I think my awareness of Sian Phillips really took off in my teens, and a truly deeply rooted appreciation of her genius came to me in my late twenties. That appreciation has only increased since that time.
That said, if I wanted to pinpoint my first exposure, I’d have to reach back into my childhood, and there I’d find a little Star Wars spin-off feature film called “Ewoks : Battle For Endor”. The film pretty much tanked in Cinemas, and was quickly pushed into the vhs home movie market, where it probably found more appreciation for what it was, which was a star wars film for the very young. Personally, I find the film charming, and certainly enjoyable as a family movie. But, I fully recognise why it never quite saw the kind of success reserved for the rest of the Star Wars series.
In Battle for Endor, Sian Phillips played the Shape Shifting Force Witch, Charal. For me, watching the film as a child, Charal is certainly the most memorable character. In fact, if I hadn’t re-watched it, on a whim, last year, I’d have been hard pushed to remember any other character at all. So, it’s fair to say that Sian Phillips left her mark on my consciousness from that early age.
I suppose the question we might ask is, what was an actress of Sian Philips character doing in such a low-rent production? Well, I can’t speak for Phillips myself, but at the time it seemed that anything even vaguely related to Star Wars would be a commercial success. Also, it was a job which will have helped pay the bills. But, I wouldn’t fixate on financial considerations; We shouldn’t forget that, in 1985, Battle For Endor was the second Ewoks spin-off to be produced. The first was Caravan of Courage, the year before. And, it too hadn’t set the world alight at the box office. So, why else would Sian Phillips have elected to take this part on...
Could it be that many of her friends peers were doing it? People she knew well from the stage, who had worked with her on many productions over the years, had taken roles in Star Wars films. Most notably, Alec Guinness, whom she shared the screen with on the TV series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I don’t want to speculate further about her motivation. Though I will say, that no matter her reasoning for taking the part, I am glad she did, as it made her an unforgettable part of my childhood.
As I moved into my mid-teens in the Nineties, my friend Johnnie and I discovered, as avid David Lynch acolytes, Dune, based on the books by Frank Herbert.
I think it is fair to say that Dune was itself far from being considered a cinematic success. However, it did have a seriously strong cult following of folk who really saw where Lynch was taking Dune, and appreciated that and revelled in it.
At school... at home… anywhere... Johnnie and I would fire Dune quotations/impressions at each other. We were (and I think, still are) obsessed with the film. And, thinking back, the character I most regularly remembered, quoted, and did impressions of, was The Bene-Gesserit Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam as portrayed by Sian Phillips. She played the part with a perfect mixture of cold understated calculation, sharply manipulative authority and a tortuous stare which could puncture your anima causing irreparable damage. She commanded the scene whenever she was present on screen. And, the echoes of her resound in all that follows throughout the story.
As her portrayal of Mohaim seemed so knowing, and she truly became that character so authentically, I sometimes wonder if she read Dune prior to, or during, production. If she did or did not is of little matter, as whenever I imagine the Reverend Mother (and I do so more than is healthy), it is Sian Phillips face that I see.
With all of this in mind, I think my deepest appreciation for Sian Phillips work was when I discovered I, Claudius, sometime around 2006.
I say “discovered” because I had genuinely never heard of the series before. When I found out about it, I had to get hold of it, and binge watch it from start to finish. I can’t say I knew Sian Phillips was in it at the time. But, almost immediately, hooked as I was on the program, I became fixated on the machinations and subterfuge of Livia. A cold, hard Matriarch with an eye towards securing divinity for her blood relatives. A goal which often saw her resorting to harming those very relatives, or their peers, to move events toward her ends. And, there is SO much of her to enjoy in “I, Claudius” being that she genuinely becomes arguably the central character of the programme.
I found myself reading the credits to check who had played the part, and it was someone called Sian Phillips. It was then that it all became clear. Sian Phillips once again, raising all boats by taking the production on her shoulders, and lending it an air of legitimacy it would have struggled for without.
This was the same person who played the Reverend Mother. The same person who played the Force Witch. And, worthy of honorable mention, is the fact that Phillips also played Cassiopeia in the Ray Harryhausen classic, Clash of the Titans. A film which enthralled me as a child, and enthralls me today as well.
Sian Phillips has been there for as long as I can remember. She is a master of her craft. A beautiful woman. And a star of radio, stage, television and screen, who deserves as many laurels as her peers receive. And, in my view, perhaps a bit more besides!“Fravrits” is to be an ongoing series of articles paying homage to people who have profoundly inspired me in their work, whatever that work happens to be.
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