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By Ronald L.Smith
Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee as|
Emma Peel is the personal legacy of actress Diana Rigg, who pioneered the jumpsuited heroine in THE AVENGERS television series (1966-'68). Also the hostess of MASTERPIECE THEATRE, Rigg performed Peel with pre-feminist panache: she kicked ass, didn't play second fiddle to her male partner and never lost her sex appeal. It's likely her character's name, a fatuous embellishment of British slang ("M [male] appeal"), was influenced by her admission into machismo territory. And she paradoxically played both sides of S&M: the karate dominatrix in black leather and the damsel in bondage.
Off and on-screen, Rigg - a '60s icon - was the advent to the liberated woman. She was the first multimedia actress to do a nude scene onstage. Always the provocateur, Rigg - adamantly opposed to marriage - risked scandal by bearing a child out of wedlook. Her appeal (no pun intended) crossed over into both sexes, but Rigg's self-description was far from flattering: "The shoulders are extremely wide and very square, and the breasts don't compensate for this width. The hips are too wide. The arms and wrists are slender, but the knees and the calve are over-developed. The jaw is much, much too strong and the mouth is too small."
Born Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg (July 20, 1938) in Doncaster, England, she later moved with her family to Jodhpur, India: Rigg's father, a civil engineer, cautioned her to avoid the encompassing poverty of the environment. ("Never play with stray dogs - they're probably rabit.")
By the time she turned eight, Rigg united with her grandparents in Yorkshire and attended St. Christopher's, a boarding school in Great Missiden (Buckinghamshire). Three years later, her parents returned from India and enrolled their daughter inthe equally retrictive Fulneck Girls' School (Pudsey). "We were never allowed to talk to boys", Rigg recalled. "It was so strict that you even had to wear your hair according to orders. It had to be a precise length. Then they used to inspect our gym slips, which had to be exactly two inches above the knee when we were kneeling down."
As a teen, she resisted being locked into a disciplinary tract and was constantly in trouble with school authorities. "But I was tall and redheaded. And tall redheads always got caught." Educated at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), Rigg developed "a guiltless approach to relationships outside marriage." Waitressing and modeling to support herself, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1959 when it was organized as the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company. Playing Cordelia to Paul Scofield's King Lear, Rigg would realize that tragedy could translate into low comedy. Scofield quaffed a daily brew that consisted of malt, bran, wheat and honey. "As a result, he suffered from flatulence," recounted Rigg with a prim smile. "Odd sounds accompanied his impassioned cries of 'Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones.'" Critics applauded: it was the actors who held their noses. A consummate actress, Rigg - playing dead in Scofield's arms - was professionally challenged: she desperately tried to conceal her laughter.
|THE AVENGERS: Rigg's feminism fueled her portrayal of Emma Peel. But she wasn't the first choice. Elizabeth Shepherd (TOMB OF LIGEIA), a blonde actress initially cast as Mrs. Peel, completed an episode & a half before being replaced by Rigg.|
The show instantly shifted gears when Cathy Gale vacated the series. By the time Emma Peel was introduced as the new partner of dapper John Steed (Patrick Macnee), the wit had sharpened, and all tongues were firmly planted in cheeks. Though THE AVENGERS was aesthetically rewarding, Rigg's paycheck was undernourished. "After 12 episodes, she discovered that she was paid less than the cameraman," wrote biographer Jackie Lane. "I made a bit of a stink about it," recalled Rigg. "Any argument about money is ugly, but I felt I was being exploited." She eventually bagged $700 a week, but didn't collect royalties.
Rigg portrayed one of the medium's few liberated women. Other "hip" heroines suffered from a lack of conviction. The aforementioned Pussy Galore, a karate-chopping hellcat, surrendered her
independence - and inexplicably, her lesbian lifestyle - to debonair James Bond. Emma Peel's relationship with Steed was not imperiled by his male ego. In one episode, Steed joins Ransack, an intellectual organization who members include Mrs. Peel: but he's admitted only because she took the IQ test for him !
|"Rigg believed she had only 2 friends on the set: Macnee and the driver who took her to the set."|
Emma Peel, in fact, pretty much echoed Rigg's personal convictions: "No man will ever conquer me or make me his slave" the actress insisted. "Nobody owns me, nobody will. I don't yearn for security. Marriage might be fine for many people, but I find its for permanence appalling." Sure enough, Rigg shocked conservative quaters by openly living with a very married Philip Saville - and she'd decline to wed Saville even if his estranged wife approved a divorce. The actress, who subscribed to "living together" even before that euphemism became trendy, "just didn't see the necessity of the sacrament."
Rigg & Hammer horror vet Peter Crushing in "Return of the Cybernauts" episode.
