Welsh actress Dame Siân Phillips has a long and illustrious career in theater, film, and TV. She entered London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at the same year as Glenda Jackson and Diana Rigg, and much like her contemporaries, is best known in America for a historical drama that aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater. Or perhaps you remember her as the the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam in the original Dune (1984)? While her sci-fi, thriller, and modern acting work is substantial, you know we’re here for the frock flicks, so let’s do this!
Gwendolen in Becket (1964)
A small part while her then-husband Peter O’Toole played King Henry II.
Ursula Mossbank in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969)
A musical, again starring O’Toole opposite Petula Clark (who did most of the singing). Phillips was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Globes.
Hayden in Murphy’s War (1971)
She’s a pacifist Quaker doctor who treats Peter O’Toole’s character in this WWII drama.
Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst in Shoulder to Shoulder (1974)
Beth Morgan in How Green Was My Valley (1975-1976)
A TV miniseries based on a famous Welsh novel by Richard Llewelyn & set in the coal-mining area of South Wales during Queen Victoria’s reign.
Her most famous frock flick role & most deliciously wicked!
As the matriarch of this Roman family, she has no “official” power, but she knows how to get her way by hook or by crook.
She stars in 8 of the 13 episodes and is shown aging gracefully & elegantly. #goals
Badass to the bitter end!
Queen Boudicca in Warrior Queen (1978)
Looks a bit more historically accurate than Britannia, eh?
Katerina Ivanovna in Crime and Punishment (1979)
Serious Russian bizniz!
Lady Ripon in Nijinsky (1980)
No idea if that’s really Siân Phillips on the left, but screenshots of the few women in this biopic are hard to come by. Lady Ripon was a high-society patron of Nijinsky.
Clementine Churchill in Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years (1981)
Annabella Rock in The Doctor and the Devils (1985)
Victorian flick based on the Burke and Hare grave-robber case.
Miss Matilda Crawley in Vanity Fair (1987)
Wealthy wacky aunts FTW!
This is the sort of ridiculous OTT outfit that redeems Regency costuming for me, so I had to show a color pic as well as black & white.
Madame de Volanges in Valmont (1989)
As Cécile’s mother, she gets a few of the most decent costumes in this weirdly designed version of the Dangerous Liaisons story.
Phillips wears one of the best gowns in the film here (while Fairuza Balk as Cécile, right, wears one of the strangest).
Lady Isabel in “The Trial,” Covington Cross (1992)
Random Disney TV show set in ye olde medieval times! Sian Phillips plays the mother-in-law of the main character, just visiting for one episode.
Queen Eleanor in Ivanhoe (1997)
This TV miniseries is praised as accurate to both Sir Walter Scott’s novel & the medieval period.
Narrator / Older Lady Emily in Aristocrats (1999)
Siân Phillips narrates this TV miniseries about four Lennox sisters, & in the final episode, she appears as the older version of one of the sisters.
Anna Maria in Miss Dalí (2018)
Phillips plays the older Anna Maria Dalí & narrates where the story is told in flashback about Anna Maria & Salvador in the 1920s-1950s.
Margaret Corey in Summerland (2020)
And she’s still working, with a small part in this film set during WWII.
What’s your favorite of Siân Phillips’ historical costume roles?
1997 ivanhoe was very much not accurate to the medieval era, no not at all. one of my friends credits ronald pickup with saving his daughters life on the set though, the director treated the extras very badly, several went down with heatstroke from being kept in the sun and denied water(they had pallettes of water, they jsut wouldn’t let anyone have any) – almost including the child in question, whom pickup surrounded with fans and supplied copius water to
I adore Sian Phillips. She’s got one of those boney, expressive faces that age so well. But to be honest I remember her best as Lady Anne Smiley in Smiley’s People which is not a costume drama.
Livia in I Claudius is my all-time favourite. I also liked her as Clemmie Churchill and Reverend Mother Gaius Helen.
That’s definitely not Sian Philips as Lady Ripon in Nijinsky. I first discovered her in I Claudius. She’s a powerhouse actress.
Came to say the same thing
I’m fairly sure it’s ballerina Carla Fracci, who played Tamara Karsavina.
Thank you! I adored Livia in I, Claudius!
Another Livia fan–so many riches to choose from! Her little supper with Rome’s most notorious poisoner. That final admission to her grandson: “Claudius…I want to be a goddess!” Dame Siân never disappoints.
I’m also a Livia fan, as one of her best is the speech she gives to the gladiators, plus the line “Don’t touch the figs.” I also loved her in The Aristocrats as well.
Is that Patricia Quinn with her in the still from SHOULDER TO SHOULDER?
Even though it’s not period, her costume in DUNE (1984) is wonderful, with a great deal of craftsmanship in the design.
In the trailers for the 2020 remake, it looks like poor Charlotte Rampling just had a nylon mesh laundry bag put over her head.
Yep, great seeing the I Clavdivs b*tches together again (or, I guess, first!)
Oh yes! I love RM’s long, swirling veil!
I, too, thought she was fabulous as Livia. Thank you for this delightful overview.
I Clavdivs, Shoulder to Shoulder….ohhh she gave me some thrills back in the day. And most recently [if not frocky] she played a gloriously snarky older dyke role in ‘Time and Again’ https://divamag.co.uk/2020/02/28/screen-dame-sian-phillips-and-brigit-forsyth-star-in-lez-bi-short-time-again/
She still gives me tingles lol
I will always remember her as Livia; she was fantastic in the role; as if it were written for her. I did not know that she played Gwendolen in “Becket” – wow!
Her Livia was the original, the undeniable female Roman magnate, the Uber-Matriarch, the Ur-Domina. Such power, wielded so skillfully and subtly. Polly Wallker’s Atia of the Julii isn’t fit to carry her sandals, and she wasn’t no slouch!
Having said that, and I know it’s not a Frock Flick, but an image of her beautiful bald head in her magisterial black gown and styles Spanish hood and veil as The Reverend Mother would have actually fit right in here. The styling of the Bene Geserits as an order of badass bald Goth buns with psychic powers is idea that still lingers.
er…. “order of badass bald Goth nuns with psychic powers
Gotta hold up the flame for one of my favorites…The Age of Innocence! I still swoon thinking of how hot Daniel Day-Lewis looked in that film! This actress’s face reminds of Shelia Hancock (who I know from the British TV show Delicious and A Discovery of Witches season 2).
Before Cersei Lannister and that bitch from Rome There was Livia in I Claudius and she is my all time favorite
Ironically before playing Clementine she was in Jennie, Lady Randolph Churchill (1974) as Mrs Patrick Campbell the woman who stole The Second husband from Winston’s mom
When will Shoulder to Shoulder will get a snark? It got a Story and has Stars