She is one of Britain’s most brilliant actresses who is still, aged 88, winning rave reviews for her latest West End role.
Now, in the first extract from our exclusive serialisation of her reissued and updated memoirs, Dame Sian Phillips reveals how she fell helplessly in love with the charismatic Peter O’Toole — and how their marriage began to be corroded by his drinking and obsessive sexual jealousy . . .
One night, in the early hours, I was woken by a noise coming from the ground-floor window of my front room in Notting Hill. I got out of bed without putting on the light.
Improbably, there was a face pressed to the glass and a tall ﬁgure perilously straddling the gap between the window and the steps to the front door.
I raised the sash slowly and two hands plunged in to seize the window frame. Then, with a heave, two long, slim feet swung down to the ﬂoor, and over 6ft of Peter O’Toole sketched a little bow.
Actress Sian Phillips pictured with her husband, the actor Peter O’Toole, at their home in London in 1964
‘Before meeting O’Toole, I’d never tasted beer, let alone whisky. I realised quickly that an appreciation of draught Guinness was essential in my new life and persevered, sipping the hated drink slowly during evenings when O’Toole drank his own age in the stuff’
I wanted to applaud. At the same time, I was astonished: we’d become close friends after acting together in a play, but had fallen out spectacularly.
I had innocently repeated to a friend something he’d told me about a former girlfriend — and when O’Toole found out, he had reacted with such fury that I never expected to see him again.
‘I’ve got a car,’ he said now. ‘Coming for a cup of tea?’
‘It’s three in the morning.’
‘I’m in my nightie.’
‘Put a mac on.’
That was the start, in 1958. We were in our early 20s and had no trouble adjusting our living habits to suit each other.
I’d never stayed up late, but came to love it. And he began to enjoy seeing the world in daylight hours — streets and parks as well as the dark interiors of bars.
The only slight difficulty was drink. Before meeting O’Toole, I’d never tasted beer, let alone whisky. I realised quickly that an appreciation of draught Guinness was essential in my new life and persevered, sipping the hated drink slowly during evenings when O’Toole drank his own age in the stuff.
Phillips was married to O’Toole for 20 years, between 1959 and 1979, when they divorced
Phillips and O’Toole pose with their first daughter Kate aged 3, in 1963. Their second daughter Patricia was born that year
Everyone we knew drank so much; incredible quantities of alcohol were lowered on every conceivable social occasion. Coming from a nonconformist, teetotal Welsh background, I was cautiously intrigued by the guilt-free, amusing nature of drinking to excess.
It was easy living together — and with wonderful sex thrown into the mix, it was ecstatic. While I played lead after lead in live television plays, O’Toole was in Willis Hall’s The Long And The Short And The Tall, his ﬁrst big London success.
After the play, the company would move to the bar next door. When the pub shut, there would be a muttered conference and a large part of the crowd would drift off to parties in basement ﬂats, then hit the after-hours clubs.
The fag-end of the night was my favourite part. The two of us would walk to the all-night tea-and-sandwich stand in Covent Garden and order huge mugs of tea and hot-sausage sandwiches, which we ate sitting opposite Lloyds Bank.
Fortiﬁed, O’Toole would say, ‘OK. Now for a little climb,’ and he’d scale the wall of Lloyds.
Sian Phillips starred as Livia in Roman historical drama and dark comedy I, Claudius, in 1976
Peter O’Toole is best remembered for his role of the eponymous hero in 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia
The ﬁrst time he did this, I was terriﬁed and tried to dissuade him. But in a remarkably short space of time, I came to accept his dangerous behaviour as fairly unremarkable and would sit on the low wall with the tramps, nursing my tea, watching him.
He was sure-footed. And lucky. The regulars knew him as ‘Pete’ and gave him a little cheer as he ﬁnished the descent.
In our bedroom one day, O’Toole looked at my wardrobe of good clothes and said, ‘You look as though you’re in mourning for your sex life — all this black and violet. Give it here.’
It was late at night and raining as he gathered up armfuls of organza and wool, bags, shoes, gloves, frocks, hats and suits and, opening the window, ﬂung thousands of pounds’ worth of clothes on to the wet cobbles below.
‘My friends, advisers and employers were equally appalled and bluntly said that he would destroy my career, trample all over me. They must be mad, I thought. I was deliriously in love. What could possibly go wrong?’
I had a momentary pang of regret. ‘But what will I wear?’ I asked.
‘My clothes,’ he said grandly, gathering me into his arms.
So we became the only couple in London who shared a wardrobe. Winter and summer, we wore cotton trousers, canvas shoes, lumberjack shirts and big knitted ﬁsherman sweaters. I had to roll his trousers up, of course, which made me look like a waif (he looked like a handsome pirate).
O’Toole’s friends didn’t approve of me. They felt his free spirit was being sucked into a conventional relationship and, with no special ill-will towards me, tried to put a stop to it.
