Catsuits, 'Man Appeal', and fetishistic fan films: Diana Rigg's love-hate relationship with Emma Peel

Diana Rigg in the fabled short film Das Diadem
Diana Rigg in the fabled short film Das Diadem

When Dame Diana Rigg auditioned to play Emma Peel in The Avengers – the role for which was still best known more than 50 years later – she did for “for a giggle”. Speaking about The Avengers at London’s British Film Institute in 2015, Rigg confessed: “I was completely and utterly naïve about the Avengers... I hadn’t seen it, I didn’t know what it was about, I had absolutely no idea at all.”

As the deliriously sexy Emma Peel, Rigg was a tough-as-nails feminist icon and crime-fighting partner to the bowler-hatted agent John Steed (Patrick Macnee). Previously, Steed was paired with the years-ahead-of-her-time Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), who was a dab-hand with the judo throw. With Emma Peel at Steed’s side, The Avengers became a worldwide phenomenon.

But Rigg, who passed away yesterday aged 82, struggled with the huge fame that came with The Avengers. She became a sex symbol overnight ("The mantle got put round my shoulders,” Rigg said in 1999, “which made me feel deeply uncomfortable”). She also endured a punishing production schedule and battled behind the scenes for equal pay.

“That was my first battle with male authority,” Rigg told Variety last year. “I discovered after a while in The Avengers that I was earning less than the cameraman. I made a bit of a song and dance about it and demanded more. I was ahead of the game, in that respect, because nobody backed me up. There was no sisterhood. In those days, you were on your own.”

But despite the issues, Diana Rigg seemed to have an affinity with character. She would later describe herself as “grateful” for the role, and defended the idea of a character who was both a feminist heroine and sex bomb. “What did they want, hairy legs?” she said about the critics. “Why not present glamour at the same time as self–sufficiency?”

There was also the case of mysterious, little-known films made in the late Sixties, which kept Avengers fans guessing for years. These silent, foreign-made shorts have been the source of much speculation, and Rigg never acknowledged their existence. “You will not find them listed on any official Rigg filmography,” wrote biographer Kathleen Tracy.

Playing out like Avengers spin-offs – with Rigg in ultra-sexy mode, back in the catsuit, and fighting her way through henchmen – they may have been proof that Diana Rigg really did get a kick out of being pop culture’s premier sex symbol.

Back in 1962, Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale broke new ground, pitched as a hard-fighting equal to John Steed. Steed’s original partner had been a man, Dr David Keel played by Ian Hendry. But, as Rigg explained later, when Hendry quit, they didn’t bother to rewrite the scripts, which gave Blackman’s new character a stronger, masculine stance next to John Steed. “She was ahead of her time,” said Rigg. “I wish it was a result of the writers being ahead of their time. But they weren’t.”

When Blackman left to play Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, The Avengers producers couldn’t replace her: Blackman owned the role of Cathy Gale. They had to invent a new character. As The Avengers lore goes, press officer Marie Donaldson came up with the idea for a new name. The character needed “Man Appeal”, which became “M. Appeal” and finally “Emma Peel”. “I do hate the name,” said Rigg in 2017. “Talk about cliché.”

Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in The Avengers - Getty
Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in The Avengers - Getty

Originally, Elizabeth Shepherd was cast as Emma Peel but was fired after filming just one and a bit episodes. Macnee called her “a square peg in a round hole”. Replacing Shepherd was a costly decision. By the time Rigg auditioned, she had already been with Royal Shakespeare Company and was looking to “broaden” her work. The Avengers casting director, Dodo Watts, recommended Rigg on the strength of her role in the Armchair Theatre drama The Hothouse.

When Rigg screen tested, she had an instant chemistry with Macnee, with whom she became close friends. She affectionately called “Paddy Nee” and later described him as “a deeply generous dear, dear man”. Rigg thought that Macnee “probably said a word in the producer’s ear” to land her the role.

