Thursday, September 10, 2020


Dame Diana Rigg - who died this week aged eighty two - enjoyed a long and effortlessly distinguished acting career on stage, in films and on TV. The range of her roles was enormous, from serious drama to comedy and high camp and just about every shade of the rainbow in-between. She was the only Bond girl to get 007 to the altar (albeit, briefly), but for those of a certain generation - this blogger very much included - she will always be the remarkable, desirable, incomparable Emma Peel in The Avengers. She also played the title role in The Mrs Bradley Mysteries, Helena Vesey in Mother Love, Miss Hardbroom in The Worst Witch, Tracy Draco in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Edwina Lionheart in Theatre Of Blood, Mrs Gillyflower in Doctor Who and Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones. That's not a bad first few lines to have on a CV which also included appearances in Victoria & Albert, Running Delilah, Diana, The Assassination Bureau, Evil Under The Sun and Detectorists.
Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg was born in Doncaster in July 1938. Whilst she was still a toddler, she travelled to India, where her father, Louis, worked as a railway engineer for the Maharaja of Bikaner. By the time she returned to the UK as an eight year old, she spoke fluent Hindi as a second language. She was then sent to a Yorkshire boarding school, Fulneck Girls School in a Moravian settlement near Pudsey. 'I felt like a fish out of water,' she noted, although she later credited the intensely unhappy experience with helping to form her character. On leaving school in 1955, she trained as an actress at the RADA - where her contemporaries included Glenda Jackson and Siân Phillips. She made her professional debut in a production of Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle as part of the 1957 York Festival.
She joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, where she received much praise for her portrayal of Cordelia in a touring production of King Lear. Her TV debut came in 1959 with a walk-on part in a Peter Hall production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. During the early 1960s she combined regular - acclaimed - theatre work with occasional forays onto the small screen in productions like Theatre Night, A Sentimental Agent, Festival, Armchair Theatre and Play Of The Week.
In 1965, she screen-tested for the part of John Steed's new partner in The Avengers after the departure of Honor Blackman to play Pussy Galore in Goldfinger. In fact, the role had already been cast for another actress, Elizabeth Shepherd. But Brian Clemens, the programme's producer, was not happy with Shepherd's performance. 'She's not a bad actress,' he later recalled. 'But she just didn't have a sense of humour at all - that was essential in The Avengers. So we scrapped what we'd shot and got rid of her and then out of the tests came Diana Rigg, who was head and shoulders above everybody else.' Diana's performance as the cat-suited, hard-as-nail Emma Peel brought her international fame.
Sexy, resourceful, self-assured - with a deadly knowledge of self-defence - and a street-and-a-half cleverer than her male companion, Diana's character became - much to her own reported annoyance - an icon for the growing feminist movement. Her action-girl allure, coupled with her husky voice - the result of a twenty-a-day cigarette habit - also brought her legions of male admirers. 'We had no idea it would be defining,' she said later. 'It was nose to the grindstone - working all hours that God gave.' She also showed she was capable of taking on the establishment. During filming of her first series in 1965, she reportedly discovered that she was earning less salary than the cameramen and insisted on more money before she would make another episode. But Diana also found the sudden fame as a TV star difficult to cope with. She recalled having to hide in a lavatory to avoid the attention of the crowds. It was partly her resentment at the invasion of her privacy which persuaded her that she would spend only two series on The Avengers.
Diana appeared in fifty one episodes of the popular telefantasy drama having, she claimed, auditioned for the role on a whim, without ever having seen the series previously. In an interview with the Gruniad Morning Star in 2019, Diana stated that becoming a sex symbol overnight had 'shocked' her. She also did not like the way that she was treated by the production company, Associated British Corporation. For her second series, in 1967, she held out for a pay rise from one hundred and fifty knicker a week to four hundred and fifty; she noted in 2019 - when gender pay inequality was very much in the news - that 'not one woman in the industry supported me ... I was painted as this mercenary creature by the press when all I wanted was equality. It's so depressing that we are still talking about the gender pay gap.' The late Patrick Macnee once noted that Diana had subsequently told him she considered Macnee and her driver to be her only friends on the set.
