Diana Rigg has left us. As if summer 2020 wasn’t bad enough. She was 83 years old as her final credits rolled, taken by cancer.
When fans of the phenomenally popular Game Of Thrones on HBO consider Dame Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg, they think of her witty, outspoken political operative Olenna Tyrell. In real life Rigg was just as forthright as her character. Having once played a Bond Girl, when she was recently asked on her opinion about who will play the next James Bond, she stated:
“A black Bond would be lovely. I wouldn’t like to see a female Bond, because we wouldn’t want to lose the Bond girls. But, we could have a lesbian Bond, why not?”
Why not, indeed.
When I think of Diana Rigg, I go right to Emma Peel, the jump-suited hero she played on the mod television series The Avengers (1966-68). Rigg performed Peel with pre-feminist panache: she was a total kickass, and an equal to her male partner, while never losing her considerable sex appeal. It’s likely her character’s name was a silly play on British slang: “M (male) appeal”. She paradoxically played both sides of S&M: the dominatrix in black leather and the damsel in bondage.
Rigg was a 1960s Pop Icon. She moved into the spotlight as a truly liberated woman. But, was she a Feminist Icon? Rigg:
“I’ve always said feminism is about equal pay – nothing else. Women are bitchier than men. We’re extremely good at business, getting business done, prioritizing, organizing. Classic female qualities.”
Always the provocateur, In the 1960s, Rigg lived for eight years with director Philip Saville, gaining attention in the tabloids when she claimed to have no interest in ever marrying the older, already-married Saville, saying she had no desire “to be respectable”. She risked more scandal by having a child out of wedlock in 1977. She was the first major female actor to appear completely nude on stage.
In 1965, Rigg had to compete against dozens of other actors for the female lead on The Avengers after Honor Blackman left the series to play Pussy Galore in Goldfinger (1964) Rigg:
“We were told to turn up in black trousers and sweaters. We looked like a neo-fascist army. I had not seen The Avengers when I was cast, but the idea of doing a television series, that was a little wacky and way out; it appealed to me as the perfect antidote.”
Blackman’s character was written out of the show and Emma Peel was introduced as the new partner of dapper John Steed, perfectly played by Patrick Macnee. The series became wittier and sharper after she was cast. But, after the first season, Rigg discovered that she was paid less than the cameraman. Rigg:
“I made a bit of a stink about it. Any argument about money is ugly, but I felt I was being exploited.”
She was eventually paid $700 a week, and this was in an era before residuals.
Emma Peel was a new sort of female for television. Her relationship with Steed was not imperiled by his male ego. In one episode, Steed joins Ransack, an intellectual organization whose members include Peel, but he’s admitted only because she took the IQ test for him.
The striped jumpsuits that served as Rigg’s The Avengers wardrobe became known as “Emma Peelers”. She was besieged by fans who begged for autographs. The Avengers had a great look and it had sly dialogue that was filled with double-entendres.
It was also rather brazen for its era. In a 1966 episode, A Touch Of Brimstone. Rigg as Peel, was disguised as a dominatrix, Queen Of Sin, squeezed into a bustier, a spiked choker collar, thigh-high leather boots and carrying a whip. In America, ABC refused to air it.
Rigg was nominated for an Emmy Award for The Avengers in 1967 and 1968, but she lost both times to Barbara Bain for Mission: Impossible. She wasn’t happy with the way she was treated by ABC, and Macnee found out later that Rigg believed she only had two friends on the set: him, and the driver who took her to the set every morning. She left the series in 1968 and was replaced Linda Thorson who played a much more traditional and submissive female. The Avengers only lasted one season without her.
In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Rigg’s portrayal of Contessa Teresa Draco di Vicenzo, Bond’s only wife, was Bond’s equal, and she brought a freshness and strength that other Bond girls lacked. It is probably her best film performance. Rigg has real chemistry with George Lazenby as Bond, but off-screen, they loathed each another. Lazenby called the filming as “hell” and revealed that Rigg deliberately ate garlic before their love scenes.
She didn’t have much of a career in films and was most at home in the Theatre. I was lucky enough to have seen Rigg on stage several times. The first was in Abelard And Heloise (1970) where she and Keith Michell appeared in a brief nude scene, performed in semi-darkness. It incited the press to catch a peek at undressed rehearsals. I thought, oh my god, it’s Emma un-Peeled!
New York Magazine‘s caustic critic John Simon famously wrote:
“Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses”.
But, NY Times reviewer Clive Barnes wrote:
“It’s the most tasteful, tactful and apposite nude love scene I have ever encountered. As a matter of record, I suppose Rigg and Michell are the first major stars to appear naked on the Broadway stage, but the scene is neither prurient nor distasteful. Rigg is perfect: as sensuous as a cat, with hidden fires beneath the surface.”
“I felt sorry for the audiences who had to see my poor old buttresses…”
Another actor, Sylvia Miles, whom Simon described as “one of New York’s leading party girls and gate-crashers” dumped a plate of antipasto over Simon in a New York restaurant.
Rigg parlayed her bad reviews into one of my favorite books, No Turn Unstoned: The Worst Ever Theatrical Reviews (1983).
Reviewing a 1982 television production of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Simon praised her, and remembering his unkind review from earlier, wrote:
“There is nothing remotely brick mausoleumish about her, and buttresses are well hidden by Victorian crinolines.”
At brunches in the 1970s, Rigg was often proclaimed by my gay guy friends as “the woman I would turn straight for”.