OBITUARIES JOHN PHILLIPS

Not many actors could command a stage with as little trouble as John Phillips seemed to take, or switch from tragedy to farce with such assurance.

He belonged to a generation of player which had the opportunities which, for all the supposed recent theatrical progress in the matter of public subsidy, no longer exist for actors today.

Where is the Birmingham Rep, to which Sir Barry Jackson brought such glory between the wars? Where is the Bristol Old Vic which, as one of the earliest state-aided theatres in Britain, did its post-war duty by the classics, efficiently enough to post some of them to the parent in the Waterloo Road? Above all, whatever happened to the Old Vic company?

Phillips's kind of acting - robust, stoical, audible, authoritative - honoured them all. In season after season at Birmingham before the Second World War and after it, then at Bristol and the Old Vic in the 1950s, he not only brought his superbly resonant voice to bear on Shakespeare and Marlowe, but learnt how to speak verse intelligibly, intelligently, rhythmically and winningly. Often a production would be critically disparaged. Usually Phillips "'scaped whipping." During the Second World War he served with distinction in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, virtually decimated in the Normandy campaign, and won the Military Cross.

Was his height intimidating? He cut an imposing presence on the stage with "An eye like Mars to threaten and command" and a voice of "oak-cleaving thunderbolts". And he seemed to relish the sterner stuff - not just the awkward classics like Timon of Athens and Henry VIII and Tamburlaine the Great (with the great Donald Wolfit) or Shelley's The Cenci, but also the lengths and breadths and undeniable longueurs of Eugene O'Neill in his later period (Mourning Becomes Elektra, Strange Interlude) or Ibsen at his hardest (The Pretenders).

Henry Irving famously turned down this chronicle of a medieval battle for the throne of Norway when (or because) Shaw thought it would bring him in touch with modern drama; and 80 years later Kenneth Tynan, after watching Phillips's roaring performance for the Bristol Old Vic company, tried to get Olivier to do it.

The play was uphill work for Phillips as a thwarted, fatally indecisive ex-regent dreaming of power, but his acting characterised the man's pluck and force even if it was altogether too loud; and at Nottingham Playhouse the following season (1964) he resumed his impressive stage authority as Creon to John Neville's Oedipus.

In 1959, at the Old Vic, Phillips had chanced on another rarity to compare with Ibsen's. He played Prospero in Dryden and Davenant's version of The Tempest with music by Purcell. A curiosity, maybe, but this actor was a curious as well as intelligent one, and sometimes his curiosity had to be satisfied.

What satisfied him mostly on the stage, however - after Shakespeare - was farce. John Neville, a long-standing admirer since their Bristol days together, described Phillips's technique as "scientific" and highly instructive to the younger generation. Particularly in Pinero. Was there ever a funnier Col Lukyn in The Magistrate, which was promoted from Bristol to the London Old Vic with his good friend Michael Hordern playing the title role? Years later, Phillips played Mr Posket back in King Street.

Neville may have analysed this farceur's "science" but most playgoers merely marvelled at the grave comicality, desperate urgency, deep sincerity and brilliant timing of Phillips as, say, the US Ambassador in Peter Ustinov's Romanoff and Juliet (1957) - he also played the part on screen - or the sexually wayward judge in the 19th-century farce Have You Anything To Declare? by Maurice Hennequin and Pierre Veber, which went from the Royal Exchange, Manchester, to the Round House in 1981. Farce in the round is usually doubtful since it lacks a sharp focus for exits and entrances; but this unknown quantity became a triumph, and Phillips had a hefty share in it.

A Shavian as well as a Shakespearean, Phillips made the Inquisitor in Nancy Meckler's staging of Saint Joan seem less long-winded than most; and as Col Tallboys in Too True To Be Good (Aldwych, 1975) he was in his element. Phillips's range was such, however, that he looked as much at ease as a comic soldier in Feydeau's The Purging or the fire-eating captain in Labiche's An Italian Straw Hat or as the evil Leicester, villain of Schiller's Mary Stuart - all at the Old Vic - or as the lunatic yet dedicated vicar in a Royal Court fantasy, How Can We Save Father? (1959).

Would his larger-than-life voice not shatter our television screens where he was to find more and more work as the theatres offered less and less stimulation or choice? Phillips the scientific farceur and tragic technician never changed his personality but never, or at least very rarely, overdid it.

As Chief Superintendent Robins in Z-Cars he took part in the first of the series and the last and most of those in the years between. As the Commanding Officer in Frontier he wore his actor's authority with tact - a tact which seized attention because he knew the virtues of stillness.

In the theatre he could also give a play a still centre. As the Ghost in the Peter Brooke-Paul Scofield Hamlet (Phoenix, 1955), the one which penetrated the Iron Curtain at last, Phillips had not only a correctly noble voice and understanding of the verse but a mutely eloquent way of touching our emotions in the closet scene as his appeal to Gertrude's pity was ignored. We could see why Hamlet reveres him.

If later West End parts - the newly knighted brother-in-law come to take home the defecting Alec Guinness from his dacha in The Old Country (1978), or as one of the emotional parents in O'Neill's five-hour Strange Interlude (1984) or opposite Gielgud in Half Life (1978) - gave him less to get his teeth into, he never lost the knack in which his huge, lumbering figure, almost ungainly, always arresting, seemed to fill the stage.

It was his voice which first demanded attention as a young actor playing Timon of Athens at Birmingham; and it was to remind us for the next 40 years or so how vital this power over speech can be on the stage.

But how can our younger players cultivate their voices without the chance to go out in the classics and meet a different audience every night, year in, year out as Phillips did?

Adam Benedick

William John Phillips, actor: born Birmingham 20 July 1914; MC 1944; married 1940 Pauline Jones (two sons); died Oswestry, Shropshire 11 May 1995.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick