t.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Whenever I decide there’s something I want to do, it turns out badly. So now I just go with the flow and choose the most interesting thing from whatever’s offered to me.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
There are quite a few things that might have been possible: a vet, a lawyer, a professional gardener. I could have been any of those, they were all within the realms of possibility. As for something not within the realm of possibility, I would have loved to have been an opera singer. But that’s total fantasy. I also wish I’d started writing earlier.
What’s the last stage production you saw that you really enjoyed?
The Permanent Way. I was completely blown away by it. The entire cast were sensational and the play was so riveting.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Please! I don’t want to talk about the government. They have never acknowledged the debt this country owes to theatre, even in terms of the incredible amount of money we’ve generated for the economy.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I’d love to know what it’s like to be a wonderful mathematician. I’m so stupid when it comes to maths and am fascinated by people who are brilliant in that way.
I read a lot so that’s hard. Anthony Trollope is a favourite who I often re-read. I realised when I moved house that I seem to read a lot of modern female novelists. I’ve got a massive collection in fact. Lisa St Aubin De Teran is one.
Favourite holiday destinations
I never take holidays. I couldn’t go and just sit down somewhere for two weeks. But I do love travelling for work. I love South America. And I like touring the UK, Scotland is beautiful. I like to go anywhere.
Favourite after-show haunts
I’m very fond now of the Wolseley on Piccadilly. Actually, I’m very fond of Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, who used to run the Ivy and Le Caprice. They have such wonderful restaurants. I eat at home when I can. I’m not a bad cook. My shepherd’s pie is very good.
Why did you want to accept your role in The Dark?
I first met Charlotte Jones 12 years ago when she was a young actress and we were in a production of The Lion in Winter together. I’ve followed her career with great interest ever since. I think she’s done so well. I decided immediately when I finished reading The Dark that I wanted to be in it. It’s a marvellous play, wonderfully written.
How would you describe your character?
Elsie is a cockney woman, the mother of a grown man who’s accused of paedophilia. I like her – I always tend to like the people I play. She can be a vicious old bag but she’s interesting.
The Dark revolves around three sets of neighbours during a blackout. How well do you know your own neighbours?
I’ve moved a lot in London, lived in many different neighbourhoods. I normally don’t know my neighbours. If you come from a small place, that’s one of the charms of London – it’s wonderful to be anonymous. I don’t think I know a single one of neighbours where I now live. I’ve only been there since August and I’m out the whole time. I have been in many blackouts. They’re just a nuisance.
What, if anything, do you think makes the Donmar Warehouse special?
I’ve always adored the Donmar. I go there a lot to see plays. It’s such a lovely space, I wish there were more like it in London. The last time I was performing at the Donmar, for Divas in 2001, my opening night was on 9/11. It was the most difficult night I’ve ever had in theatre. We didn’t know until 6.00pm whether we should go on or go dark in sympathy, but then colleagues in New York said shows in the West End should go on as normal. We had a minute’s silence at the beginning, which is not the ideal way to open an evening’s cabaret. It really was the trickiest night, awful.
What’s the funniest thing that’s happened during rehearsals of The Dark?
There’s a baby in the show. Of course, it’s a doll, but we treat it like a real baby, especially Anastasia Hille, who plays the baby’s mother and has two young children of her own. She takes great care with the doll. But the other day, she put it down on a chair and accidentally sat on it. We all gasped – and then we laughed. To me, it was very funny.
What are your plans for the future?
It’s no good making plans because you usually just have to change them. You never know. I’ve learned to make very few plans.
- Sian Phillips was speaking to Terri Paddock
The Dark runs at the Donmar Warehouse from 23 March to 24 April 2004, following previews from 18 March.