Diana Rigg

Diana Rigg

Diana Rigg who played Emma Peel in The Avengers passed away on 10 September 2020 after losing her battle with cancer. She was 82 years of age.

An iconic series in the 1960s, The Avengers transcended its original concept and evolved to help shape and define the era in which it flourished. Diana Rigg was brought into the series to replace Honor Blackman, the original ‘Avengers’ girl, and with her arrival the series was propelled into its true Golden Age.

At just 25 years of age, Rigg's character Mrs Emma Peel - her name created to suggest M(an) Appeal, was a sleek and stylish combination of intelligence, beauty and humour, who dovetailed so perfectly with the more seasoned Patrick Macnee’s John Steed character, that the combined charisma produced was a near tangible force which ensnared the viewing audience instantaneously.

Dame Enid Diana Rigg was born in Doncaster, Yorkshire on 20 July 1938. Between the ages of two months and eight years she lived in Bikaner, India, where her father worked as a railway executive. Sent back to England to complete her higher education, she never considered a career as an actress until she was coerced into appearing as Goldilocks in a school play and having enjoyed it so much, she later trained at RADA where her classmates were Glenda Jackson and Sian Phillips.

Diana Rigg
Diana Rigg as Bianca with Bill Travers as Hortensio and Peter Jeffrey as Lucentio in 'The Taming of the Shrew' - May 1962

Work as an actress didn’t come immediately and she spent a long time ‘resting’, but at the same time she found herself inundated with offers of modelling work. Eventually the parts were offered to her and she worked in rep at Chesterfield, followed by a season at York and in 1959 she was invited to join The Royal Shakespeare Company where she graduated from walk-on parts to small speaking roles and by the time she graduated to understudying Vanessa Redgrave “in two parts”, she had gained a solid grounding in acting. An early role for Rigg was Bianca in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ in Stratford in 1962, alongside Redgrave, Peter Jeffrey, Ian Holm, Marius Goring, Ian Richardson, Bill Travers and Judi Dench.  

Diana Rigg
Diana as Cordelia with Paul Scofield as Lear in Peter Brook's RSC production of 'King Lear' at the Aldwych Theatre in London - December 1962.

She received plaudits for her performances as Adriana in ‘The Comedy of Errors’ (“the stage is a lively place when she is present”) and as Cordelia in ‘King Lear’ which prompted critic R.B. Marriott to write a review in The Stage noting that she was “the best Cordelia I have ever seen; entirely believable, a princess of mind and spirit as well as utter truthfulness and compassion.” Pat Wallace writing in The Tatler wrote “Miss Diana Rigg remembered for some delightful playing of comedy in terms of a romp, is a grave and cool Cordelia with a new poise and her own way of conveying a deep devotion to her royal father.”

In May 1963, the Birmingham Daily Post reported that “three leading roles in three different plays in a different country in the space of one week.” was “the latest achievement of Miss Diana Rigg, aged 25.” It went on to inform its readers that “last Thursday Miss Rigg played Cordelia in ‘King Lear’ in the last of seven performances in Paris. On Friday she flew back to London and on Saturday appeared as Adriana in two performances of ‘The Comedy of Errors’ at Stratford,” followed by another flight, this time to Edinburgh for an “opening performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which she plays Helena.”

In 1964, following a successful three-month tour of East European capitals and the USA, the RSC were invited to perform ‘The Comedy of Errors’ before the Royal Family at Windsor Castle and Rigg was tipped for the female lead in the Company’s production of “Marat/Sade”, a "play within a play". However, after five years with the RSC she decided it was time to branch out and with television fast becoming the most popular entertainment medium she concluded that this would be her next step. Her place at the RSC was taken by Glenda Jackson.

Rigg’s first British TV appearance was in the BBC's Theatre Night which was a series of forty-five-minute excerpts from stage plays running in London, broadcast in 1961. Then in 1963, she made her first appearance in serial television guest starring in an episode of The Sentimental Agent.

Diana Rigg
The Hothouse (1964)

It was following her appearance in the ATV Armchair Theatre production The Hothouse opposite Harry H. Corbett, that bought her to the attention of the producers of The Avengers. Donald Churchill's third light-hearted comedy was centred round Gordon Parsley, the assistant manager of a supermarket, part of a chain owned by self-made millionaire Harry Fender (Corbett). Hoping to be promoted, Gordon's prospects look bright when, at the annual staff dance, Harry takes a shine to the ambitious employee's vivacious wife, Charlotte (Miranda Connell). On the other hand, the boss's interest in Charlotte could spell trouble. Especially when Harry's own wife, Anita (Rigg), decides to meddle in the situation. According to the press at the time an ABC spokesman predicted a big future for Diana Rigg and was quoted as saying “She is that rare bird, a pretty, witty girl with a fashion model figure and a gift for playing comedy as well as drama.”