Crushing: "It was difficult being beasty to Diana"
Her liberalism hardly turned off fans, but the fans eventually turned-off Diana Rigg: "I must say it was great fun at first being recognized on the street...but I'm really not equipped to be a celebrity. I loathe intrusions onmy privacy...and the autograph syndrome is simply beyond my comprehension." She rejected one autograph-seeker by icily admonishing, "It's illegal to sign autographs in the street." Mail from smitten, teenage fans was sometimes dutifully answered: "My daughter is much too old for you," Rigg's mother would respond, " and what you need is a good run around the block." (Femme Fatales photographer Vinnie Mizzi recalls, sometime in the mid-'90s, Rigg "was besieged by a dozen fans or so when she exited a Broadway theatre. She vowed to furnish everyone with an autograph - but " only one per person!").
THE AVENGERS proved a match for Rigg's anarchic demeanor, though censors weren't amused. Count the double entendres in an exchange between a cat owner's club manager and Steed: "The name of your beloved pussy?" - "Emma" - "Coloring?" - "Reddish brown." - "Oh! A cuddly tabby...what a joy it must be when she's curled up in your lap."
|Offers came in for a cinema feature film of THE AVENGERS as early as its third season (1963/'64).|
Mrs. Peel cooly deflected the risque cajolery, e.g. the tattoo artist who asks the heroine if she'd like to be illustrated with a rosebud tattoo - "one on each"; or the shoemaker who proclaimed, "I am at your feet!" and begged her to wear "kinky black leather." Peel registered only a mild gaze of tolerant disdain. Perhaps the most valid summarization of Emma Peel was offered by berserk film director Z.Z. Von Schnerk (Kenneth J. Warren) in Epic, a 1967 episode written by Brian Clemens: "I needed you, Mrs. Peel, a woman of beauty, of action, a woman who could become desperate and yet remain strong; a woman who could become confused and yet remain intelligent, who could fight back and yet remain feminine. You, and only you, Emma Peel, have all these qualifications."
|Rigg's most unlikely role: a harem girl in the episode, Honey for the Prince. A jewel, which kept popping out, was lodged in her navel to mollify censors|
|Rigg as the Queen of Sin in A Touch of Brimstone. Five minutes of the provocative b&w episodes were recently colorized.|
Twice nominated for Emmys ('67 and '68), Rigg lost - both times - to Barbara Bain (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE). The aforementioned Jackie Lane, noted that the actress "wasn't happy with the way she was treated [by ABC, the U.S. broadcasters]." Furthermore, "[series co-star Patrick] Macnee found out much later that Rigg believed she only had two friends on the set: him, and the driver who took her to the studio every morning."
Rigg departed from THE AVENGERS series in The Forget-Me-Knot episode which introduced Linda Thorson as her replacement. Thorson played her heroine, "Tara King," as a more provincial baby-faced, doe-eyed damsel who was often a burden on Steed. Comparisons with Rigg's Emma Peel weren't flattering. Furthermore, ABC dropped the show in the same time skot as NBC's unvanquished LAUGH IN. Ratings instantly declined and the Steed/King duo survived only one season. Seven years later, Macnee reprised his role as Steed in THE NEW AVENGERS: but the series which cast Joanna Lumley as Steed's niece, was also cancelled after only a single season (1976/'77). Lumley subsequently earned celebrity as the dysfunctional "Patsy Stone" on the British sitcom ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS (1992/'96).
|Patrick Macnee: "I certainly did not have an affair with [Rigg], but I do love her very much. We had a remarkable partnership, it was a professional marriage in a way. It only lasted for 18 months, but it was very successful and very good. She is a great actress, and we're still very good friends."|
Rigg pursued a film career that she'd later gauge as "a checkered record, to put it baldly." Graham Rye, a chronicler of James Bond movies, describes Rigg "a seasoned actress who was a good choice to play 007's leading lady in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969). Her portrayal of Tracy as Bond's equal brought a freshness and vitality to the part that was seldom equalled by other Bond girls, and it is probably her best screen performance. Her other excursions into film have been limited and mostly unmemorable." Rigg's impassioned on-screen rapport with 007 (George Lazenby) is, indeed, demonstrative of a sterling performance: off-screen, the couple loethed one another. Lazenby dismissed the production as "hell" and revealed that Rigg deliberately ate garlic before love scenes. The actress fumed over her co-star's inflated ego and crude demands for preferential treatment. She would have turned down the role to excercise another option - the lead in PAINT YOUR WAGON - but her father's illness prompted her to reject the musical.
|Diana Rigg as "Miss Winters", investigates THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU. Directed by Basil Dearden (DEAD OF NIGHT), the 1970 movie was nominated for a Golden Globe (Best english-Language Foreign Film)|
By June 1970, Rigg returned to the theatre for a retelling of Abelard and Heloise. A pivotal thought brief nude scene, performed in semi-darkness, incited the press to catch a peek at undressed rehearsals. Rigg was repulsed by the furor, what with reporters behaviour like voyeurs. "All the press in London were down on us, most of them without having seen the play," recalled the actress. "Hair had already been in London with its nude scene but no one knew those kids and no one minded them undressed." Newspapers, however, countered that the controversy was warranted because it was "the first time in theatre history that two major actors [Rigg and Keith Michell] performed in the buff on stage." Rigg's protests were jeered by scribes who trivialized the play as "Emma un-Peeled".