The popular perception of the mid-Sixties, of course, is of an Avengers episode being completed and then Patrick and Diana having a quick glass of champagne in their trailer before popping into central London in the Bentley, still in-costume, to enjoy an evening at The Ad-Lib discothèque with Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, Sean Connery, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who. In fact, according to Diana, 'It was great fun to do but everyone thinks it was party, party, party. In fact it was work, work, work. You had to get to the studio at Elstree for 6.30 every morning and you'd be working until eight o'clock every night.' She also described her working conditions as 'the life of a mole.' She was, simultaneously, keen to keep her stage career alive. 'Some weeks I'd spend four days on the set of The Avengers and then head up to Stratford to be [in] Olivier's Lear,' she said.
Like her Avengers predecessor, Rigg moved to 007, starring in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) opposite George Lazenby. Diana became the only James Bond girl to get the secret agent to the altar, although the marriage was abruptly cut short when her character was shot extremely dead soon after the wedding. She said that she took the role with the hope she would become better known in the United States. Her relationship with Lazenby was reportedly difficult, although she strongly denied the rumour that she had deliberately ate garlic before their love scenes.
Her other films from this period include The Assassination Bureau (1969), Julius Caesar (1970), The Hospital (1971), In This House Of Brede (1975) and A Little Night Music (1977). She also starred, brilliantly, as Vincent Price's daughter in the horror classic, Theatre Of Blood, with its strong Shakespearean theme and very Avengers-style humour.
But soon she returned to the stage - nominated for a TONY for her performance in Abelard & Heloise. Between 1973 and 1974, she starred in a short-lived US TV sitcom, Diana. And, in something approaching a career highlight, she appeared in the 1975 Morecambe & Wise Show Christmas episode, playing Nell Gwynne in one of the plays wot Ernie wrote and singing a saucy version of 'Baby, It's Cold Outside' with Eric.
She appeared as the title character in The Marquise (1980), a television adaptation of the play by Noël Coward. She also appeared in a Yorkshire TV production of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (1981) and as Lady Holiday in The Great Muppet Caper. The following year she received acclaim for her performance as Arlena Marshall in the movie adaptation of Agatha Christie's Evil Under The Sun, sharing barbs with her character's old rival, played by Maggie Smith. She appeared as Regan, the king's treacherous middle daughter, in a Granada production of King Lear (1983), which starred Laurence Olivier. As Lady Dedlock she co-starred with Denholm Elliott in an award-winning BBC production of Dickens' Bleak House (1985) and played the title character's evil stepmother in the 1987 adaptation of Snow White. In 1989 she played Helena Vesey in the BBC drama Mother Love - her portrayal of an obsessive mother who was prepared to do anything, even murder, to keep control of her son won Diana the 1990 BAFTA for Best Television Actress.
In New York, her portrayal of Heloise had been criticised by the acerbic US critic John Simon who described her in a nude scene as 'built like a brick basilica with insufficient flying buttresses.' She later admitted that she never felt comfortable removing her clothes on stage. 'I come from Yorkshire and no-one from Yorkshire takes their clothes off, except on a Friday night,' she said. The episode led her to publish a collection of scathing theatrical reviews entitled No Turn Unstoned (1982). She received her second TONY nomination in 1975, for The Misanthrope. A member of the National Theatre Company at the Old Vic from 1972 to 1975, Diana took leading roles in productions of two Tom Stoppard plays, Dorothy Moore in Jumpers (National Theatre, 1972) and Ruth Carson in Night & Day (Phoenix Theatre, 1978).
