Thursday, September 10, 2020

Mrs. Peel, We're Needed: The Late Great Dame Diana Rigg

It was on a rainy Sunday afternoon in late 1969, when I was only six years old, that I was looking for something to watch on television. I fell upon a rerun of The Avengers on one of the Kansas City stations, the episode "The House That Jack Built" to be exact. I immediately developed a crush (my very first) on Emma Peel. She was beautiful, intelligent, charming, independent, and strong. I never have gotten over that first crush, although as time passed my admiration for Dame Diana Rigg as an actress and a human being has only grown. Eventually I would see her in other roles beyond that of Emma Peel on The Avengers. She was Edwina Lionheart in Theatre of Blood (1973), Tracy di Vicenzo in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), Diana Smythe on the sitcom Diana, and Sonya Winter in The Assassination Bureau (1969). In interviews Miss Rigg was always witty, charming, and self-deprecating. My decades long admiration of Dame Diana Rigg makes today a very sad day for me. It was today that Diana Rigg died at the age of 82 from cancer.

Diana Rigg was born on July 20 1938 in Doncaster, West Riding of Yorkshire. From when she was two years old to when she was eight years old she lived in Bikaner, Rajasthan, India, where her father worked as a railway executive for the Bikaner State Railway. She returned to England to attend Fulneck Girls School, a boarding school near Pudsey. She trained as an actress at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art from 1955 to 1957. She made her stage debut in 1957 in The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Theatre Royal in York.

Although best known for her work in television and film, Diana Rigg would have a prolific stage career. She was part of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1959 to 1964. In 1964 she toured the United States and Europe with the company as Cordelia in King Lear. In 1966 she appeared as Viola in Twelfth Night. She would continue to appear frequently on stage in the Seventies, including Abelard and Heloise at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York City in 1971 (having first appeared in the play at the Wyndham Theatre in London in 1970), Macbeth and Jumpers at the Old Vic in London in 1972, The Misanthrope at the Old Vic in 1973, Pygmalion at the Albery Theatre in London in 1974, and Night and Day at the Phoenix Theatre in London in 1978.

She continued to appear frequently on stage in the Eighties. She appeared in Colette in a tour of the United States in 1982. She appeared in Heartbreak House at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London in 1983. She played Cleopatra in Anthony and Cleopatra at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 1985. She appeared in Follies at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London in 1987. In 1990 Diana Rigg played Melissa in Love Letters at the Stage Door Theatre in London.

Miss Rigg spent much of the early Nineties playing the title role of Medea at various theatres. She appeared in Mother Courage and Her Children at the National Theatre in 1995. She played Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  at both the Almeida Thetre and the Aldwych Theatre in London. From the Naughts into the Teens, Diana Rigg appeared in such productions as Humble Boy at the National Theatre in London in 2001, Honour at the Wyndham's Theatre in London in 2006, The Cherry Orchard at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 2008, Pygmalion at the Garrick Theatre in London in 2011, and My Fair Lady at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in New York City in 2018.

Of course, Dame Diana Rigg may be best known for her television career. She made her television debut in 1959 when NBC aired the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. In the early Sixties she appeared in episodes of Theatre Night, The Sentimental Agent, Festival, and ITV Play of the Week. It was an episode of Armchair Theatre, "The Hothouse," would lead to her most famous role. Honor Blackman, who had played Mrs. Cathy Gale, had left The Avengers and so the show's producers had to find a new partner for John Steed. Initially, actress Elizabeth Shepherd was cast as Emma Peel, but she turned out to be unsuited for the role. The producers then had to find a new actress to fill the role. Casting director Dodo Watts suggested a young actress she had just used on Armchair Theatre. Producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell watched "The Hothouse" and decided Diana Rigg could be their new Emma Peel. Miss Rigg thought she was wrong for the part, but decided to audition anyway "for a giggle." It was then that Diana Rigg, only 26 years old, became Emma Peel.

Just as Honor Blackman had caused a sensation as Cathy Gale in the United Kingdom a few years earlier, Diana Rigg caused a sensation as Emma Peel not only in the United Kingdom, but in the United States and worldwide. Like Cathy Gale before her, Emma Peel was an intelligent, witty, charming, independent, and strong woman who was also a skilled combatant. As such she proved to be role model for little girls around the world who had been looking for a character who was not a mere love interest or damsel in distress whom they could look up to. Of course, as Emma Peel, Diana Rigg also became a sex symbol.  Just as little girls idolized her, little boys developed crushes on her. Emma Peel's fashions would prove to have an influence on fashion of the mid-Sixties, with the character quickly became a style icon. Diana Rigg did not particularly enjoy her time as a sex symbol, stating in a 2016 interview that it felt to her like "an intrusion."