Though her outbursts were laced with self-denigrating humor, Rigg's protests only antagonized the press: "I see no point in being defensive about eroticism. I think it's rather good to have it. But if people come to see me as a sex symbol, they'll have enormous problems confrontated with me. I have to make up my backside - otherwise, when I show it onstage, it looks like a piece of old cod."
She later recalled the incident on Dick Cavett's gabfest: "My body is no different from anybody else's. In fact, I remember one letter that said, 'I don't know why you bother. My girlfriend's tits are much larger than yours.' You see? But everybody who steps onstage has to have the definitive figure. But in the play, a definitive figure is neither here nor there - you're playing a character. 'You're fully dressed until the wings. Then you drop your knickers. That's easy. Stepping onstage without your knickers is the most difficult thing in the world. I promise you,it is - if you've ever done it, it's against everything you've been taught. And the draft is incredible...The press was there from all nations, panting as if I had another breast and [Michell] had two penises."
The reviewers finally vindicated Rigg. The Times of London bowed to her beauty ("She looks handsome, she always does when that auburn mane tumbles over her shoulders") and performance ("it was gritty [and] aggressive, daring the house to laugh at lines which from the mouth of a less assured actress would have provoked schoolboyish titters").
Premiering in America during March '71, the play experienced a chronic case of deja vu, with a leering press. Critic John Simon speculated if the nudity was nescessary. ("Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses."). But New York Times reviewer Clive Barnes described the controversal three minutes as "the most tasteful, tactful and apposite nude love scene I have ever encountered. As a matter of record, I suppose Miss Rigg and Mr. Michell are the first major stars to appear naked on the Broadway stage, but...the scene is neither prurient nor distasteful. Diana Rigg is perfect: as sensuous as a cat, with hidden fires beneath the surface."
Rigg earned a Tony nomination for her role. One year later, she thumbed her nose at detractors by performing a nude scene in another play, Jumpers. She subsequently rekindled her ties with Shakespeare by playing Lady Macbeth opposite Anthony Hopkins' Macbeth. She lost the negative press, but not her sense of humor. Actor Denis Quilley was required to slip his hand inside her bodice: Rigg unnerved Quilley by mischievously whispering, "Up a bit...left a bit, down a bit...golden shot!"
As member of Sir Laurence Olivier's National Theatre Company, the actress was affectionately christened "Tits" Rigg by Mr. Olivier. It seems she habitually refused to wear a bra.
The next time American glimpsed Rigg, she was posing for TV Guide in little more than a red slip. The caption: "Avenger tries on a TV role...not to mention a skimpy dress" The Shakespearean actress was contracted to play the title role in DIANA, a U.S. sitcom that debuted in 1973. "After two years at the National Theatre I was heavily in debt to my bank," shrugged Rigg. She described her series character as "probably the first divorcee on television ... she's very sophsticated, in her thirties, with lots of boyfriends. And she's not untouched by human hands."
But a renascent woman and prime time TV were as compatible as vermouth and a six-pack of Hamms Beer. Posturing for a cover shot, she abruptly struck a pose, quipping "How does that grab you? A crotch shot! How about a bum shot?" And, with good-natured pique, she queried, "How does Los Angeles magazine feel about nipples? I am not wearing a bra and this sweater's a bit thin. NBC doesn't like nipples at all, or navel, or any manifestation of humanity."
As Diana Smythe, fashion coordinator, her apartment was invaded by a zany cast of co-workers. Critics branded the series a pale imitation of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. "After filming the second episode," concurred Rigg, "I knew it was going to be garbage. I had never known such a failure on such a grand scale...if you embrace failure, it's rather less painful. That's one of the best lessons I've ever learned!" The show's longevity was limited to 30 episodes.
Nevertheless, she resisted roles that leaned entirely on sexual hubris: "I couldn't live the life of some plastic movie queen or sex symbol. Whatever happens, I won't fall into that trap. I've always done the most ridiculous, extreme things. Whatever I do, it's because my appetite is right for it... I like to get some enjoyment out of what I'm doing. I need antidotes to relieve boredom. It appeals to me to be erratic. I think it's unfortunate that they, the critics, the audience and sometimes other actors, insist that you be consistent."
