Actress Dame Sian Phillips, 87, says life is far better alone

Actress Dame Sian Phillips, 87, says life is far better alone

01/03/2021

How do I look like this? No men… and Botox for 60 years! She was married three times — including 20 turbulent years with Peter O’Toole. But as she reflects on a year of isolation, actress Dame Sian Phillips, 87, says life is far better alone

  • Dame Sian Phillips, 87, is best known for her role as Livia in BBC I, Claudius, 1976
  • Actress who grew up in Carmarthenshire, has used Botox since her early 20s
  • She reflects on spending lockdown alone after being married for most of her life

Dame Sian Phillips, 87, is telling me guiltily that she’s had rather a good lockdown and truly isn’t minding Tier 4 restrictions at all. Not despite the fact she lives alone, but because of it.

‘Being alone is all I’ve ever known, really. I adore it. I could eat it, I like it so much.’

Sian may have had three husbands —including a 20-year marriage to Lawrence of Arabia star Peter O’Toole, which ended in 1976 — but she loves her own company.

Marriage works for some people, but not for her, she says.

‘I was always ill when I was married. But the minute I got my divorce papers, I became incredibly healthy.’

Dame Sian Phillips, 87, (pictured) who grew up in Carmarthenshire, reflected on being alone after her three marriages

She also found that you can feel far lonelier in a marriage than you can on your own.

‘I was married for most of my life, from about the age of 19 — but I never actually lived with anybody for very long because they were very busy people who worked abroad a lot. Either they were busy or I was.’

So this summer, she indulged herself. After a day spent happily wandering the gardens and fountains of the Barbican Centre, to which she moved shortly before lockdown was announced, she’d spend the evening on her balcony reading Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (‘which I’ve been meaning to do all my life’) in preparation for a Greek drama recital, Savage Beauty, which she performed in August.

Sian also watched Netflix for the first time, though with her beautiful clear diction, she found herself irritated by the way so many actors mumble.

‘It’s awful if you have to have the subtitles on and your glasses on. You think your ears have gone,’ she peals with laughter. Sian has long been one of the UK’s most admired classical stage actresses, but is still perhaps best known for the terrifying Livia in the 1976 BBC adaptation of I, Claudius.

Currently, she’s the narrator in a magical new film version of A Christmas Carol, alongside Carey Mulligan, Martin Freeman and Simon Russell Beale, though alas, with cinemas closed or hugely restricted, it’s lacked an audience and the plaudits it would certainly have got in any other year.

Retirement, however, isn’t on the horizon. She’s built a home studio in her flat so she can do radio plays and voice work; she still walks everywhere and does a brutal form of Pilates every morning.

Dame Sian revealed she’s been having Botox since her early 20s, following a broken jaw and nose from a car smash. Pictured: Sian with O’Toole after their 1959 wedding

‘I was a gymnast when I was young,’ she explains, when I remark on her extraordinary posture. Indeed, even at a Covid-secure distance, it’s hard to believe that Sian is 87. Her urchin haircut sets off those killer cheekbones, and her skin looks wonderful — though it turns out there’s a very odd reason for that.

It seems Sian has been having Botox since her early 20s. Not that she knew it was Botox. At the age of 19, just as her acting career was taking off, she suffered a broken jaw and nose and facial scarring in a car smash.

Her boyfriend was driving her to RADA on a foggy morning when a lorry drove into them. It propelled Sian into the rear-view mirror and then through the windscreen.

With astonishing self-discipline, after she’d been stitched up in A&E at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, she discharged herself and performed in a matinee that same day covering her bruised face with make-up. ‘It’s a ludicrous story,’ she laughs today. ‘I think I was completely concussed.’

She didn’t necessarily want plastic surgery. ‘I thought, well, I can play different sorts of parts — maids and funny parts. Back then, you weren’t taught to consider that your looks had anything to do with what you did.’

But, in a strange twist of fate, she was referred to Sir Archibald McIndoe, the pioneering plastic surgeon who specialised in treating burned World War II servicemen. Sian spent a week having her scars reopened and re-stitched so that they were no longer visible. Mr McIndoe also straightened her nose and stabilised her jaw.

However, she was left with one deep scar between her eyebrows, ‘which was a devil to light, as make-up would clog in it’. So in her 20s, friends sent her to a man in Harley Street who injected the scar every six months with some mystery potion. ‘What it was, I never learned,’ says Sian.

This went on for years ‘until eventually it became Botox’.

Sian said her marriage to Peter O’Toole started off as a dazzling love match and ended up capsizing her career. Pictured: Sian Phillips and husband Peter O’Toole with daughter Kate

‘It was before Botox was invented, but it was Botox,’ she laughs.

‘And when that chap gave up his practice, I started going to [top London dermatologist] Dr Sebagh, who very daintily tiptoes around and fills it in, because my skin is like Welsh tissue paper. It’s good Celtic skin, but very thin.’

Growing up in Carmarthenshire, the only child in a Welsh-speaking household, Sian insists she wasn’t ‘a fashionable looker’. Photos of the time show a slender young woman with raven hair, but the fashion then was for blonde Doris Day-types.

At the age of 11, however, Sian had won the speech and drama prize at the National Eisteddfod of Wales and had roles in radio plays at BBC Wales where the acting company included, from time to time, Richard Burton and Michael Aspel.

After graduating from RADA, she played Hedda Gabler in the West End, but was never really tempted by Hollywood. ‘It was a time of very poor film parts for women. You were the girl next door in a dirndl with lots of petticoats and had nice shiny hair. And you signed a seven-year contract.

‘By the time parts for women got better, I was then married to a man who was becoming a superstar and I had a baby.’