In 1994 she won a TONY at last for one of her most acclaimed roles, that of Medea, underlining her credentials as one of theatre's leading tragediennes. In the same year Diana was created a Dame in the New Year's Honours List for her services to theatre. She appeared as Mrs Danvers in an adaptation of Rebecca (1997), winning an EMMY, as well as in a production Moll Flanders and as the titular amateur detective in The Mrs Bradley Mysteries, playing Gladys Mitchell's detective, Dame Beatrice Adela Le Strange Bradley, an eccentric woman who worked for Scotland Yard as a pathologist. From 1989 until 2003, she hosted the PBS television series Mystery!, shown in the United States by broadcaster WGBH. She also appeared in the second series of Ricky Gervais's alleged comedy Extras - but we won't judge her too harshly for that - and in the 2006 movie The Painted Veil.
She appeared in great nostril-flaring form in a 2013 episode of Doctor Who, the Victorian-era based The Crimson Horror alongside her daughter Rachael Stirling, Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman. The episode had been specially written for her and her daughter by Mark Gatiss who was shocked to discover that Rachael had never previously acted with her mother. It was not the first time mother and daughter had appeared in the same production - they were both in the 2000 TV movie In The Beginning - but it was the first time she had worked directly opposite her daughter and, also, the first time in her career that her roots were accessed to find an authentic West Riding accent.
The same year, Rigg secured a recurring role in the  HBO series Game Of Thrones, portraying Lady Olenna Tyrell, a witty and sarcastic political mastermind, the grandmother of regular character Margaery Tyrell. Her performance was well-received by critics and audiences alike and earned her an EMMY nomination. The character was finally killed off in the seventh series of the popular adult fantasy drama.
Her work in the theatre continued, including performances in The Cherry Orchard, Pygmalion and Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer. Her final screen appearances will be in a forthcoming mini-series adaptation of Black Narcissus and, next year, in Edgar Wright's psychological thriller Last Night In Soho.
Diana was married twice, first to Israeli artist Menachem Gueffen, from 1973 to 1976 and then to Archie Stirling, the father of her daughter, born in 1977. The couple divorced in 1990 after Stirling's affair with Joely Richardson became public. In the 1960s, Rigg lived for eight years with the director Philip Saville, gaining tutting attention from the more up-their-own-arse tabloids when she disclaimed interest in marrying the older, already-married Saville, saying that she had 'no desire to be respectable.' She was a Patron of International Care & Relief and was, for many years, the public face of the charity's child sponsorship scheme. She was also Chancellor of the University of Stirling.
Michael Parkinson, who first interviewed Diana in 1972, described her as the most desirable woman he ever met, who 'radiated a lustrous beauty.' A smoker from the age of eighteen, Diana was still smoking twenty fags a day as late as 2009. By 2017, she quit after serious illness led to heart surgery, a cardiac ablation. A devout Christian, she commented that: 'My heart had stopped ticking during the procedure, so I was up there and the good Lord must have said, "Send the old bag down again, I'm not having her yet!"' Her first grandchild, Jack, was born to Rachael and her partner, the Elbow frontman Guy Garvey, in the same year.
In a 2015 interview with The AV Club, Diana commented on the chemistry she shared with Patrick Macnee on The Avengers: 'I vaguely knew Patrick Macnee and he looked kindly on me and sort of husbanded me through the first couple of episodes. After that we became equals and loved each other and sparked off each other. And, we'd then improvise. They trusted us. Particularly our scenes when we were finding a another dead body. How do you get 'round that one? They allowed us to do it.' Asked if she had stayed in touch with Macnee (the interview was published a mere two days before Macnee's death): 'You'll always be close to somebody that you worked with very intimately for so long and you become really fond of each other.'
Although it was the role of Emma Peel which brought Diana Rigg to public attention, she was successful in casting off the character and carving out a distinguished career as a classical actress. She never felt the need to return to the cat-suit, steadfastly refusing to sign Avengers photographs that continued to be sent to her. She excelled at playing sharp-witted female characters who carried iron fists in velvet gloves - but distanced herself from those feminists who claimed her as one of their own. 'I come from a generation where, when my dad arrived and parked the car, my mother would rush upstairs and put some lipstick on,' she once explained. 'Which I think is so charming. If a man holds a door open for me or pulls back a chair so that this old bag can sit down, I'm delighted.'