‘Our wedding in Dublin was essentially an excuse for a p***-up. From pub to pub, we criss-crossed the city that night, gathering well-wishers. By 3am there were just ﬁve of us left, standing in a shebeen’
I didn’t mind. They weren’t to know we had a new kind of equal partnership and that the last thing I had in mind was domesticity — as alien to me as it was to him.
My friends, advisers and employers were equally appalled and bluntly said that he would destroy my career, trample all over me.
They must be mad, I thought. I was deliriously in love. What could possibly go wrong?
During a break in Ireland in 1959, O’Toole suddenly clutched me and said, ‘Have my children.’ I instantly said, ‘Yes.’
Five weeks later, it dawned on me that I must be pregnant. It turned out there was a conventional side to O’Toole after all: although he never proposed, he kept saying, ‘We must arrange this marriage.’
Our wedding in Dublin was essentially an excuse for a p***-up. From pub to pub, we criss-crossed the city that night, gathering well-wishers. By 3am there were just ﬁve of us left, standing in a shebeen.
Phillips as Lady Ann Smiley with Alec Guinness as George Smiley in TV drama Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, based on the novel by John le Carré
Phillips is known for her work both on screens and in the theatre. Pictured: Phillips as Marlene Dietrich in the play I Wish You Love
Peter O’Toole was cast as Macbeth at London’s Old Vic theatre for their production in September 1980
Was it marriage that changed him? Back in London, he would come grumpily home at night and sometimes go straight out again. Without me. Some nights, he didn’t come home at all.
I knew what he was doing: he was leading the life we used to lead together, but now I was the wife and not really eligible. Nor, I realised, was he keen on me working, or at least not in leading roles.
I said nothing. All I’d ever wanted was to act — but the idea of a wife with a career, demanding rights, was laughable back then.
Then came an offer for O’Toole to play Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice in Peter Hall’s new company. So in January 1960, as I neared the end of my pregnancy, we moved to Stratford-upon-Avon. We’d rented a big Edwardian house called Mount Pleasant (promptly re-christened ‘Mount Unpleasant’ by O’Toole).
Heavy now — and resenting it — I was surprised to ﬁnd that my free spirit, my equal partner, expected me to clean the house, wash, iron, provide meals and be on parade when needed.
Drink now became a dominant factor in our marriage. I made meals at night and threw them away uneaten before I went alone to bed. Often I’d wake to ﬁnd O’Toole asleep in an armchair, by an overturned glass.
In 1960, clever women shrugged tolerantly in the face of masculine stupidity. They knew if they complained, they would be branded as ‘strident’. And when women did stamp and scream, they were laughed at. ‘Stupid cow’. No one had any sympathy. But what happened next would have defeated me utterly, had I not understood that O’Toole was beside himself with nerves.
Phillips with her third husband Robin Sachs, who she married on Christmas Eve of 1979, shortly after her divorce with O’Toole. The couple remained together until 1991
Word of his drinking habits had spread, and we knew his professional future depended on his performance as Shylock.
Although he was prepared, his moods became darker and more erratic. He justified this in a most unexpected way — by taking the moral high ground over my sexual past (no worse than that of most of the actresses he admired and respected).
Weeks went by with constant criticism of my morals. Even in public, he’d be savagely critical.
Why did I put up with this? In spite of everything, I believed O’Toole was worth it. I loved him; I also knew he’d had a terrible childhood and that a lot of his bad behaviour resulted from that. (He swore me to secrecy, so I’ll never reveal what he told me.)
In any case, his occasional periods of sobriety brought wonderful interludes of repentance and irresistible charm, when I believed myself supremely loved and needed; but when I was made to feel like a useless encumbrance, I believed that just as fervently.
After the birth of our daughter, Kate, he visited the ward just once, bearing a white television set. There was no aerial. It sat in a corner, silent and glamorous.
A naughty night with Rudolf Nureyev…
I first met Rudolf Nureyev in 1962 but by our next meeting, he had become a huge star and partner to the ballerina Margot Fonteyn.
At a dinner given in Belgravia, he arrived straight after a performance, picked up a small bottle of plum brandy and drained it in seconds.
Next, he seemed to levitate on to the table and danced down its length, extending his arms and deftly but forcefully lifting off several women’s false hair-pieces.
Margot had now also arrived, smiling and imperturbable.
I was pregnant and wearing a green Dior velvet dress and jacket, trimmed with heavy jet beads.
Sian Phillips first met Soviet-born ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev (pictured) in 1962
The heat and excitement proved too much and, as I stood chatting to Margot, I knew I was going to faint.
As I began to fall, I felt someone catch me.
And when I regained consciousness, I was floating in a stairwell.
Rudi, I realised, was carrying me above his head.
He was drunk and I weighed a ton.
He took me to a nursery and we chatted until he began to throw up violently.
‘Come on, mush,’ barked O’Toole, as he seized Rudi’s legs and began to bump him down the thickly carpeted stairs.
