Farewell then Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg, who was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for services to the arts in 1994. She died of cancer today aged 82; which, personally, was more than a little freaky, because if push come to shove and I had to name my very favourite actress it’d probably be Diana Rigg, who leaves this world at the same age as my favourite actor and my favourite singer.*
There are probably millions of millennials who totally dig the Rigg on Game Of Thrones. On HBO’s hugely successful medieval fantasy series, she played Lady Olenna Tyrell, the ‘Queen of Thorns’ stealing almost every scene she was in. Yep, Dame played like a Lady: a monstrous matriarch never without an acerbic aside, Olenna’s verbal comebacks cut like the sharpest sword.
We baby boomers and Gen Xers, a huge post-war generation that preceded the millennials, also totally dig Dame Diana on “GOT”, even if many of us aren’t crazy about this rather ubiquitous series (cough, cough) but love the fact that Game of Thrones provided a memorable and enviable final act for an incredible career, garnering multiple Emmy Award nominations and significant critical praise from even the most hardened of hacks.
But for us children of the sixties, we already were well aware just what an absolutely stunning actress Rigg was. It’s not often I gush about actors of either sex, but Diana was one the most beautiful women to grace stage and screen.
When Diana was “on” she glowed.
Diana Rigg was originally a stage actor who worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, hence her impressive dramatic range. In 1991, she told NPR that she loved seeing the faces of the audience when acting.
“They’re my inspiration. I absolutely adore it. Obviously, sometimes they aren’t when they’re scratching themselves or falling asleep, but largely, I think you can’t beat a live audience.”
In September 2007, I was lucky enough to bag a ticket to see the world premiere of Pedro Almodóvar’s classic comedy drama All About My Mother at the Old Vic in London.
All About My Mother, was of course, distinguished by its superlative screenplay, visual quality and emotional impact (a grieving mother sets off to find the long-estranged father of her teenage son after the boy has been killed in a car crash). So much so that it had been the winner of major cinematic awards, including an Oscar in 2000, and is considered by many to be Almodóvar’s greatest film.
Not only was this its live debut, but it was also the first of Almodóvar’s coruscating catalogue of movies had been adapted for the stage. Theatre and film are entirely different beasts, with different strengths and weaknesses.
But with its clever time-shifting and weaving of scenes and intelligent use of the theatricality inherent in the original moving picture, Samuel Adamson’s rework was a perfect example of how a movie masterpiece can work on stage, with a veritable feast of fine acting, not least from Lesley Manville, Eleanor Bron and Mark Gattiss.
But if I’m honest, I was really there because I wanted to see the Grand Dame herself Diana Rigg on the London stage. She didn’t disappoint. In fact, she was a revelation, revelling in her diverting performance as veteran actress Huma Rojo, lending the diva a luminous blend of vulnerability and camp grandeur, warning Manuela, as she stands in as Stella in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire: “Try to upstage me, my darling, and I will eat you for supper.”
There was an ingeniously staged scene from Lorca’s Blood Wedding, too, and both interpretations seemed far more resonant on stage than they did in the film. Perhaps because Huma wasn’t the lead, Rigg had great fun with the more outrageous lines – “I haven’t sucked cock in 30 years!” she declared with gusto (you could hardly imagine such filth passing Judi Dench’s lips) – and carried responsibility for the play’s emotion many times but especially in the final scene like the glowing star she was.
Writing for the Daily Telegraph, Earl Charles Spencer (yup, Princess Diana’s brother) summed up her star turn in equally effusive fashion:
“Diana Rigg is in tremendous form, too, playing a grande dame lesbian actress with delicious, self-mocking humour and comic one-liners too filthy to quote. Yet she also finds deeply touching moments that reveal the vulnerable woman behind the brittle, glamorous façade.”
In a sixty-year career, Rigg’s on-screen credits were unsurprisingly varied, but always employing that incredible dramatic range. Most television viewers started diggin’ Diana on sixties series The Avengers, a slick, smart and sophisticated spy caper that ran on ITV for almost the entire decade.
Partnering bowler-hatted English gentleman John Steed (Patrick Macnee), her portrayal of Mrs Emma Peel (“M appeal, geddit? She hated the name anyhow, calling it a cliché in the BBC interview below) was so utterly mod: cool, dry-witted and stylish as hell in that leather catsuit; the sassy super-heroine who was as formidable as she was beautiful.
One of the first feminist icons, in fact. That she was a certified Mensa genius who drove a Lotus Elan and could deliver some serious karate chops (though probably not at the same time) just made it even more slightly camp surrealist fun.