Marjorie Norris, critic for The Stage was pretty unimpressed by The Hothouse but pretty impressed by Diana Rigg, writing: It was Diana Rigg who gave the play the style it lacked. When she was on the screen, cool but quite mad, all was forgiven.” Within a week of that review the same publication was reporting; “It has been quite a week for Diana Rigg. Even as the critics praises for her television debut (sic) in ABC’s play, last Sunday’s The Hothouse, were appearing in Monday’s papers the news broke that she had been chosen to play opposite Patrick Macnee in The Avengers.” ‘From Shakespeare to Steed’ was one of the headlines.

Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee

She wasn’t the first choice to play Emma Peel. That had gone to Elizabeth Shepherd who was marked as the replacement to Macnee’s previous co-star, the outgoing Honor Blackman. Although not too different from Blackman’s Cathy Gale, with a strong infusion of leather in her wardrobe, Shepherd’s character was envisaged as being a shade softer in character and would enjoy a warm and witty relationship with John Steed. But after viewing the rushes of her first episode the producers noticed a distinct lack of chemistry between the two actors and decided to recast her. A screen test was arranged for Macnee and Diana Rigg.

In his autobiography, The Avenger Returns, Macnee wrote, “to my delight, (I) found that the two of us not only enjoyed an instant rapport, but shared a similar mischievous sense of humour. I invited her to join me for dinner, and the course of our enduring friendship was set in when, walking into my flat, she announced, ‘I’m the Mother Superior.’

‘And I’m the Garter King of Arms,’ I chuckled.

It would prove impossible not to adore Diana Rigg.”

Diana Rigg

Some more changes were made to the character of Mrs Peel. To counterbalance John Steed’s somewhat Victorian attitude, Emma Peel would be strikingly futuristic. Tai Chi replaced Cathy Gale’s karate moves as they would appear more graceful yet just as effective.  The ‘leather look’ was replaced by a more feminine wardrobe. Simple clothes with in-vogue stark lines were chosen and designed to appeal to swinging sixties fashion buyers. Within weeks there were demands from fashion houses to copy Emma Peel’s fashions and requests from young women to know where they could be purchased. Hers became very much the look of the 1960s. But it was the chemistry between the two stars that stood out the most.

Diana Rigg

“Watching this girl act,” said Patrick Macnee, “I quickly realised that I had nothing like her dramatic ability. And not only was Diana a superbly gifted actress in both comedy and tragedy, she was blessed with a startling personality and a feeling for words. Together we’d sometimes alter scripts to suit our shared and very private sense of humour. If I had to sum up my partnership with Diana, I’d say it was not dissimilar to being bewitched by an impish kid sister.”

Although The Avengers shot her to fame, Rigg was not entirely happy - "becoming a sex symbol overnight had me" she said. She was also unhappy with the way she was treated and the fact that she was on much lower wages than her co-star. For her second series she held out for a pay rise from £150 a week to £450 but stated that she was painted as a mercenary by the British press for doing so and noted that, "not one woman in the industry supported me."

Diana Rigg

In a June 2015 interview Rigg also commented about the chemistry between Patrick Macnee and herself on the series despite there being a 16-year age difference between them: "I sort of 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 equal and loved each other and sparked off each other. And we'd then improvise, write our own lines. They trusted us."

Like Honor Blackman before her, Diana Rigg ultimately vacated the show for the lure of a featured role in a Bond movie ('On Her Majestey's Secret Service' - where she became the only Bond girl to marry the unscrupulous spy in George Lazenby’s sole appearance in the franchise), and with her, sadly, the show’s greatest tide of inspired creativity ebbed from the production’s shores, never again to really recapture its original high water mark. Patrick Macnee later wrote, “On the day she left I sat in my dressing-room and cried.”

Diana Rigg

From 1973 until 1974, Diana Rigg starred in a short-lived US sitcom called Diana. She returned to the UK to make Three Piece Suite in 1977. This was a short-lived sketch comedy, each episode consisting of three sketches (or short films) of about 10 minutes each. Here she was able to show her range and comic skills as she took on a wide assortment of roles, from lovelorn spinsters to middle class housewives, to a homely but spirited powder room attendant. In 1982, Rigg published 'No Turn Unstoned', a collection of “the worst theatrical reviews ever”, in which she sportingly cited her own notice from New York Magazine, prompted by her brief moment of nudity in ‘Abelard and Heloise’: “Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses.”