Dame Diana Rigg left The Avengers in 1968. While she would have a film career, she continued to appear on television in the late Sixties and early Seventies. In 1970 she guest starred on an episode of ITV Saturday Night Theatre. From 1973 to 1974 she appeared on the short-lived sitcom Diana. She appeared in various roles on the comedy series Three Piece Suite and in the title role in the mini-series Oresteia. She appeared in the TV movie The Marquise in 1980.

In the Eighties, Diana Rigg appeared in the mini-series Bleak House and Mother Love. She guest starred on the shows BBC Play of the Month and The Play on One. She appeared in such TV movies as Hedda Gabler, Witness for the Prosecution, King Lear, The Worst Witch, and Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris. From 1989 to 2003 Dame Diana Rigg was the host of the PBS television series Mystery!.

In the Nineties Dame Diana Rigg played the title role on the TV series The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries. She appeared in the mini-series Rebecca and In the Beginning. She guest starred on the TV show The Road to Avonlea. Miss Rigg appeared in the TV movies Zoya and The American.

In the Naughts Miss Rigg guest starred on the TV series Victoria & Albert, Murder in Mind, and Extras. She appeared in the mini-series Charles II: The Power & the Passion. In the Teens Dame Diana Rigg was a regular on the TV shows Game of Thrones, Detectorists, and Victoria. She guest starred on Doctor Who and All Creatures Great and Small. She appeared in the TV movies Professor Branestawm Returns and A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong. Dame Diana Rigg is set to appear in the mini-series Black Narcissus.

Of course, Diana Rigg also had a highly successful film career. She made her movie debut as Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1968. In the late Sixties she played Sonya Winter in The Assassination Bureau (1968), Tracy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), and Portia in Julius Caesar (1970). In the Seventies she appeared in Paddy Chayefsky's The Hosptial (1971). She played opposite Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood (1973) and appeared in A Little Night Magic (1977).  In the Eighties Miss Rigg played Lady Holiday in The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and Arlena Stuart Marshall in Evil Under the Sun (1982). She played the Evil Queen in Snow White (1987).

In the Nineties Dame Diana Rigg appeared in the movies Genghis Cohn (1993), A Good Man in Africa (1994), and Parting Shots (1998). From the Naughts into the Teens, she appeared in the films Heidi (2005), The Painted Veil (2006), and Breathe (2017). She is set to appear next year in the film Last Night in Soho.

Miss Rigg was Patron of a International Care & Relief for many years.

There are those actors who have such an impact on our lives that it is immeasurable. Dame Diana Rigg is one of those actors for me. The Avengers is my favourite TV show of all time and (with the exception of a certain nurse on a certain show) Emma Peel is my all time favourite television character. If I have always believed in equality of the sexes, that is largely due to Emma Peel. For that matter, I think even my personal tastes in women have been shaped to a degree by Emma Peel. Of course, Dame Diana Rigg played much more than Emma Peel and I have followed her career ever since that rainy day in 1969. I have never seen Dame Diana Rigg give a bad performance. Indeed, if Emma Peel made such an impression on me at such a young age, it is because of the strength of Miss Rigg's performance as the character.

Indeed, Dame Diana Rigg leaves behind a career filled with impressive performances. What is more, she excelled in playing strong, independent women that some actresses might have found challenging. As Sonia Winter she was delightful as the young women intent on bringing down the Assassination Bureau in the movie of the same name. In On Her Majesty's Secret Service she it all too believable that the elusive James Bond would fall in love with Tracy. She was impressive as Edwina Lionheart, the daughter of actor Edward Lionheart (played by Vincent Price), in Theatre of Blood. Dame Diana Rigg could play nearly anything and was impressive in comedy as she was in drama. She was excellent as Lady Holiday in The Great Muppet Caper. And while Dame Diana Rigg was best known as Emma Peel, she could play villains. She was chilling as Mrs. Danvers in the 1997 version of Rebecca and as Mrs. Gillyflower in "The Crimson Horror" was one of the best Doctor Who villains ever.

Much of Dame Diana Rigg's success may largely be due to that while she took her craft seriously, she never took herself too seriously. She was known for her self deprecating humour. Even decades later she found it incredulous that she had been considered a sex symbol. After he heart had stopped beating during a medical procedure in 2017, she joked, "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!'" Dame Diana Rigg once said, "If you get serious about yourself as you get old, you are pathetic." The fact that Dame Diana Rigg never took herself too seriously was much of her charm. After all, Miss Rigg was arguably one of the most beautiful women to have ever lived and certainly one of the most talented actresses of all time, and yet she constantly joked about herself.

While Dame Diana Rigg never took herself seriously, those who knew her certainly did. Patrick Macnee adored her. Tributes to Miss Rigg have ranged from her On Her Majesty's Secret Service co-star George Lazenby to her co-stars on Game of Thrones to her many fans. Dame Diana Rigg was a remarkable woman, intelligent, funny, and not willing to suffer fools. In the late 20th Century and early 21st Century, there is simply no acting talent to compare to her. Dame Diana Rigg was unique.

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