❉ “Gloat all you like. But just remember… I’m the star of this picture!”
“It’s quite all right, really. She’s having a rest. We’ll be going on soon. There’s no hurry, you see. We have all the time in the world”
Iconic. In the post-postmodern 2010s, never has an adjective been more abused and over-used, but rarely its use more apposite than to describe Dame Diana Rigg, who passed away aged 82 in the early hours of Thursday 10 September, 2020.
The march of time is relentless and unforgiving, but some performers are so embedded into our cultural landscape that their passing leaves us blindsided and shellshocked, and so it is with Dame Diana: Within minutes of the news of her death, timelines on social media were flooded with images, GIFs and tributes to her life and legacy, a legacy that seemed unstoppable with her reign in modern-day phenomenon Game Of Thrones and an all-too-recent appearance in Channel 5’s revival of All Creatures Great & Small, effortlessly stealing the show as Mrs Pomphrey.
Indeed, only this morning I was channel-surfing while partaking of my first coffee of the day and happened upon an Avengers episode on ITV4, Something Nasty In the Nursery, where if she wasn’t going to toe-to-toe with Steed in bouts of verbal sparring and intellectual brinskmanship, she was outrunning the baddies’ attempts to dispatch her (or her stunt double) with nimble-footed, athletic balleticism.
By the time she became known to a worldwide audience on TV screens as Mrs Emma Peel, Rigg had already earned her stripes as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1955 to 1965, after graduating from RADA, and although theatre would be her first and most enduring love, it was as one half of quirky crime-fighting duo The Avengers alongside the dapper, dignified Patrick Macnee, aka John Steed, she made a place for herself in pop culture history.
In terms of breaking new ground as a capable, proto-feminist leading lady of the small screen, as quick with her wit as her fists, she had only one forerunner – her immediate predecessor, Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, but Blackman too has been taken from us this year, leaving Linda Thorson as the last woman standing from the original Avengers.
With her rapier-sharp wit and intelligence, cut-glass accent and cheekbones, catsuits and trouser suits, and the sparkling repartee and rapport she enjoyed with her equal partner Steed across three seasons that saw the transition from moody black & white to eyeball-bashing Pop Art colour, Rigg and Macnee made The Avengers a transatlantic brand, as emblematic of the original Cool Britannia as the Beatles and Stones and one of the UK’s biggest ‘cult’ TV exports alongside its stylistic sibling The Prisoner, Doctor Who and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Many of her episodes have gone on to become classics of the psychedelic spy-fi era, such as the paranoid techno-thriller The House That Jack Built, the ‘quite fantastic’ Honey For The Prince, Hellfire Club kink-fest A Touch of Brimstone and the uber-campy, bad taste extravaganza Epic, where she taunted Peter Wyngarde and his acolytes, “Gloat all you like. But just remember… I’m the star of this picture!”
Upon leaving The Avengers’ uniquely English world of eccentric oddball villains, she followed in Honor Blackman’s leather booted footsteps by springboarding into the world of that other icon of sixties espionage thrills, James Bond, as Tracy in the sublime On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – but whereas Blackman’s Pussy Galore was a lesbian-coded sidekick whose deviant ways would be tamed by Bond’s priapic prowess, Tracy Draco would achieve what no other ‘Bond girl’ managed before or since, by joining together with 007 in matrimony – albeit of the tragic, short-lived kind. Even in the continuity-be-damned world of the Bond cinematic canon, the death of the one and only Mrs Bond would be acknowledged in the opening scene of For Your Eyes Only.
Beyond these key genre roles, she would keep moving, keep working, her talents always in demand, from middle age and into old age. Across the decades, she returned to theatre, adding to her formidable stage CV with award-winning, box office-busting leading roles on stage in the likes of Abelard & Heloise and Medea, and essayed a number of one-off roles on both big and small screen that would further make an impression on fans of multiple generations through the decade, all suffused with her customary poise and elegance, crisp yet smoky enunciation (the legacy of a lifelong smoking habit), and brought a tangible, fierce intelligence and shrewd mind to her every performance.
She took on a dual role in the Grand Guignol grotesquerie of Vincent Price’s uber-dark horror comedy Theatre of Blood, as the grieving daughter of Price’s much-maligned ham thespian and his sidekick ‘Butch’ – doubtless the film’s riffing on the many bloody deaths found in the Shakespearan canon would have amused this RSC graduate – and further endeared herself to her gay following and lovers of camp in the regularly-rescreened 1982 movie adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Evil Under The Sun, modelling a series of Art Deco costumes and trading catty reposts with Maggie Smith and Dennis Quilley. That same year she notched up another Christie credit in a TV Movie of Witness of the Prosecution, memorable as Christine Vole in a star-studded cast of veteran actors including Michael Gough, Ralph Richardson, Donald Pleasance and Deborah Kerr.
Generation X’ers may have first encountered Rigg in the first small-screen adaptation of Jilly Murphy’s much-loved The Worst Witch books starring a young Fairuza Balk (The Craft), as the ice-cold Miss Hardbroom, headmistress of Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches; this was a role that she allegedly took on as the stories were a favourite of her daughter, Rachael Stirling, who would later make a name for herself in Andrew Davies’ BBC adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Tipping The Velvet, and share credits with her mother in the cosy sitcom The Detectorists and The Crimson Horror, one of the finest Doctor Who episodes of the Matt Smith era, where Rigg gave a truly juicy and evil turn as the villainous Mrs Gillyflower – a role in which Doncaster-born Rigg exchanged her familiar RADA-trained received pronunciation for a strong Northern accent.
Most cherishable among her later star vehicles was Mrs Bradley Mysteries, based on the character created by detective writer Gladys Mitchell.
Perhaps Rigg’s darkest and most powerful role was in 1989’s BBC drama Mother Love – a disturbing and very adult drama based on Domini Taylor’s novel of the same name about a mother’s obsessive love for her son (James Wilby), and which scooped Rigg that year’s BAFTA award for Best Actress. A few years prior, in an acclaimed serialisation of Dickens’ Bleak House (1985) she brought a similar case of chilling sang froid masking a tragic psychology, as Lady Dedlock. Both serials were dramatised by Andrew Davies and rewarded Rigg with highly coveted Radio Times covers.
In the last decade, Rigg became a TV icon once again as the cunning Lady OIlenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones, giving birth to numerous memes, GIFs and endlessly quotable lines of dialogue and bringing immeasurable class and sass to this juggernaut of modern television.
‘Class’ is a word that can be applied to Rigg’s performances and demeanour again and again, both in her acting roles and everyday deportment – an aspect of her persona that was wonderfully played-off against and heightened in Extras, playing a version of herself opposite Daniel Radcliffe. Not known to suffer fools gladly, she was by the same token known to be gracious to fans and junior members of the acting profession, and for all her credits and honorifics, at the end of the day saw herself as a worker, a professional, rather than a star, being uncomfortable with the label ‘celebrity’ since her Emma Peel days.
The class and humility that was a byword for Rigg was a characteristic that was evident even in her last moments, as her daughter Rachael Stirling, said on the announcement of her death: “My Beloved Ma … 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.”
Diana Rigg fans can still look forward to enjoying her in her last performance, Last Night In Soho, currently in post-production and also featuring Matt Smith, Terence Stamp and Rita Tushingham.
Rest in Power, Dame Diana Rigg. Mrs Peel – you will always be needed.
❉ Written by James Gent, Editor of We Are Cult.