Diana Rigg

As an icon of cool in "The Avengers," she was a good girl who hit back. Three decades later, one of the world's most elegant actresses is still knockin' em dead.

Published September 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In a scene from the 1960s TV series "The Avengers," film director Z.Z. von Schnerk describes protagonist Emma Peel in this way: "You are a woman of courage, beauty and of action. A woman who could become desperate yet remain strong, become confused yet remain intelligent, who could fight back yet remain feminine." What he left out is that she also possesses a disarming sexiness, the best leather wardrobe in the history of television and a mean karate chop.

Schnerk is a fiction, of course, as is Mrs. Peel, who was played by Diana Rigg. But his words do justice to the female half of the famed crime-fighting team and, to a large degree, to the actress who played her. With the suave John Steed (Patrick Macnee, impeccably tailored and outfitted with bowler and brolly) making up the other half of the duo, the Avengers sent cybernauts, flesh-eating monsters and professional assassins to their demise -- then toasted the day with a bottle of champagne.

When "The Avengers" was imported to the United States in 1966, Emma Peel and Diana Rigg became household names almost overnight. Britain's ITV had hired the 28-year-old actress, an inginue with the Royal Shakespeare Company, on the strength of her work on another TV project, an Armchair Theatre production of a play called "The Hothouse." Of her departure from the prestigious stage company, where she had turned heads with her portrayal of Cordelia in a celebrated Peter Brook production of "King Lear," Rigg told the Independent: "It was a perverse decision in a long line of perverse decisions." Nonetheless, with Emma Peel, Rigg walked into a role that uniquely captured the '60s Zeitgeist, and gave her a chance to reach past the neurotic Ophelias and loopy Helenas of "Hamlet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Her Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts colleagues thought Rigg had gone slumming when she took on "The Avengers." In reality, she brought a sleek, hip professionalism to a medium Shakespeare would have loved.

Indeed, the creators of the show, which ran on British television from 1961 to 1969, had updated the William Powell-Myrna Loy formula -- itself a not-so-distant echo of Shakespeare's romantic comedies -- and, with a mod visual flair and '60s Euro-jazz theme music, retooled it for the small screen. Set in swinging London, "The Avengers" cashed in on the popularity of the undercover-agent Cold War drama epitomized by the James Bond movies. And the show's format anticipated latter-day TV detective teams that paired up a professional operator with a talented amateur ("Get Smart," "Scarecrow and Mrs. King," "Hart to Hart," "Moonlighting").

Rigg was a well-fitted foil for McNee's Steed, whose old-world charm (he was something of a Regency dandy) superbly complemented Emma's mod fashions and sporty '60s lifestyle. Their characters coasted on style as much as their crime-fighting finesse, and Rigg's Emma became an icon of cool. Unlike practically every other babe on big screens and little, Emma was her partner's professional equal and not a toy.

Rigg had come on board the show in 1966, replacing Honor Blackman, who played Steed's first female sidekick, Cathy Gale. Blackman left to take on the role of the quintessential Bond girl, Pussy Galore, in "Goldfinger." Like her predecessor, Rigg soon went off to play another Bond lady friend, in her case Teresa, the Contessa di Vicenzo, in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." Despite her short stay on "The Avengers," Rigg's arrival had signaled a startling new kind of TV heroine. Her trademark karate poses, stylized as they seem now, made her the rare woman who approached the world with a physicality that wasn't entirely based on her sex appeal. She could fight back.

And she did. Viewers were glued to the set, watching Emma cavort in her black leather jumpsuits. Though they defined sartorial cool, these mainstays of Emma's wardrobe were called fighting suits by the show's designers. They had created them to give the show's heroine something to run around in that wouldn't tear. On the one hand, the cat suits were practical, just another part of Emma's crime-fighting equipment. On the other, she looked great in them. "Sometimes I see photographs of myself," Rigg recently told an interviewer, "and think, God I really was quite tasty. But I didn't know it at the time."

As rare as iconoclastic characters such as Emma Peel are today, they were nonexistent on TV in the '60s. About the same time Emma was delivering the world from evil robots, Samantha's husband, Darrin, on "Bewitched," was forbidding her to employ her witchly powers, reducing her to vacuuming.

Not only had Rigg's character broken all the rules that said good girls don't hit their attackers, she also exercised a bold new sexual and social freedom, living alone and quite independently. ("It was a case of life imitating art," Rigg once said. "I was like that myself to a degree.") Indeed, what you don't know about Emma is as interesting as what you do. Mrs. Peel is obviously a woman of means -- she drives a Lotus. What's never clear is why she wants to devote her time to fighting crime. Or where she learned to throw men twice her size. Viewers were encouraged to wonder about the limits of her relationship with Steed. Her availability is somewhat ambiguous, but by virtue of being married
(though her husband is always "away"), she's sexually
experienced -- an element not lost on the audience any more than it is
on Steed.

