OBITUARIES JOHN PHILLIPS
Thursday 18 May 1995
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?
William John Phillips, actor: born Birmingham 20 July 1914; MC 1944; married 1940 Pauline Jones (two sons); died Oswestry, Shropshire 11 May 1995.
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