Diana Rigg

In 1985 Rigg appeared in all seven episodes of the BBC production of Dickens' Bleak House, playing Lady Deadlock. From 1998 to 2000 she played Adela Bradley in 6 feature length episodes of The Lady Bradley Mysteries. Mrs. Adela Bradley was described by one reviewer as "the naughty version of the rather dull Miss Marple: a quintessentially English lady sleuth, before the war, upper class, rich enough for a Rolls-Royce with private driver. A real socialite, always on the road, sassy, even provocative, an arrogant suffragette. But her sharp sense of observation and deduction still gets the best of the criminals every single time." She also played host of PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery series from 1989-2004.

Diana Rigg in Doctor Who

In 2013 Diana Rigg appeared in the Doctor Who story The Crimson Horror, starring alongside Matt Smith, Gemma Coleman, and her real-life daughter, Rachael Stirling. That same year she joined the cast of Game of Thrones as Olenna Tyrell, also known as the Queen of Thorns, a part she played for 18 episodes, and which won her three Emmy nominations for guest actress in a drama.

Diana Rigg

As well as television and film, Diana Rigg had a wide-ranging theatre career. She made her Broadway debut in 1971 in 'Abelard and Heloïse' earning the first of three Tony Award nominations for Best Actress in a Play. She joined the National Theatre in 1972 and was an immediate hit as Lady Macbeth alongside Anthony Hopkins’ Macbeth and Dorothy to Michael Hordern’s George in Tom Stoppard’s 'Jumpers.' In the 1990s, she had triumphs with roles at the Almeida Theatre in Islington, including 'Medea' in 1992, which then transferred to the Wyndham's Theatre in 1993 and finally to Broadway in 1994. For this she received the Tony Award for Best Actress. In February 2018, she returned to Broadway in the non-singing role of Mrs. Higgins in 'My Fair Lady.' She commented on taking the role, "I think it's so special. When I was offered Mrs. Higgins, I thought it was just such a lovely idea." She received her fourth Tony nomination for the role.

Diana Rigg
Diana Rigg and Christopher Bidmead in Twelfth Night at the RSC Stratford-upon-Avon in 1966.

Her commitment to theatre remained the defining aspect of her later career, even after winning two more television awards: a BAFTA in 1990 in which she appeared as an obsessive parent in Andrew Davies’ Mother Love and an Emmy award as Mrs Danvers in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in 1997.

Appointed a CBE in 1988, Rigg was made a Dame in 1994. A visiting professor of contemporary theatre at Oxford University in 1999, she served as chancellor of Stirling University in the decade to 2007.

During the 1960s Rigg lived for eight years with actor-director Philip Saville, who was both older and married; she caused some scandal in the British tabloids when she proclaimed no interest in marrying Saville, saying she had no desire “to be respectable.” However, after the affair Rigg was married twice, first to Israeli artist Menachem Gueffen, from 1973 to 1976, and then to Archie Stirling. The couple divorced in 1990 after Stirling had an affair with actress Joely Richardson.

Diana Rigg
The Lady Bradley Mysteries

In 2017, Rigg, a 20-a-day smoker, found herself seriously ill and undergoing a heart operation. During surgery, her heart stopped, and she clung onto life by a thread. A devout Christian, Rigg later told a journalist, "The good Lord must have said, 'Send the old bag down again, I'm not having her yet.'"

Diana Rigg

Lionel Larner, Diana Rigg’s long-time friend and talent agent, said: “She was a beautiful kind and generous human being that enhanced the lives of all that knew her as well as a great actress. She leaves a great void in my heart.” Michael Parkinson, who first interviewed Rigg in 1972, described her as the most desirable woman he ever met, who "radiated a lustrous beauty." Her passing immediately began trending on Twitter with the hashtag #RIPDianaRigg - as thousands of fans around the world, as well as fellow professionals, lamented the loss of a greatly loved and iconic actress, who left an indelible mark on the world of entertainment and - in particular - cult television. Among her many fans was Sir Laurence Olivier who described her as "brilliantly skilled and delicious." To many, Diana Rigg was all that and so much more.

Published on August 22nd, 2022. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.

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