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So long to the Dame who oozed sex a-Peel

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Dame Diana Rigg was last night hailed as a ‘luminous talent’ after her death yesterday at the age of 82.

The veteran actress, who played Emma Peel in 1960s TV series The Avengers, died following a cancer diagnosis in March.

Her other famous roles included James Bond‘s wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969, while recently she had reached a new audience as the cunning and manipulative Olenna Tyrell in hit fantasy drama Game Of Thrones.

This Tuesday she appeared in Channel 5’s new version of All Creatures Great And Small as the grand Mrs Pumphrey.

Besides her screen roles, she was feted for her stage work. Director Jonathan Kent said: ‘Her combination of force of personality, beauty, courage and sheer emotional power, made her a great classical actress – one of an astonishing generation of British stage performers.’

Playwright Sir Tom Stoppard said: ‘Her talent was luminous.’ And fellow playwright Sir David Hare said: ‘When Emma Peel played Euripides’ Medea, Albee’s Martha and Brecht’s Mother Courage she swept all before her.’

Here, RICHARD KAY looks at the actress’s stellar career.

Dame Diana Rigg was last night hailed as a ‘luminous talent’ after her death yesterday at the age of 82. Pictured: Rigg with Patrick McNee in The Avengers

Anyone of a certain age brought up on 1960s black and white television will remember Diana Rigg as the leather catsuit-clad, high-kicking Emma Peel.

With her blue-stocking delivery, she disarmed villains before polishing them off with the firmest of karate chops while at the same time her witty, sexually laden double-entendres with her co-star left viewers forever wondering if they did, or did not, go to bed.

The Avengers, which made her a star, is still shown around the world and polls regularly vote her the sexiest television star of all time. 

Such was her captivating allure that Douglas Fairbanks Junior, a tireless ladies’ man, was moved to declare that only an Outer Mongolian monk would not find her ‘devastatingly attractive’.

But the Yorkshire-born actress with the cut-glass accent, who died yesterday at the age of 82, was never entirely comfortable with her status as a Sixties bombshell.

Despite being the only Bond girl to get 007 to the altar, she was happier on stage where she enjoyed a remarkable career of theatrical highs.

The critic Bernard Levin described her as a ‘force of nature’ and, along with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, she was one of the three great dames of British theatre. Not that she turned her back on television or film. 

Anyone of a certain age brought up on 1960s black and white television will remember Diana Rigg as the leather catsuit-clad, high-kicking Emma Peel, writes Richard Kay

Pictured: Rigg as the manipulative Olenna Tyrell in hit fantasy drama Game Of Thrones

She won a legion of new and younger fans as Lady Olenna Tyrell, the bloodthirsty matriarch in Game Of Thrones.

And only the night before her death was announced, she was appearing as the eccentric Mrs Pumphrey on Channel 5 in the latest TV adaptation of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great And Small.

In a statement, Dame Diana’s agent said she died ‘peacefully on Thursday morning at home with her family’.

Her actress daughter Rachael Stirling, who had appeared alongside her mother in a 2013 episode of Doctor Who, said she had been diagnosed with cancer in March and had ‘spent her last months joyfully reflecting on her extraordinary life, full of love, laughter and a deep pride in her profession. I will miss her beyond words.’

Her co-stars flooded social media with tributes to the ‘flinty, fearless, fabulous force of nature’ who had a ‘dazzling wit and inimitable voice’.

Perhaps the most moving came from George Lazenby whose one outing as James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service saw Diana Rigg not only as his love interest but also acting him off the screen. 

‘I’m so sad to hear of the death of Diana Rigg,’ he wrote on Instagram. ‘She undoubtedly raised my acting game.

In a statement, Dame Diana’s agent said she died ‘peacefully on Thursday morning at home with her family’

Her other famous roles included James Bond’s wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969

‘The death of Contessa Teresa di Vincenzo Draco [her character in the movie] created a memorable cinema moment over 50 years ago. As my new bride, Tracy Bond, I wept for her loss. Now, upon hearing of Dame Diana’s death, I weep again.’

But for all the actress’s later successes and awards, no role quite eclipsed her breathtaking arrival as the capable and desirable Mrs Peel, leading lady to Patrick Macnee’s smoothly debonair John Steed in The Avengers.

Even though the Sixties was a time of cultural change, her role gave her the chance to be one of the first female characters on TV to give men as good as she got.

She rarely lost a fight and was portrayed as a master of martial arts and fencing. She drove a Lotus Elan – the height of Sixties chic – and, with her gamine figure styled in the latest black and white mini-skirts and PVC jumpsuits, she looked fabulous too.

Her favourite guise was that of a women’s magazine reporter, trying to interview business tycoons and corrupt playboys. Everything oozed sex appeal.

As to that endlessly fascinating banter with Steed, viewers were left to make up their own minds. To Rigg it was an enjoyable flirtation – but one that went nowhere.

For his part, Macnee thought they slept together all the time, just not in front of the camera. The teasing innuendo between the two helped make the show the international hit it became. In fact, but for one of those chance happenings for which every actor is grateful, she might never have got the part.

Enid Rigg – Diana was a middle name – was born in Doncaster in 1938 but almost immediately moved to India where her father Louis was an engineer on the railways. Pictured with Rachael Stirling in March

Rigg at the 72nd Annual Tony Awards in New York in June 2018 (left) and receiving the Icon Award at the Cannes International Series Festival in 2019

She had already screen-tested for the role – to replace Honor Blackman who had left to play Pussy Galore in 007 film Goldfinger and whom she would later follow as a James Bond love interest.

