Z. Z. von Schnerk (played by Kenneth J. Warren), a whip-wielding, egomaniacal German film director with more than a passing resemblance to Erich von Stroheim, addressing spy Emma Peel (played by Diana Rigg): “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.”-- The Avengers: Season 5, Episode 11, “Epic,” air date April 14, 1967, teleplay by Brian Clemens, directed by James Hill
In the same episode of the sly and stylish British intelligence spoof of the 1960s from which the above quote comes, Emma Peel approaches another character: “I’ve come here to appeal to you, Mr. Kirby.”
“You certainly do that,” he responded. Millions of fans worldwide chuckled, and heartily agreed.
This has been quite a week for Diana Rigg. Not only did this grand Dame (an honor conferred by Queen Elizabeth nearly 20 years ago, sort of the equivalent of knighthood for men) celebrate her 75th birthday today, but her fans also toasted her Emmy nomination as Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series in her role as Lady Olenna Tyrell in the HBO series Game of Thrones—46 years after her first Emmy nod as Emma Peel. All in all, it’s a double occasion, requiring an additional post on Rigg besides the one I wrote last year.
Whatever else happens in this competition, Dame Diana has already achieved a triumph over the restrictions placed by age on actresses beyond the ingenue stage, not to mention the slings and arrows of outrageous critics. Prominent among the latter: New York Magazine’s jaundiced John Simon, who noted of her appearance (while in her thirties) in a play's nude scene that she was “built like a brick basilica with insufficient flying buttresses.”
Once she got over the shock of the criticism, Rigg put the drubbing to good use by compiling an anthology of the worst theatrical reviews, No Turn Unstoned. Others, however, were left to wonder what Simon might have been smoking to come out with a line like that in the first place.
Rigg, as Mrs. Peel, appealed abundantly to both sexes. Women saw in her an early symbol of empowerment, someone on an equal footing with partner John Steed. (She would not be one of those heroines forever in need of rescue from villains.) As for guys—well, they couldn’t get enough of her sinuous athletic wear, not to mention that iconic black leather wardrobe.
(The latter, as recounted in Robin Dougherty’s 1999 Salon article on Peel, was something of a happy accident. The show’s designers called her wardrobe “fighting suits,” envisioning these for the very practical reason that they needed something that wouldn’t tear when she went into her exertions against assorted baddies. A happy byproduct was that Rigg looked great in them.)
Rigg’s work extends far beyond Emma Peel or Lady Olenna. James Bond fans will recall that she got 007 to the altar in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (and died for her trouble). Also onscreen, she had a terrific supporting role as a young woman who took up with suicidal, middle-aged hospital administrator George C. Scott in Paddy Chayefsky’s The Hospital. On TV, she won an Emmy for her role as Mrs. Danvers in a 1997 PBS adaptation of Rebecca, hosted Masterpiece Mystery from 1989 to 2004, and, back in the ‘70s, briefly had her own sitcom. Onstage, Simon notwithstanding, she produced especially terrific work, whether in Shakespeare (both virtuous Cordelia and villainous Regan in different productions of King Lear) or Sondheim (Follies).
Rigg need not take a back seat to her extraordinary contemporaries Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave. Intelligence and class always find a way.