Dame Diana Rigg, who has died aged 82, was one of the most gifted classical stage actresses of her generation, yet to most people her name is indelibly associated with a television role she made famous in the 1960s – that of the sexy secret agent Emma Peel in The Avengers.
Decked out in a provocatively tight PVC catsuit, Emma Peel – “the internationally educated daughter of a wealthy shipowner and youthful widow of a famous test pilot” – was a peerless female role model for the era: an expert in the martial arts; a gifted chemist; brainy at business; sensitive to the arts; and a demon driver in her Lotus Elan.
Her arrival heralded a revamping of the series from a straightforward thriller format to something more resembling a spoof, featuring zany villains and macabre plots. Much of its appeal resided in its tongue-in-cheek humour, and Diana Rigg’s skills as a comedy actress were an important part of the formula.
In one episode, which re-created the Hell Fire Club, she designed her own “Queen of Sin” costume, featuring an iron collar with three-inch spikes, a low-cut black Edwardian corset and knee-high leather boots; over her arm she draped a 3ft-long python.
Diana Rigg’s portrayal of Emma turned her into one of the great sex symbols of the 1960s. An overcome Michael Parkinson, who interviewed her in 1972, declared that she “radiated a lustrous beauty” and hailed her as the most desirable woman he had ever met.
The series was a hit in both Britain and America and then worldwide, generating an international fan club for Diana Rigg, who recalled receiving “lots of very strange letters, mainly from very young boys”.
Her mother, Beryl, would sometimes answer these breathless missives: “Those aren’t very nice thoughts. And besides, my daughter is too old for you. I suggest you take a run around the block.” Meanwhile, a group of gay men in America presented her with a scroll declaring that she was the woman they “would be most likely to go straight for”.
It says much about Diana Rigg’s artistry and professionalism that, having been the object of such drooling adoration, she went on to forge a brilliant career, continuing to impress and delight audiences until she was well into her seventies. No less a judge than Laurence Olivier once described her as “a brilliantly skilled and delicious actress”.
Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg was born on July 20 1938 at Doncaster. Her father, Louis, was a mechanical engineer, and when she was two months old his work took the family to Jodhpur in India.
When she was eight she was sent to a boarding school at Great Missenden, in Buckinghamshire, and from there to Fulneck Girls’ School at Pudsey, near Leeds, where she was by her own account “quite unhappy … Classes were incredibly boring. I took to dreaming. They took to punishing me.”
A sympathetic teacher, however, steered Diana towards the stage, and – in defiance of her parents’ wishes – she applied successfully for a place at Rada. She took little more interest in Rada than she had in her school, and spent much of her time exploring sexual relationships.
But in 1957 she made her professional debut, at York, in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, following this with several more appearances in repertory. Meanwhile, she worked as a waitress and fashion model to help make ends meet.
In 1959 she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon, the next year appearing as Andromache in Troilus and Cressida. In 1961, at the Aldwych, she was seen in The Devils, Anouilh’s Becket and The Taming of the Shrew, in which her Bianca was praised by The Daily Telegraph’s WA Darlington as revealing “the amusing touch of the minx in her”.
She was named as one of the most promising newcomers of the 1960-61 season by Plays and Players. In these early days she subsisted on a diet of wood pigeon and faggots.
Her gift for comedy became clear when she took the roles of Helena in Peter Hall’s acclaimed production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Stratford, 1962) and Adriana in The Comedy of Errors (Aldwych, 1963). But her range was extensive: she played Lady Macduff in Macbeth and Cordelia in Peter Brook’s King Lear.
In 1964 she accompanied the RSC on a tour of Russia, Eastern Europe and the United States with The Comedy of Errors and Lear. She left the company in 1964, and it was later that year that she secured the role of Emma Peel in The Avengers.
In fear of being typecast, Diana Rigg left The Avengers in 1967 after making 52 episodes and receiving Emmy nominations for best actress in a dramatic series in both 1967 and 1968. While making the show, she had continued to make occasional appearances with the RSC, for example as Viola in Twelfth Night in 1966.
Now she set her sights on breaking into films, making her debut (alongside Oliver Reed, Telly Savalas and Curt Jurgens) in The Assassination Bureau Limited (1969), based on Jack London’s unfinished thriller about a secret organisation which rids of the world of the evil and corrupt.
In the same year she appeared as an international playgirl (and James Bond’s one and only wife) alongside George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; and in 1970 she played Portia in the film of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, with Charlton Heston and Sir John Gielgud.