And anyway her new husband, Peter O’Toole, certainly wouldn’t have wanted her to outshine him. As Sian has detailed in two memoirs, Private Faces (1999) and Public Places (2001), the marriage started off as a dazzling love match and ended up capsizing her career.

They met when Sian was 26 and still married to the academic Don Roy. Early on, she remembers O’Toole throwing her clothes out of the window, saying she wore too much black. He’d also stay up all night drinking.

Sian (pictured) went into ‘a deep depression’ when she saw what her life had become, after marrying O’Toole

‘I was so deliriously in love [with Peter] that I couldn’t understand why everyone around me was worried,’ she later observed.

After marriage in 1959, O’Toole wanted children immediately, and when daughters Kate and Pat were born, he told Sian: ‘This is your job. I’m now not going to help or have anything to do with it.’

Although they worked together on 1969’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips (for which Sian received a Golden Globe nomination), O’Toole would refuse to rehearse with her. When a reporter asked how she combined her busy private life with a career, he answered on her behalf: ‘She doesn’t have a career. She has jobs.’

Back then, marriage was an institution fine-tuned for men. Even her own mother thought she should put Peter first. ‘In the 1950s, that’s the way men were. They were unreconstructed, and you were supposed to put three meals on the table and not talk too much.’

Life with O’Toole was like ‘living with the good cop and the bad cop in the same person,’ she writes in Public Places. He knew she was no virgin when he married her, but he used that as an excuse to persuade her she was worthless.

Today, she says simply: ‘I was a very alone person when I was married to O’Toole. I didn’t have friends who came to the house.’ She went into ‘a deep depression’ when she saw what her life had become.

Sian (pictured) said she had to learn how to act in parts that she wasn’t good at or in places where nobody would come to see her 

‘But I’m not a depressive sort of person, so I snapped out of that. And I found a way to work, but very much under the radar. I didn’t do any of the high-profile jobs that came my way.

‘But in a way it was a blessing, because up until then I’d only been given wonderful parts and it’s quite easy to be wonderful in them. So I had to learn how to act in parts that I wasn’t very good in, or in a place where nobody would come to see me.’

Occasionally a role would ‘slip through and become a big success — and I’d regret it terribly because it wasn’t good for my domestic life. And then, by the time the marriage was unravelling hopelessly, I just gave up and did better jobs.’

In 1974 she made Shoulder To Shoulder, the BBC TV series about the suffragettes. She made strong friendships on the show and realised that she shouldn’t be so quiet and obedient.

‘The rot started. I was afraid for my “wife career” when I did that series,’ she recalls. ‘It was very slow-burn, but I thought: “I’m not living the way I should live really.” ’

Tellingly, after she left the marriage she landed a series of hit TV roles including Livia (for which she won a Bafta) and George Smiley’s unfaithful wife, Lady Ann, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People.

Curiously, she still does not look back at her marriage to O’Toole with anything like anger.

When he died seven years ago, aged 81, it was a terrible shock. She’d thought him indestructible. She was performing on stage in Washington DC so she got a plane on the Saturday morning and made the funeral. They hadn’t been in contact for nearly 40 years and yet the experience was ‘quite overwhelming’.

Sian hadn’t made contact with O’Toole for nearly 40 years, when he died seven years ago. Pictured: Sian in 1978

Despite the way he treated her: ‘I missed him more than I can say,’ she says.

‘I still miss him. I really loved living with him when times were good. I wouldn’t have not done any of it.’

Does she believe we learn to forgive? ‘Yes, I think so. You see people as they are and how marvellous they are.

‘You don’t just see them as adjuncts of your life. I loved him so much but I just couldn’t hack it in the end.’

I ask if her daughters, Kate, now an actress and writer, and Pat, a business education and arts training consultant, understand why she had to leave their father.

It’s the one time she falters. ‘I don’t know. We never talk about it. Even I don’t really understand it. I don’t regret it or brood on it, but I can’t make sense of it.

‘I don’t know what I should have done and that’s what made writing my second book [an autobiography] so hard. The story just kept slipping through my fingers, like sand.

‘I couldn’t tell the story without giving away too much,’ she adds intriguingly. ‘I didn’t feel I had any right to impose on his privacy or expose any of the secrets. He told me more than he ever told anybody, I suppose. His life was not my story to tell.’

 Sian (pictured) revealed she has thought about old age and death since she was a child and doesn’t find anything off-putting about ageing 

Her third marriage, to actor Robin Sachs, was far too hasty, she says now. She supported him throughout the 1980s until he revealed he had a mistress in Los Angeles.

‘Robin wanted to discuss the situation. But I said: “Just get me out of this equation. Now. And if you can be gone by teatime, all the better.” ’

They divorced in 1991, and Sian’s career again flourished. In 1997, she starred in Marlene, a show about Marlene Dietrich, written especially for her. When it transferred to New York, Madonna visited her backstage to tell her how much she’d loved it.

Today, her own life is peaceful. The pressure to be adorable is over and she has her daughters, her 20-year-old granddaughter and wonderful friends of different ages. ‘If you’re an only child, your friends are your family,’ she says.

In her ninth decade, you sense an incredible resilience. Certainly, mortality holds few fears.

‘I’ve thought about old age and death since I was a child — and, no, I don’t find anything off-putting about ageing. You can avoid a lot of things. I’m touching wood as I speak, but if you keep alert and do exercise every day, it’s surprising how good your mood can be.’

She’s also discovered a new sense of wonder. ‘Now, I feel more the way that I did when I was a child than I ever have.

‘It’s very nice, actually. Each day is like a gift.’

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