EMMA PEELS OFF
Well, here’s one I kept trying to put off.
Much beloved actress Diana Rigg has died of cancer aged 82. It’s a sobering world to be in when your teenage crushes start to die of old age. (Although there was a hell of a queue for the woman TV Guide readers voted Hottest TV Star of All Time in 1999.) But then, there was more to Diana Rigg than looks. If I was drawn originally to that, like many others, we were charmed and bedazzled by her talent, for Diana Rigg was the standout acting talent of her generation of actresses.
She had worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company in both Europe and the US (as Cordelia in King Lear), before a role in Armchair Theatre gained her the role that made her a star. With Honor Blackman leaving The Avengers, the show needed a new female co-star to go with Patrick Macnee’s Steed. One actress had been cast and removed after having as much chemistry as a broken test tube. Despite not watching the show before, Rigg was auditioned and cast, and proved to have enough on-screen chemistry with Macnee to have burned down several buildings. As Emma Peel, she was capable of beating villains by brains or fighting skills, and her dry wit complemented Steed’s one liners. She enjoyed the opportunities the role brought her, but not the lack of privacy or the sudden transformation into a sex symbol. Or the fact that the cameraman was paid more money than the female lead!
After some negotiations, her pay went up for the colour episodes, but the producers were already planning her replacement, Linda Thorson, who some loved in the role, despite the fact we went from the independent and fiery Peel to a character who simpered pathetically at the TV screen and couldn’t walk in a straight line without falling over. (Actually, that might be why…) Not to worry, Diana Rigg went from Avengers to James Bond.
On Her Majestys Secret Service is often spoken of as one of the great James Bond films, and its primarily down to Rigg’s fragile but likeable performance as Tracy. Which is just as well, as George Lazenby is bloody awful as Bond, playing the role with all the sincerity of a Matt Hancock statement. There is a wonderful moment when Bond is running for his life through a Christmas market in the Alps, pursued by Blofeld’s assassins, when suddenly he runs into Diana Rigg’s Tracy who beams a radiant smile and manages to represent friendly salvation without uttering a word. And then she drives him to safety like a maniac, because it’s a Bond film. Little wonder Jimmy Bond was bowled over and married the woman, before she was fatally shot in that famous ending (sorry about spoiling a 50 year old film), leading to long standing trauma for the character that lasted well into the Roger Moore era.
Elsewhere on film, she played murder victim Arlena Marshall in the Peter Ustinov version of Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, and played alongside the muppets in The Great Muppet Caper. For films, her best role is as Vincent Price’s daughter Edwina, in cult horror classic Theatre of Blood. On stage, she played Chekhov, Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw with ease, including a run at The Old Vic as Lady MacBeth. In a gap of 40 years, she played both Eliza Doolittle and Mrs Higgins in Pygmalion.
In recent years she was a regular on UK TV alongside younger comedy actors, including roles in Detectorists, Extras and A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong. She was in Doctor Who opposite her daughter, Rachael Stirling, and in recent weeks she has been appearing as Mrs Pumphrey in the remake of All Creatures Great And Small. She won a BAFTA for Mother Love and an Emmy for playing Mrs Danvers. She won an entirely new generation of fans for her regular role as the scheming Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones.
In 2014, she won the Shakespearean Will theatre award, alongside John Hurt and Stacy Keach. Of that fine trio, only Keach is left standing.
Diana Rigg remained close friends with Patrick Macnee for the rest of his life, claiming in an interview in 2019 that she still “adored” her Avengers co-star, who died in 2015. He was one of his loudest fans in public, predicting for years that she’d become a Dame long before the Queen got round to it in 1994. A great fan of outdoor activities, Macnee once invited Rigg to join him in one of his favourite activities: naked tennis. She turned him down. In fairness, none of us can blame him for trying!
20 July 1938 – 10 September 2020