She returned to Egland for several stage triumphs, including Pygmalion and Antony and Cleopatra. Rigg became acquainted with Menahem Gueffen, an artist and member of the Israeli Palmach army, at a party. Their relationship, launched in '73, was fraught with turbulence. "We were in a hotel six floor up," recalled Rigg. "I told him I was leaving. He said, 'Fine, Ill help you pack.' He did. Then he picked up my suitcase, and all my clothes, and threw them out of the window. I was amazed. I seriously felt I'd met my match."
Menahem recounted the incident as a turning point: "She became very calm, very quiet...and very obedient." And they married. "We quarreled all time. To her, not quarreling was not relating."
The couple seperated in '74. Rigg spirited herself to Broadway for The Misanthrophe : "To go on living for me is to go on learning - learning about life and everything that makes life. Wanting to go on learning makes one vulnerable, of course. You are always exposing yourself to risk. I hope I can take it."
Cast as bitchy, sexy Celimene, the actress instructed her costume designer the character should "be wearing golden browns and creams, never any underwear. Her body has to be evident, fluid - nothing stiff to imprison her personality."
Offstage, Rigg explained her love theories to writer Lawrence B. Eisenberg: "I refuse to say 'I love you' in order to legitimize the fact that I've been in bed with a fellow. I don't expect him to say it to me, either. Sex is wild improvisation and shouldn't be taken too earnestly at the beginnning. It is, after all, only one way of communicating - a very enjoyable one at its best - but then you get a much deeper communication, which is not necessarily commitment, but just the trust of being together continuously. The sex act is the funniest thing on the face of this earth..."
Her sensuousness and wit had not all eroded: Rigg was proclaimed by one gay club as "the woman we most want to turn straight for." And she was content to have eluded the sex kitten stereotype: "If you are an actress, you're expected to be...stupid, vain. Well, we are intelligent. The nature of our work demands it. I'm not exactly all teeth and tits, am I?"
Later, in '74, Rigg posed for a London tabloid in a nostagic reprisal of Marilyn Monroe's skirt lifted by an impish breeze: "Ever since I was a young girl, I knew I would reach my peak at around age 35. Well, I'm 36, and unlike so many other woman, glad to admit my age..." She vowed to grow into "a sexy, crazy, old lady."
Her next love was ex-Scots Guard Archie Stirling. They didn't marry: nevertheless, 38-year-old Rigg gave birth to daughter Rachael Atlanta (May 30, 1978). "I had worked solidly for 18 years and, by that time, I had become aware that the career just wasn't going to be enough. Pregnancy, and all that came with it, was enjoyable, relaxing. The comparative quiet in one's life that follows having a baby..."
In 1981, the Daily Mail reviewing Rigg's transference of Hedda Gabler to the TV medium - remembered John Simon's unkind review from a decade ago: "There is nothing remotely brick mausoleumish about her, and buttresses are well hidden by Victorian crinolines." One year later, Rigg and Stirling turned up in New York and asked a Manhattan city clerk to marry them in a quick ceremony ("We got married to liven up a dull Thurday."). The couple split in 1990.
Further distancing herself from Emma Peel, the actress played variable stage roles in the likes of Heartbreak House (1983), Bleak House (1985) and Follies (1986). In 1988, Rigg received a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth II.
During the '90s, a new generation of TV viewers became acquainted with Rigg as hostess of PBS' MYSTERY! series: she prefaced each show with an introduction to Rumpole of the Bailey or Sherlock Holmes. "Deep down I have an irreverent spirit", explained Rigg. "People who take themselves deeply seriously are really good at tragedy, and I don't take myself that seriously...I could have gone on and done greater things...but I didn't. It's as simple as that."
Her sentiments regarding THE AVENGERS doesn't exactly strike one as nostalgic. Rigg remains friendly with Patrick Macnee, but, exempting some screenings shared with her daughter, dhe rarely watches the show: "When I get touchy, it's at the suggestion that THE AVENGERS was the sum of my professional career."
The actress, who recently turned 60, is "not sure that I like the thought of the decline. I've got to come to terms with that, with bodile decline. I'm not at all sure in what way to go forward into the next part of my life."
Her mantle must be pertty cluttered, with a profusion of honoary degrees (Strirling & Leeds Universities), an Oliver nomination (1996, Mother Courage), and the London Evening Standard Drama Award. Somehow, she found the time to edit a couple of books (So to the Land and No Stone Unturned: The Worst Ever Theatrical Reviews ). In 1997, Dame Diana Rigg's performance as "Mrs. Danvers", in Portman Productions' REBECCA, earned her an Emmy Award ("Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Special"). But her gratitude was eclipsed by indignation: "The real difficulty is finding vehicles forthe ladies. There aren't very many new parts for us. I don't know why. I think we're fascinating creatures." She hasn't changed a bit.
Text by Ronald L.Smith, Femmes Fatales, USA, Volume 7 Number 4, September 1998
An issue can be ordered by mail: Femmes Fatales, P.O.BOX 270, Oak Park, IL 60303, USA
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