Despite Rigg’s solid accomplishments – she had spent more than five years with the Royal Shakespeare Company – she was not chosen and the role went to another actress, Elizabeth Shepherd. But after two days of filming Brian Clemens, the programme’s producer, was not happy.

‘She’s not a bad actress,’ he later recalled of Miss Shepherd. ‘But she just didn’t have a sense of humour at all – that was essential in The Avengers. 

So we scrapped what we’d shot and got rid of her and then tested and out of the tests came Diana Rigg, who was head and shoulders above everybody else.’

Two days later, she was filming. Her performance as the cat-suited Mrs Peel brought her instant fame as The Avengers became as much a symbol of the Swinging ’60s as the Mini, The Beatles and the mini-skirt.

Sexy, resourceful and self-assured – along with those deadly fighting skills – Rigg’s character became symbol for the growing feminist movement. Her action-girl persona, coupled with that husky voice – the result of a 20-a-day cigarette habit – also brought her plenty of male admirers.

‘We had no idea it would be defining,’ she later said. ‘It was nose to the grindstone – working all hours that God gave.’

She also showed she was capable of taking on the Establishment. During the first series, she discovered she was earning less than the cameramen and insisted on more money before making another episode.

But at the same time Rigg found the sudden stardom difficult to cope with. She recalled having to hide in a bathroom to avoid the attention of crowds. It was partly resentment at the invasion of her privacy that persuaded her that she would spend only two years with The Avengers.

‘It was very, very intrusive in those days because I was instantly recognisable,’ the actress later told Variety magazine. ‘I was grateful to be a success but there was a price to pay.’

Her co-stars flooded social media with tributes to the ‘flinty, fearless, fabulous force of nature’ who had a ‘dazzling wit and inimitable voice’

Diana Rigg as the cutthroat matriarch Oleanna Tyrell in HBO’s worldwide hit series, Game of Thrones, a show she admitted in 2019 that she had never watched

She was also keen to keep her stage career alive. ‘Some weeks I’d spend four days on the set of The Avengers and then head up to Stratford to be Regan to Olivier’s [King] Lear,’ she recalled.

But it was not just the lure of the stage. She left The Avengers for the action-packed world of James Bond. Although she and 007 marry, in almost the last clip Rigg, playing a spirited heiress, is machine-gunned down and dies.

Her relationship with Australian-born Lazenby was difficult, although she denied deliberately eating garlic before their love scenes. 

Being a Bond girl did not make her a film star, however, any more than appearing with Oliver Reed in The Assassination Bureau or as Vincent Price’s daughter in the camp horror film Theatre of Blood did. ‘I suppose the thing I regret most is that I never really cracked films,’ she once disclosed.

But back on stage it was a different story. She was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in Abelard And Heloise, although it wasn’t all plain sailing.

In New York, her portrayal of Heloise was savaged by acerbic critic John Simon, who described her in a nude scene as ‘built like a brick basilica with insufficient flying buttresses’. She later admitted she never felt comfortable removing her clothes on stage.

‘I come from Yorkshire and no one from Yorkshire takes their clothes off except on a Friday night,’ she said. The episode led her to later publish a collection of scathing theatrical reviews titled No Turn Unstoned.

Enid Rigg – Diana was a middle name – was born in Doncaster in 1938 but almost immediately moved to India where her father Louis was an engineer on the railways. Aged seven, she was brought back to England by her mother Beryl and sent to boarding school in Pudsey, near Leeds. Brother Hugh was at school in Buckinghamshire.

After India’s independence her parents returned to Britain but money was tight and she remembers her father eking out his whisky vowing to herself that she would earn enough to give him a bottle every day. 

In 2017, that 20-a-day smoking habit brought serious illness and she had to undergo a heart operation

Encouraged by a teacher she applied for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the acting school, at 16. Hugh, meanwhile, went on to become a test pilot.

After a stint in rep, she was taken on by the RSC in 1959 where the distinguished director Peter Brook patronisingly observed of her: ‘If she doesn’t waste herself on silly films, she could become something good.’ She did, of course, do both.

In 1990, she won a Bafta for the role of an obsessive mother in the BBC drama Mother Love. Four years later, she won a Tony for best actress in one of her most acclaimed roles, that of Medea in the ancient Greek play. In the same year, Rigg was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Despite such a high-profile career and polished image, Dame Diana took refuge in a well-protected private life.

In interviews, particularly with women, she could be brusque to the point of rudeness, especially when questioned about men. At one stage she announced she would never again speak to female journalists whom she crushingly dubbed ‘grubettes’.

She was married twice, with both unions ending in divorce.In the 1960s, she had a relationship with the director Philip Saville but her first husband was an Israeli artist Menachem Gueffen whom she married in 1973. They separated a year later with Rigg describing the marriage as a ‘grotesque error’.

She then married tweedy Scottish landowner Archie Stirling. It surprised friends because she had been seen as something of a bohemian figure. 

They divorced in 1990 after Stirling had an affair with the actress Joely Richardson which left her devastated, and ever since Dame Diana lived either with her daughter Rachael or alone.

In 2017, that 20-a-day smoking habit brought serious illness and she had to undergo a heart operation. 

During surgery, the actress’s heart stopped and her life hanged by a thread. ‘The good Lord must have said, ‘Send the old bag down again’,’ Dame Diana, the devout Christian, later said. ‘I’m not having her yet.’

For years, she was pursued by a stalker who sent her unwanted gifts and unsolicited and often deeply unpleasant letters.

And although she had left Emma Peel, the role that brought her public attention, long behind, those silky self-defence skills must have come in handy one last time.

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