Joining in 1965, “Mrs Peel” (as Steed called her) was married to a pilot whose plane had gone MIA over the Amazonian rainforest. Peel enjoyed a playful, innuendo-laden relationship with Steed. Scenes of them sauntering around each other’s apartments (Peel lived in a gadget-filled penthouse in Hampstead) left an “Are they? Aren’t they?” question lingering over the relationship (Macnee claimed they were, the producers told him they weren’t, and Rigg later said the mystery made it all the more interesting).

The enduring image of Rigg as Emma Peel is a leather catsuit. In truth, she wore the leather catsuits sparingly. “They were deeply uncomfortable and hot and sticky,” she later said. Designer John Bates created her wardrobe, filled with black and white op-art pieces and miniskirts. When the show changed to colour, designer Alun Hughes created the trademark “Emmapeeler” catsuit – colourful, stretch jersey outfits.

Diana Rigg modelling the Emmapeeler catsuit
Diana Rigg modelling the Emmapeeler catsuit

Like Cathy Gale before her, Peel was adept at fighting – though was more a karate-chopper than judo-thrower – which made her the irresistible combo of smart, stylish, and seriously tough (“I enjoy the rough stuff,” Rigg told the Daily Mail. “It’s fun knocking people about and getting paid for it”). Consequently, Emma Peel became an icon for Sixties feminism. “Without over embellishing her influence, I truly do think that she was a very, very potent influence in women claiming their place in the world,” said Rigg in 2015.

The show went under major changes during Rigg’s tenure. Thanks to a deal with the US network, it went from black and white to colour (“I never thought of myself as being on the cusp on black and white and colour but I am,” Rigg joked). Shooting was also switched from video tape to film – giving it a grander, more audacious look – and the upper-crust Britishness was ramped up. The show broadcast in 120 countries, and Rigg was nominated for consecutive Emmys in 1967 and 1968.

But, as detailed in Kathleen Tracy’s biography, Rigg struggled with the fame. “It was odd, suddenly having everybody recognise you,” she said. “I gave out autographs for a while and then decided to stop. I was working one day when a group of holiday makers approached me for an autograph, I refused and they started booing and hissing. I was terrified.”

She told The Sunday Telegraph that being recognised made her “paranoid” and gave her an “underlying urge to pack and run.” She continued: “It is a curious thing. People who have never been subjected to it can never really understand what it means. I can only describe it as a send of panic that seizes you when you are Diana to yourself and you are walking down the street. An instant later, you are somebody else to a lot of people who behave as if you belong to them, If you are quite a private person, which I am, this seems an intrusion on my privacy. I just have to run.”

Diana Rigg in 1970 - AFP
Diana Rigg in 1970 - AFP

While in the role, Rigg received a huge amount of fan mail: some rooted in the fantasy of her as Emma Peel, some all-too personal (“There have been letters from children saying, ‘You look like my dead mother and I want to write to you’”), and letters from horny teenagers. Rigg charged her mother with handling the mail.

“Becoming a sex symbol shocked me,” Rigg told The Guardian last year. “I didn’t know how to handle it and 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. 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!’”

The production schedule on The Avengers was grueling: 60 pages of script to learn each week, working 12-14 hour days and seven-day weeks. Rigg starred in 50 episodes over just two years. She felt used by producers after finding out the cameraman was earning more.

“I kicked up a fuss and I became incredibly unpopular as a result,” she said. “Because the English press absolutely latched on to it and I was made out to be a mercenary and a jumped-up actress who should be grateful for the opportunity.”

It was, she said, considered “very bad form” to want more. As she told The Guardian last year: “Not one woman in the industry supported me when I demanded more money after finding out the cameraman on The Avengers was paid a lot more than me. Neither did Patrick, though I never held it against him, I adored him. 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.”