There were cries of, ‘Be careful! Take care of his feet.’
‘To hell with his f*****g feet,’ muttered O’Toole.
One night, I woke to hear the sounds of drunken revelry from the grounds outside — O’Toole and a car full of actors had left the pub to come and serenade his daughter. Hoping no one would wake up and complain, I lay silently in the dark, looking at the ceiling until they went away.
Another day, I overheard my doctor talking to the Sister. Referring to a gypsy girl and me, he said, ‘Keep both of them in. Neither has a suitable home environment.’
I couldn’t look at my daughter for shame.
At home, there was a flow of people to cater for while I kept my eye on the clock for Kate’s next meal. My mother-in-law paid a brief visit. It was hard not to react when she urged drink on her son. Didn’t she know, ‘Just one more small one, son’ marked the beginning of the end of an evening?
Later, we had a visit from his father — a bookmaker from Leeds who was a feckless, occasionally violent drunk. I saw only the man O’Toole had told me about: the father sitting his little boy on the mantelpiece. Arms outstretched, he’d say, ‘Jump, boy. I’ll catch you. Trust me.’
When the child jumped, the father withdrew his arms and, as the child fell to the ﬂoor, he said, ‘Never trust any bastard.’
O’Toole thought this was a good story. I found it despicable.
Producing a baby did nothing to improve my status. When a childhood friend of O’Toole’s came to visit, my husband abused my character in front of me and then collapsed into a deep sleep.
His friend looked at me, picked up a big bowl of dressed salad, and smiled as he slowly emptied the oily contents on to the pale green carpet. Then he picked up a half-empty bottle of Scotch and, still smirking, sauntered to his bed in the guest room.
I picked up the salad, washed the carpet and fetched a rug to cover O’Toole, asleep in an armchair.
When Kate was four weeks old, I went to the opening of The Merchant Of Venice. ‘One of the great nights in the theatre,’ they called it. At the wild curtain calls, I sat with tears rolling down my face. Whatever it cost, I had to do all I could to help cherish this talent.
Soon afterwards, I opened in a play myself — The Taming Of The Shrew. The atmosphere at home worsened; the scenes resumed.
By the time Kate was nearly ﬁve months, our house had become a kind of ramshackle hotel for people who wanted to see the plays and stay over. O’Toole was lavish in his offers of hospitality but usually not there to attend to his guests. I muddled through from one nightmare meal to the next, constantly doing laundry and making beds.
Early one morning, after hours of close, drunken questioning about my past, O’Toole overturned a table. Doors slammed and his car sped erratically down the long drive.
I walked out of the house and lay in the wet, long grass on the lawn in my nightgown. It was almost dawn but I didn’t feel the cold. My wish was to get ill and die. ‘Let me just leave,’ I said aloud.
As dawn broke, I heard the country noises around me and returned to my senses. Kate was inside, sleeping in her basket. What was I thinking of? So long as she was there, I’d have to be there for her. Getting up, I returned to the house and sat on the ﬂoor, leaning against the wall, waiting until she woke. It was never worth confronting O’Toole about his behaviour. But sometimes, unable to resist speaking up for myself, I’d add fuel to the ﬂames.
Phillips appeared in Romeo and Juliet with Michael Byrne as the pair added around 70 years to Shakespeare’s lovers for Juliet And Her Romeo at Bristol’s Old Vic in 2010
Like Phillips, O’Toole continued acting late on in his life. Pictured: Starring in the film Venus alongside Jodie Whittaker in 2006
In a rage, he would erupt out of the house, running in bare feet across the dark Warwickshire ﬁelds while I stood alone, crying.
O’Toole knew, of course, that he was wiping out my self-confidence. At times, he would be remorseful and beg for forgiveness — though never for anything specific.
One day, he announced that my parents were taking Kate for a week and he and I were going to the west of Ireland. I was back in favour. Why? For how long?
In seconds, bags were packed, the fridge emptied, the car loaded. Then O’Toole held out his hand and I could no more resist him than stop breathing. Two days later, I was sitting in an Irish pub with him, totally happy with my decision to stay married.
For a while, the trip had a miraculous effect on our home life. Now, most nights after his show, Kate and I were invited to supper at a restaurant, where she slept in her basket under the table.
At times, O’Toole clutched at me as though his life depended on me. Then, every so often, our bubble of normality would be punctured by scenes of appalling verbal abuse.
I lost my precarious happiness. Sadness, which I didn’t think to characterise as depression, crept closer. The criticisms of me grew more frequent and one night, I decided to leave.
The next day, I assembled Kate’s things, packed and called a taxi.
It was over. Or so I thought . . .
Adapted by Corinna Honan from Private Faces And Public Places, by Sian Phillips, to be published by Hodder & Stoughton on November 25 at £12.99. © 2021 Sian Phillips.
Additional material from an interview with Sian Phillips by Corinna Honan. To order a copy for £11.69, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Promotional price valid until December 6, 2021.