The obituary in today’s Guardian quote Diana on the subject of becoming a sex symbol, that she “didn’t know how to handle it”. Thus, she kept all her fan mail unopened in her car boot “because I didn’t know how to respond and thought it was rude to throw it away. 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!’”
Peel was introduced as a replacement for Cathy Gale, played by actress Honor Blackman. Blackman, who died five months before Rigg, had left the programme at the end of the third season to play Pussy Galore opposite Sean Connery in the third James Bond film Goldfinger.
I always found it curious how the scriptwriters chose to make Peel a married woman (though the hubby, once presumed dead, was rarely seen), but the characterisation obviously played no small part when she was offered the part of the feisty Contessa Teresa ‘Tracy’ di Vincezo in another sixties spy series, albeit on the big screen this time: 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
When franchise holders Eon Productions were navigating the precarious position of Bond being played not by their box office star Sean Connery, but newcomer George Lazenby, they cleverly hit on the idea of aligning the unknown Aussie model with an actress of already great renown and audience familiarity. It had worked to a lesser degree with Honor Blackman – and was a fanboy’s wet dream when Rigg defied expectations at a time of counter-culture and radical social upheaval when many wondered (even brazen Lazenby himself) if 007’s movie time was up.
Curiously, it was the two Avengers actresses that managed to escape the sometimes career-haunting turn in a Bond film with relative ease. And while OHMSS marked Rigg out as the second actress to junk Steed for an 007 film, she has the distinction of being the only person to take James Bond up the aisle… so far.
She was also excellent opposite George C. Scott in Sidney Lumet’s 1971 satire, The Hospital. A decade later, she’s “the archetypal actress bitch” in the all-star Agatha Christie murder mystery, Evil Under The Sun (1982), playing a deliciously catty entertainer who became a star by granting horizontal favours to influential men.
Rigg was nominated for nine prime-time Emmy Awards, winning outstanding supporting actress in a miniseries or special for her role as Mrs Danvers in 1997’s PBS adaption of the Alfred Hitchcock film Rebecca.
The Emmy came seven years after she won a BAFTA for her astonishingly psychotic performance in 1989’s brilliant BBC drama Mother Love, far and away my favourite screen performance by the Dame.
But as her film and television roles grew, she always returned to the stage, most notably her acclaimed Tony award-winning role winning in 1994 for her role as a chilly, elegant Medea.
“Diana Rigg’s combination of force of personality, beauty, courage and sheer emotional power, made her a great classical actress,’ theatre director Jonathan Kent said today. “Her dazzling wit and that inimitable voice made her an unforgettable leading figure in British theatre.”
And in a statement the playwright David Hare offered this:
“Diana Rigg had a dazzling change of direction in middle age as a great classical actor. When Emma Peel played Euripides’ Medea, Albee’s Martha and Brecht’s Mother Courage she swept all before her. Her talent was luminous.”
His fellow playwright Tom Stoppard also paid tribute.
“For half her life, Diana was the most beautiful woman in the room but she was what used to be called a trooper,” he said in a statement. “She went to work with her sleeves rolled up and a smile for everyone.”
RIP Dame Diana Rigg. Great actress and good sport – lest we forget, she let Daniel Radcliffe flick a condom on her head in Extras. pic.twitter.com/scFC8KPlZz
— Stephen Merchant (@StephenMerchant) September 10, 2020
Her more recent roles included the Duchess of Buccleuch in ITV’s Victoria, and Mrs Pumphrey in Channel 5’s new adaptation of All Creatures Great And Small.
Sad to hear she’s gone. But what a life, what a stunning body of work.
Who else could have had an episode of Doctor Who written especially for them.
Who else could have Daniel Radcliffe pinging a condom at them as she did in Ricky Gervais’s Extras.
Who else could have rented their Maida Vale flat to David and Angie Bowie at the height of Ziggymania in 1973 (Rigg was born in the Yorkshire town of Doncaster around the corner from the other Dame’s father Haywood Stenton Jones) and then kicked them out for “excessive noise.”
She’s the top.
RIP Dame Diana Rigg
A true icon. I met her a couple of times on Game of Thrones. I played Backgammon with her once. She called me a c**t for beating her. She was fantastic. pic.twitter.com/nkxqEH0j2N
— Tony Way – Bloke Off The Telly (+films) (@tonypaulway) September 10, 2020
*Well, my favouritist singer Frank Sinatra died in 1998, not of cancer but a heart attack at 82. My paternal grandfather died of the very same thing six years previously, and the same age and issue claimed Cary Grant, my favourite actor, six years before him. Spooky.