Emma Peel was indisputably a once-in-a-lifetime character. So where does an actress go once her days of chasing Eastern Bloc villains are over? When the robots and cybernauts and the people with sinister electronic devices who are trying to take over the world have been put in their place? Unlike many actresses who were sex symbols in their youth, Rigg survived professionally through middle age and beyond, despite never having a substantial career in Hollywood. What's fascinating about Rigg is that she has been able to navigate a life in both high art and pop culture, no less at home as a Greek anti-heroine on the stage than she was flinging wisecracks as a Cold War operative in swinging London.

In the three decades since she played Emma Peel, Rigg, 61, has gone on to become a dame of the British Empire, a Tony winner (for "Medea" in 1994), an Emmy winner (for her role as Mrs. Danvers in a 1997 "Masterpiece Theatre" version of "Rebecca"), a mother (once) and a wife (twice). In 1982, at 43, she married her longtime live-in lover, Scottish businessman Archie Stirling (their daughter, Rachael, was then 4), and is still married to him. Preceding that were an eight-year relationship with married British TV director Philip Saville, and an 11-month marriage to flamboyant Israeli artist Menachem Gueffen. "Very curiously, morality says you shouldn't live together outside the state of wedlock," she told People in 1986. "And I say, until you are prepared to make the vows and stick by them, then that's the only thing to do. I do care about marriage passionately. When it comes to a vow, I'm very proper."

Rigg is also passionate about her acting career. She's been the host of "Mystery" on PBS since 1989, when she took over from Vincent Price. Last year, she was named Cameron MacIntosh Professor of Theater at Oxford. The actress returns to television this fall, in the title role of "The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries," a series set in the 1920s that chronicles the adventures of a woman detective. (No, she's nothing like Emma Peel.) Next spring, Rigg will star in the "Masterpiece Theatre" adaptation of Henry James' "The American."

Chances are TV watchers now fall into two categories -- those who think of her as a PBS fixture and those who still fantasize about Emma Peel. (She was voted "sexiest TV star of all time" in a recent TV Guide poll.) Rigg has said repeatedly that she's surprised people still love "The Avengers." Asked if she finds it annoying or pleasant to still be introduced as Emma, the actress tends to parry the question with the sort of finesse you'd expect from her famous character. "I think one of the important things is to be known," she said to a roomful of TV critics on the eve of coming aboard "Mystery." "And to be entirely practical. Whatever you're known for you should be grateful for. Providing you're not ashamed of it, which I'm not."

Emma Peel lifted Rigg from the relative obscurity of the British theater, but the role has hardly been a road map for the rest of her career. Her one foray into American television, a short-lived NBC sitcom and "Mary Tyler Moore Show" clone called "Diana," flopped in 1973. Her list of films -- which includes "The Assassination Bureau" (1968), "A Little Night Music" (1978) and "The Great Muppet Caper" (1981) -- is unremarkable.

Rigg's most riveting work has been on the London stage and on the BBC, two mediums that have allowed her to forge an idiosyncratic second act. After "The Avengers," Rigg rejoined the RSC at Stratford, then the National Theatre, but like most actresses, then and now, she found a paucity of roles for women in their 30s and 40s except as girlfriends and wives of male protagonists. In 1975, Rigg reappeared on TV, starring in the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" production "In This House of Brede" on PBS. The series was based on the Rumer Godden classic about a businesswoman who decides to becomes a Benedictine nun.

A nun? After Emma Peel? Perhaps there really was nowhere to go after Emma. Still, Phillipa Talbot, woman of the cloth for "In This House of Brede," is a much happier sort than most of the roles Rigg took on in middle age, a collection that might be described as poisonous women and toxic mothers. "I had to swallow the fact that my career has now reached the point where I play a mother," she told TV critics in 1990 as she launched "Mother Love," a miniseries for "Mystery." In a role that has cast shadows over the rest of her career, she played a smothering, psychotic parent named Helena, an unstable woman whose husband had left her years earlier for another woman.

In the interim, Helena has become obsessively attached to her young son, Kit. We meet her on the day the grown-up Kit introduces her to his fiancie, then secretly goes off to visit his father. Kit tells his fiancie that when his mother found out about a visit with his father years before, she had tried to kill herself. "Disloyalty," Helena likes to say, "is the most dreadful of crimes." But Helena's not just possessive; she's also a dangerous criminal. We learn from flashbacks that she coldly murdered a childhood friend when the girl tried to make friends with someone else. After Kit's marriage, when Helena learns of other "betrayals," she murders her ex-husband's second wife and attempts to poison her grandchildren. Finally, she tries to kill her beloved son in a rage so powerful that it takes three people to pull her off his supine body.

"She sucks his blood to stay alive," is how another character describes Helena's relationship with her son, a phrase that beautifully conjures Rigg's performance. The actress evokes a madness -- part cat, part vampire -- that operates at the animal level. Rigg underplays Helena, brandishing a mix of physical technique and emotionally distanced line readings that underscores her character's cold-blooded calculations. She shakes Helena from her disguise as a regal, self-possessed woman and reveals her as a monster, hunched over like a manic gargoyle. Rigg's co-star, David McCallum (who played Ilya Kuryakin in the '60s TV series "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."), described "Mother Love" as "four of the most terrifying hours of television I had ever watched."

