Last week I talked about the death of actor Chadwick Boseman; this week it’s my sad duty again to talk about another icon of stage and screen, Dame Diana Rigg. Figure 1 shows how most of us who were young men in the sixties would remember seeing her first: as Mrs. Emma Peel, partner of John Steed (Patrick Macnee) in the British series The Avengers, a tongue-in-cheek exploration of the then-hot concept of spies and secret agents. The series had previously had other actresses; according to Toronto fan and artist Taral Wayne, “Carol Wilson was first, then nightclub singer Venus Smith. Only then did Honor Blackman step into the role of Steed’s regular partner,” as Cathy Gayle. I remember watching a few Avengers with Cathy Gayle, but the series didn’t really take off until Ms. Rigg stepped in and became the mod feminine counterpart to Macnee’s bowler-hatted and brollied Steed in a much more light-hearted version of the show. (Even her name was tongue-in-cheek: “Ema Peel is “man-appeal.”)
The series really found its footing when she joined and the whole thing went “mod.” Steed became the dry masculine foil for Mrs. Peel’s judo-throwing, often leather-clad character. The series also verged on the SF, often mixing in mad scientists and the like. But although Rigg’s pretty face and slim form was attractive to the male sex, they never pushed the idea that Steed and Peel had a “thing going on,” as singer Billy Paul might have put it. But Mrs. Peel also had her own dry wit, and the viewer was sometimes left with the impression that perhaps she was the leader of the band rather than Steed. There were depths there. She played the role for three years, then branched out into film.
In the 1969 Bond film based on Ian Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, she played Tracy, daughter of the leader of the Union Corse—a quasi-criminal group—and marries Bond, played by male model George Lazenby in one of the few Bond movies that is fairly faithful to the original book. Alas, the marriage didn’t last long, as Tracy is killed by Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his cohort Irma Bunt.
Rigg, previous to her television career, had been a stage actor, and had joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1959. She continued acting on stage and screen, making her Broadway debut in Abelard and Heloise in 1971. She won numerous awards, including a Tony for Medea, and a BAFTA and Emmy for her TV work. She appeared on Doctor Who in 2013, and capped her career with her final appearances as Lady Oleana Tyrell on the TV adaptation, Game of Thrones, of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series.
Numerous of my friends were able to see her on stage, but I never did. Firesign Theatre’s Philip Proctor said “A sweet, funny, sexy lady. I did a pilot with her in the 70s, and for our first live taping, she gave me a prehistoric petrified clam. Enough said. We last talked years ago in London at a performance of G. B. Shaw’s “Pygmalion” playing Rupert Everett’s Mother. Loved her.”
She will definitely be missed by me and many others.
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