As Britain entered lockdown at the start of the coronavirus pandemic we lost Avengers star Honor Blackman [☞ obituary]; now, as we tentatively emerge from it, Dame Diana Rigg too has been taken from us. Rigg stepped into Blackman’s thigh-high boots as Mrs Peel, Patrick Macnee’s partner in crime fighting, but thereafter very much forged her own path, building a career of incredible range and singular success and achieving her ultimate ambition: to keep working until the end of her life.
This means that fans have new performances yet to savour. Channel 5’s reboot of All Creatures Great and Small, in which she plays Mrs Pumphrey, still has several weeks to run. And awaiting release are a TV mini-series of Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus and Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, a time-travel horror set in the decade that first brought Diana Rigg to fame: the 1960s.
Never having watched The Avengers before she was cast in it, Rigg was unaware of the power of the role and was dismayed by the intrusion into her private life that celebrity brought. Describing her young self as ‘a big lumpy girl’, she was surprised to become a sex symbol overnight and the contents of the fan mail she received from male viewers shocked her mother. Such cult success continued to be a feature of her career, from The Avengers to James Bond, classic horror film Theatre of Blood (1973), a specially written Doctor Who episode (The Crimson Horror, 2013) and, surely the pinnacle of screen fame, a four-year stint in Game of Thrones.
Yet theatre was her first love and she qualified for RADA thanks to the encouragement of a beloved teacher and a scholarship from Leeds County Council. Escaping the stifling confines of Fulneck Ladies’ School in Yorkshire she moved to London, attending classes during the day and serving coffees in the evening to make ends meet. Her discovery of freedom and the opposite sex proved a distraction from her studies and she passed with few honours but with the technical foundations she needed.
Her intake at RADA harvested a crop of fine actresses, with Glenda Jackson and Siân Phillips among her classmates. They entered the profession at an exciting time when theatre, film and television were entering a period of great change and women were no longer required to count ‘demure’ among their traits. After a stint in weekly repertory in Scarborough, Diana Rigg was ready for the Royal Shakespeare Company, where she perfected her craft over a five-year period from 1959.
In 1965, she beat scores of other hopefuls to win the role of Mrs Peel and no doubt her wit, vivacity and independence of spirit helped convince the producers that she was ideal casting. In 1968, after 51 episodes, she left the series, realising she could use her celebrity to enhance her box office draw in the theatre (as if her talent wasn’t enough).
Feature roles followed, including Basil Dearden’s The Assassination Bureau Limited (1969) and Arthur Hiller’s The Hospital (1971). She even got her own American TV series, Diana, in 1973, appearing as a British divorcee alone in New York. It paid well but wasn’t a success and perhaps gave her a useful lesson in the perils of big-budget productions.
That hadn’t been a problem during the making of On Her Majesty’s Service (1969) and she confessed to enjoying the perks that the film’s lavish budget allowed, such as a fur-buying trip to Paris. As Tracy di Vicenzo, Rigg is unique among Bond girls in getting the super spy to the altar and her subsequent death at the hands of Blofeld provides a rare moment of genuine poignancy in a franchise that favoured action over emotion.
Her character’s marriage to George Lazenby’s Bond was somewhat ironic given Rigg’s own unconventional attitudes to matrimony. She believed in fidelity without formal commitment as defined by society and eyebrows were raised when she moved in with married TV director Philip Saville. So secure was she in her views that she asked to appear on Parkinson with Malcolm Muggeridge to (politely) debate morality on primetime television.
In keeping with her desire for a challenge, Rigg accepted the deliciously outré role of Edwina Lionheart in Theatre of Blood, the daughter of Vincent Price’s deranged Shakespearean actor who assists him in wreaking gory revenge on the critics who ruined his career. One of her own rare bad write-ups, a shockingly sexist comment on her figure by a New York critic, led her to deal with the disappointment in a very different way. She began collecting damning theatrical reviews which became the book No Turn Unstoned, published in 1982.
Edward Lionheart’s inventive murder methods no doubt appealed to Rigg, as each is based on a work by her favourite playwright, Shakespeare. She did confess, however, that she found playing Lady Macbeth ‘boring’, much preferring King Lear, in which she appeared three times: once in a walk-on part with Charles Laughton as Lear, as Cordelia with Paul Scofield and Regan with Laurence Olivier.
She regretted never having the chance to play Katherina in Taming of the Shrew and judging by how utterly detestable she makes Arlena Marshall in Evil Under the Sun (1982) it would have been a performance well worth seeing. Apart from this omission, her stage career could hardly have been more varied: moving from Euripides to Stephen Sondheim via Tom Stoppard, she successfully avoided becoming typecast.
Though unconventional and outspoken, Rigg always considered herself a no-nonsense Yorkshire lass. When she discovered that she was being paid less than the cameramen on The Avengers she threatened to leave the show unless the injustice was rectified; Peter Brook once called her the rudest walk-on he had ever worked with.
An actress of great versatility, she took her work seriously but never herself. She regarded acting as a constant process of learning, both from directors, actors and the text itself, and each role brought fresh challenges that she determined to overcome. Few actors who came to stardom in the 1960s are still so much a part of our popular consciousness today and, despite her passing, Diana Rigg will remain there for a long time to come.
Originally published: 11 September 2020