Ironically, Rigg's comeback as a maternal nightmare came after spending a decade primarily raising her own daughter, now 21. "If, at the end of 25 years," she told People, "it was said that I didn't fulfill my potential as a mother and a wife, I would be heartbroken. But if they said, 'She hasn't developed as an actress as much as she might,' I know the reasons why. And that as far as I'm concerned is good enough."

Still, the hiatus wasn't entirely her choice. Although she toured with "Colette" in 1982 and starred in the London production of "Sondheim's Follies" in 1987, she told the New York Times' Benedict Nightingale that by the early 1990s, she feared for her career. "I put my hand up and said adsum [present], and nobody wanted to know." In many ways, her life echoes those of her RSC cohorts -- Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave and Maggie Smith. Each made similar jumps, entering the theater world as sterling ingenues, falling out of sight as their first bloom faded and reemerging as cultural icons in late middle age. None of these women, however, have reclaimed their tiaras by forging the bizarre path that Rigg has taken.

Indeed, by choosing "Mother Love," Rigg seemed to respond with a vengeance to her new status as a mature woman. She may have been right to turn down typical older-women roles that are essentially window dressing. "I'm not a character actress yet," she told People in 1986. "If I'm clever about what parts I play, I'll stay a leading lady for 15 years. Then I'll switch to character roles." But given the absence of parts that explore the complexities of ordinary middle-aged and older women's lives, what's left is harridans, shrews and monsters. (Parts like Jane Tennison in "Prime Suspect" don't come along often, and Mirren got that one.) Rigg has used this unenviable situation to her advantage. She's repeatedly jumped at chances to play mothers and older women who are scary, mean, obsessive -- too awful to disappear into the background. The role of Mrs. Danvers, the creepy housekeeper and surrogate mother in "Rebecca," won her an Emmy. With the demented Lady Dedlock in Dickens' "Bleak House" for the BBC, she gave elegant dimension to an obscure character.

In case anyone wasn't paying attention to her TV work, Rigg took her new identity as a viper onto the stage -- first by actually sharing the stage with a viper. In the early 1990s, she teamed up with director Jonathan Kent, artistic director of London's Almeida Theatre, who cast her as Cleopatra in John Dryden's "All for Love," the story of an older woman as desperate as she is powerful. A few years later, also for Kent, she played Medea, the infamous Euripides character who gave birth not only to Helena in "Mother Love" but to maniacal mothers everywhere. Rigg's performance, reportedly unrelenting in its intensity and searing in its histrionics, is still the subject of debate among theatergoers. People tend to love it or hate it, but no one who saw it will forget it.

Kent also cast Rigg as the title character in the Bertolt Brecht classic "Mother Courage," her one noble role in a menagerie of vultures. But by the time she showed up last year (the Almeida tour came to New York in January 1999) in a double bill featuring adaptations of Racine's "Britannicus" and "Phedre," Rigg had irrevocably recast herself as the consummate bitch mother. This is how Sheridan Morley of the International Herald Tribune described her in "Britannicus": "Diana Rigg, lethally attired ... snaps her elegant handbag like a crocodile closing its teeth, thereby setting the mood for a wonderfully sinister and evil evening."

Indeed, by playing both Aggripina, the mother of Nero, and then the title character in "Phedre" on the heels of "Medea" and "Mother Love," she's embraced a career choice that nearly eclipses Emma Peel, albeit for a smaller audience. New York Times critic Ben Brantley, writing about her performances in the Racine plays, recalled that Rigg had seemingly "provided the last word on strangulating maternal figures in her sublimely creepy performance in the television drama" before going on to give even more nuanced portrayals of manipulative and obsessive bad moms onstage.

Is this a good thing? By thrusting herself into the maternal fray, Rigg avoided becoming a museum piece; never mind that she's redefined motherhood as something to be very, very afraid of. But has she also sacrificed any chance of ever again using her skills as a comedian? Can Emma Peel, with her sly sense of humor and whiplash comic timing, ever reemerge? In "The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries," Rigg won't exactly come full circle. It's apparently more drawing room comedy/whodunit than hip social satire. Rigg's character is a stylish old lady detective who makes snide asides into the camera, not a modern woman who turns the world on its head.

Nonetheless, Rigg in any form is a wonder to see. As for Emma Peel, she's survived the end of the Cold War, the advent of Austin Powers and the shadow of Uma Thurman in last year's forgettable "Avengers" film. Would Rigg ever play Emma again? When a reporter asked her that question in 1989, she replied, "No, we won't do it again ... We never did."

By Robin Dougherty

Robin Dougherty is a frequent contributor to Salon. She is a freelance writer who lives in Miami Beach.

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