In 1970-71 Diana Rigg caused a stir by appearing nude on stage in Abelard and Heloise at Wyndham’s Theatre and at the Brooks Atkinson in New York. Clive Barnes, in The New York Times, praised her performance as “perfect, as sensuous as a cat, with hidden fires beneath the surface, and a radiant beauty far more beguiling than that of many more obviously pretty women”; and she was nominated for a Tony Award as best actress in a dramatic play.
Not every critic, however, was bowled over, one being ill-mannered enough to observe of her nude scene: “Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses” – a barb that inspired her to compile a collection of bad and unkind theatre reviews in a book, No Turn Unstoned, which she published in 1982.
In fact, the stage was where she excelled. She joined the National Theatre, playing Dottie in Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers (1972), and then, in the same year, an outstanding Lady Macbeth. In John Dexter’s modern-dress production of Molière’s The Misanthrope (1973), her Célimène was hailed by one critic as confirming her “growing authority as an actress”.
She was The Governor’s Wife in Phaedra Britannica (Old Vic, 1975); Ruth Carson in Night and Day (Phoenix, 1978); Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (Albery, 1974); and Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra (Chichester, 1985). In the musical Follies (Shaftesbury, 1987), she was praised by Francis King in The Sunday Telegraph for a “brilliant performance”.
Other notable stage performances included lead roles in Medea (Almeida, 1992, Wyndhams, 1993–94 and New York, 1994, where she won a Tony Award); Mother Courage (National Theatre, 1995); and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Almeida, 1996).
She was in Phèdre and Britannicus at the Albery in 1998, and after the millennium remained busy with roles in productions such as Humble Boy (National, 2001); Suddenly Last Summer (Albery, 2004); Honour (Wyndham’s, 2006); All About my Mother (Old Vic, 2007); The Cherry Orchard (Chichester, 2008); and Hay Fever (also Chichester, 2009).
Diana Rigg complained in 1986 that she had “never really cracked films – I never quite seemed to get it right.” Among her excursions on to the big screen were the Oscar-winning The Hospital (1971), with George C Scott; Theatre of Blood (1973), in which she played the daughter of Vincent Price as an actor seeking to murder a collection of critics who failed to give him a best actor award; and A Little Night Music (1977), alongside Elizabeth Taylor.
She also appeared in A Good Man in Africa, based on the novel by William Boyd (1994); Paul Marcus’s Heidi (2005); and The Painted Veil (2006). She received the Variety Club’s Film Actress of the Year Award in 1983 for her performance as Arlena Marshall, who winds up strangled in Evil Under The Sun, in which Peter Ustinov stars as Hercule Poirot.
On television, Diana Rigg took the title role in Hedda Gabler (1981); played Lady Dedlock in the series of Bleak House (1985); and appeared in productions including Mother Love (for which she won a Bafta), Unexplained Laughter, the serial of Moll Flanders, Rebecca (winning an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in 1997) and Victoria and Albert.
She also appeared in an American television comedy series built around her, Diana (1973), in which she played a divorced British dress designer who had settled in New York.
Diana Rigg’s flair for playing strong women left its mark on a new generation of viewers when in 2013 she began featuring in the blockbuster HBO series Game of Thrones, bringing powerful presence to the role of Lady Olenna Tyrell, the fearless and mordantly witty “Queen of Thorns”, her face encased in a variety of elaborate wimples. The character’s scheming drives the plot in crucial ways.
“I couldn’t ask for better lines,” Diana Rigg said on The Andrew Marr Show. For her performance she was nominated for Emmy awards four times between 2013 and 2018.
She is currently appearing on television as Mrs Pumphrey, owner of the pampered Pekingese Tricki Woo, in the popular Channel Five remake of James Herriot’s tales of a Yorkshire vet, All Creatures Great and Small. And she is due to appear in a BBC adaptation of Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus.
Diana Rigg was Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University in 1999; an Emeritus Fellow of St Catherine’s College, Oxford; and Chancellor of Stirling University from 1997 to 2008.
She was appointed CBE in 1988 and DBE in 1994.
After living for eight years with the writer and director Philip Saville, Diana Rigg married, in 1973, the Israeli artist Menahem Gueffen. The union broke down after 11 months, and she married secondly, in 1982 (dissolved 1990), Archibald Stirling, the theatre producer and landowner; they had a daughter, the actress Rachael Stirling.
Dame Diana Rigg, born July 20 1938, died September 10 2020