Diana Rigg's mysterious short film The Minikillers
Diana Rigg's mysterious short film The Minikillers

Rigg negotiated to have her salary tripled, from £150 to £450 per episode. She later said, with Queen of Thorns-style acid tongue, she might have instilled “a touch of fear” in the producers (as Patrick Macnee once said about Emma Peel: “I’m glad she’s on my side. I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end.”) But Rigg still decided to leave the show at the end of her second series. She was conflicted about leaving Macnee – “I felt like I was ditching him,” she later said – but Macnee encouraged her to do what was best for her career and self. At one point, Rigg was performing in both The Avengers and Twelfth Night. In the show, Emma Peel departed after her husband – dressed remarkably like Steed – returned from the Amazon.

“I simply had to leave the series," she explained. "The Avengers was fun but I had no idea when I followed Honor that it would make me a name like this. I began to feel claustrophobic."

Two years after departing The Avengers, Rigg followed Honor Blackman again by starring in a Bond film – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with George Lazenby. Rigg played Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo (otherwise known as Tracy),the only woman to marry Bond. But quickly she paid for it: Blofeld killed her immediately after the wedding. “It's quite alright, really, she's having a rest," says Lazenby, in Bond's most affecting moment.

While Rigg was best known for the roles in The Avengers and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, around the same time she made the obscure foreign shorts – The Diadem and Mini-Killers, made in 1966 and 69 respectively – which played up to the sex bomb persona. Indeed, these shorts could be seen as unofficial Avengers episodes, with Rigg ostensibly moonlighting as Emma Peel. Distributed on 8mm, there’s a psychedelic, sleazy quality to them – the kind of thing you’d imagine the most hardcore Avengers fans might watch in secret on a Seventies stag-do. The Avengers Forever website calls them (quite rightly) “embarrassingly dreadful”.

“So far, nobody has come forward with an explanation of how either Das Diadem or The Mini-Killers came into being or how Rigg became involved with the projects,” wrote biographer Kathleen Tracy.

The Diadem, shot in black and white, was made in Germany and exists in two forms – a 13-minute version and 19-minute version. The longer version is believed to be a work print. In the film, Rigg pilots a plane, cruises in a slick motor, and swims with dolphins in one especially odd sequence. In the story, a mystery stalker steals a tiara – the diadem of the title – and Rigg dishes out an Avengers-style kicking to some henchmen.

Mini-Killers, made in Spain, looks like a bit more cash behind it (though still not much for actual sound). It’s in colour, and has Bond-like aspirations with its exotic locales. The story is told in four parts: slinking around in various Sixties styles – a black catsuit, bikini, and party dresses – Rigg investigates a group of assassins who use a killer doll that sprays a poison from its eyes (Q Branch, this is not). She takes out the bad guys and celebrates with a glass of bubbly.

Diana Rigg in Das Diadem
Diana Rigg in Das Diadem

Mini-Killers directed by Wolfgang von Chmielewski, who was from the German TV station WDR, and co-starred José Nieto and Jack Rocha, who appeared in Spanish exploitation flicks. Versions of Mini-Killers range between 28 and 42 minutes, depending on if you're watching a slightly sped-up version.

There has been speculation that the films were just a cash-in on Rigg's sex symbol status, or a test run to get her own film made after she'd bought a house on an island off the Spanish coast. But in late 2008, one of the actors from The Diadem appeared on a German television and shed some light on the mystery. They were, he explained, completely amateur productions, and were intended as entertainment for customers at petrol stations, who would sit in their cars while waiting to be filled-up or serviced.

The films needed a commercial star, and one of the filmmakers bumped into a school friend, who had been working in London as a journalist and passed on the details of Rigg’s management. They negotiated for Rigg to appear in the films – first in Germany and then Spain – and while the production company didn’t survive, the films did. They were being distributed by a French fan site at one point, and now exist on YouTube.

Rigg’s sex symbol status continued, too. In 1999 she was voted sexiest TV star of all time. The Guardian wrote that Rigg, then aged 61, “still has the legs regularly to sport a mini-skirt.” In response to winning the sexiest star accolade, Rigg said: "Sometimes I see photographs of myself and I think, God, I was really quite tasty. But I didn't know it at the time."