Dame Diana Rigg, who died on Tuesday aged 82, will have long known that all her obituarists would find space for Mrs Emma Peel in their opening paragraphs. Despite Rigg’s many remarkable achievements, her performance as that character in The Avengers still stands out as the most conspicuous.
She was actually the third partner for Patrick Macnee’s John Steed (after Ian Hendry and Honor Blackman) but it was the sleek, witty, transgressive Mrs Peel who helped convince the world that England, fogbound and ration-choked throughout the 1950s, was ready to swing towards a new Belle Epoque.
Rigg could, nonetheless, be forgiven a sigh at the continuing focus on the camp clandestine operative. At the Royal Shakespeare Company since 1957, she played Cordelia in King Lear and Viola in Twelfth Night. For the National Theatre, she was a notable Lady Macbeth opposite Anthony Hopkins’s prevaricating Thane and, for the same company, starred in the first production of Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers.
Her curriculum vitae is as impressive as those of near-contemporaneous Dames such as Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins or Judi Dench. But Rigg somehow retained a cool that was all her own. She never went out of fashion. A late role as Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones sold her suave charisma to a generation whose grandparents had enjoyed The Avengers on its first run. A few posthumous performances are still to come.
Diana Rigg was born near Doncaster in 1938. Just two months old, she travelled with her parents to India where her dad worked as a railway executive for the Maharaja of Bikaner. As was the way at the time, she was sent back to boarding school in England when still a young child – in her old stamping ground of West Yorkshire – and, now with Hindi as a second language, found herself something of a fish out of water. “I hated it – and that left me feeling disenfranchised most of my life, as if I didn’t belong anywhere,” she told the Guardian last year. “I might as well have said I wanted to go on the game when I told the headmistress I wanted to be an actress.”
Rigg made her way to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and, by 1957, was playing professionally in Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the York Festival. Already an established actor of the higher brow, she was not an obvious choice to replace Honor Blackman – snapped up for Pussy Galore in Goldfinger – as sidekick to the sexually equivocal John Steed. The Avengers role had, in fact, already gone to Elizabeth Shepherd, but the producers felt she hadn’t the right sense of humour and were happy to facilitate the dark, husky voiced Shakespearian.
This was 1965 and, to the surprise of cultural commentators everywhere, England had suddenly become hip. Mrs Peel’s leather costumers helped close the deal. Rigg was shocked to become a sex symbol. “I kept all the unopened fan mail in the boot of my car because I didn’t know how to respond and thought it was rude to throw it away,” she said. “Then my mother became my secretary and replied to the really inappropriate ones saying: “My daughter’s far too old for you. Go take a cold shower!”
Years later she revealed that she was paid less than almost every man on set — including the cameramen — and that, when she objected to this obvious discrimination, she received little support from male colleagues. “Neither did Patrick [Macnee] though I never held it against him, I adored him,” she said. “But I was painted as this mercenary creature by the press when all I wanted was equality. It’s so depressing that we are still talking about the gender pay gap.”
Perhaps inevitably, she followed Blackman into Bond duties after leaving The Avengers. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, released in 1969, is now frequently identified as a contender for the best 007 film, despite it having, in George Lazenby, one of the weakest leads. Rigg transcended the demeaning “Bond Girl” tag as the romantic interest who finally got Fleming’s imperial thug to the altar, but, like so many women who shared screen time with Bond, she failed to move on to a starry film career.
In the decade that followed, the British movie business went into hibernation and Rigg bolstered her reputation in the theatre and on television. Diana, her American sitcom, was charming, but failed to survive past one series. Decades before her damehood, she received the equally great honour of playing straight woman in a Christmas edition of the Morecambe and Wise Show.
She married twice, divorcing Israeli painter Menachem Gueffen in 1976 and Scottish aristocrat Archie Stirling in 1990. Rachael Stirling, her daughter from that last marriage, now among the most acclaimed actors of her own generation, played touchingly against Dame Diana in the delightful situation comedy The Detectorists. That was just one of many notable late roles. She coped magnanimously when Daniel Radcliffe fired a condom on to her head in Ricky Gervais’s Extras. Oleanna Tyrell on Game of Thrones brought her four Emmy nominations – an award she won for her memorable Mrs Danvers in a 1997 version of Rebecca.
Age and heart disease weighed her down, but she retained the same electric irony that made her such a phenomenon in the 1960s. There is a little more to come. She appears as Mrs Pumphrey, owner of the malingering Tricki Woo, in the continuing TV update of All Creatures Great and Small. Her performance as the fearsome Mother Superior in the BBC’s latest take on Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus is forthcoming.
“The good Lord must have said: ‘Send the old bag down again’,” she said after her heart stopped during an operation. “I’m not having her yet.”
That wit will be missed.