Dame Siân Phillips comes to Chiswick for 90th birthday ‘Conversation’ on Sunday 23 April

Dame Siân Phillips

Siân Phillips – Theatre at the Tabard

Dame Siân Phillips is coming to Chiswick on Sunday (23 April) for a ‘Birthday Conversation’ at the Theatre at the Tabard, in celebration of her 90th birthday. Her actual birthday is not until 14 May and she will be doing several of these sessions with theatre director Richard Digby Day until the end of June.

Each one is an hour long and even that will not begin to touch her vast body of work across radio, theatre, television and film.

“I’ve been working since I was 11” she told me, and she is still working now, having just finished a thriller before Christmas. Her voice is instantly recognisable on the phone – rich, high, strong and haughty, as are many of the characters she has played.

She made her name while still a student at RADA, where she was a contemporary of Diana Rigg and Glenda Jackson. She appeared in the West End in 1957 in Hermann Sudermann’s Magda, about an opera diva, and then in the title role of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in London the same year, and the title role of Shaw’s Saint Joan in Coventry the following year.

She was offered roles in Hollywood the instant she left drama school which, famously, she turned down in favour of staying in Britain to do theatre. That was a very gutsy decision, but was it wise? Was it the right one? I asked her.

“Oh I think so. It may not have been a wise decision, but it was my decision.

“Everyone here advised me not to. I was under contract here after all and Hollywood at that time just offered ‘girl next door’ parts.”

She was a member of the BBC Repertory Company in the 1950s, and the National Theatre Company, touring Wales performing Welsh and English plays for the Welsh Arts Council.

She played Masha in Chekov’s Three Sisters at Nottingham Playhouse and Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew at the Oxford Playhouse. She joined the Royal Shakespeare Company to play Julia in The Duchess of Malfi 1960 – 61. Not just ‘girl next door’ parts.

Image above: Siân Phillips as Livia in I, Claudius (1976); photograph BBC

Huge success across theatre, radio, television and film – but what she liked doing best was musicals

The first thing I remember seeing her in was perhaps her best-known television role, as Livia in the BBC adaptation of Rupert Graves’ novel I, Claudius in the late 1970s. I was studying Latin A Level and I, Claudius was essential viewing.

She gave such a powerful performance as the wife of Augustus Caesar, poisoning her former husband and plotting for her son to take over the throne, that I remember it to this day and have her pegged as the epitome of evil; utterly ruthless, terrifying and quite without conscience.

She won the 1977 BAFTA television award for Best Actress for it. Of the many, many television roles which followed, her role as Lady Ann, the unfaithful wife of George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and the sequel Smiley’s People (1982) stand out to me, but also her role as the horrible housekeeper Mrs Driver in the BBC’s serialisation of Mary Norton’s children’s books The Borrowers, (1992) which I watched with my children.

Image above: Siân Phillips as Mrs Driver in The Borrowers; photograph BBC

Her most recent film was The Gigolos (2006) and she has more recently appeared in TV series Strike and McDonald & Dodds.

She enjoyed “almost everything” she told me, but of all her tremendous oevre it is the musicals she enjoyed most.

“I loved doing Pal Joey“, which she did with Denis Lawson at the Albery Theatre in 1980, where it ran for a year.

“I loved A Little Night Music“, where she appeared with Judi Dench in the 1995 West End revival.

“And Marlene, about Marlene Dietrich, which we took all over the world.”

She has acted with the best, including fellow Welsh actor Richard Burton and her husband Peter O’Toole, but would not be drawn on who she liked acting with best.

“I have worked with so many it wouldn’t be fair.”

But of all of them, Dame Judi Dench was the funniest, she told me:

“She is so funny. We acted together in The Gay Lord Quex and she absolutely cracked me up.”

Favourite authors?

“Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams. They wrote such beautiful English.”

She has appeared twice at the Tabard over the past year, reading from classical Greek theatre with Stephen Greif, who died not long after, in December 2022.

She will also be coming back to unveil the latest choice of artwork for the W4th Plinth at 1pm on Sunday before the ‘Birthday Conversation’ in Theatre at the Tabard for those lucky enough to have tickets.

tabard.org.uk

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See also: Siân Phillips and Stephen Greif in Just a Little Murder, Theatre at the Tabard

See also: Dame Siân Phillips to unveil new W4th Plinth artwork

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