British Actor

After shooting her first twelve episodes in the role of Mrs. Emma Peel in The Avengers, Diana Rigg made one of those discoveries most likely to madden newly-minted stars: her weekly salary as the female lead in an already highly successful series was 30 less than what The Avengers' lowly cameraman earned. Rigg had not even been the first choice to replace the popular Honor Blackman as Steed's accomplice; the first actress cast had been sacked after two weeks. The role then fell to Rigg, whose television resume at the time consisted only of a guest appearance on The Sentimental Agent and a performance of Donald Churchill's The Hothouse.

Rigg's stage experience, however, was already solid. After joining the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in 1959, the same year as Vanessa Redgrave, Rigg had steadily amassed a strong string of credits, including playing Cordelia to Paul Schofield's Lear. Years later Rigg described the rational for her turn to television: "The trouble with staying with a classical company is that you get known as a 'lady actress.' No one ever thinks of you except for parts in long skirts and blank verse."

Rigg's salary complaints were quickly satisfied, and American audiences, who had never been exposed to Blackman's Avengers episodes until the early 1990s, just as quickly embraced Rigg's startlingly assertive (but always upper class) character. Peel's name may have been simply a play upon the character's hoped for "man appeal," but Rigg's embodiment of the role suggested a much more utopian representation of women; like Peel--and the Rigg presented in interviews--women might be intelligent, independent, and sexually confident. After three seasons and an Emmy nomination, Rigg left the series in 1968, claiming "Emma Peel is not fully emancipated." Still, she resisted publicly associating herself with feminism; to the contrary, Rigg flippantly claimed to find "the whole feminist thing very boring."

Following Blackman into Bond films (in 1964 Blackman had been Goldfinger's Pussy Galore), Rigg's presence in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) as the tragic Mrs. James Bond added intertextual interest to the film. Paired with the unfamiliar George Lazenby as Bond, it was Rigg who carried the film's spy genre credentials, even though her suicidal, spoiled character displayed few of Peel's many abilities. But the British spy genre had already begun to collapse, followed by rest of the nation's film industry, and Rigg's career as a movie star never soared.

Rigg did not immediately return to series television. In fact, she publicly attributed her problems on film to having learned to act for television only too well--she had become too "facile" before film cameras, a trait necessitated by the grueling pace of series production. Apparently her stage skills remained unaffected, and Rigg went on to assay a wide range of both classical and contemporary roles as a member of the RSC, the National Theatre, and Broadway. But while Rigg has originated the lead roles in such stylish works as Tom Stoppard's Jumpers (1972), the stage work she performed for television broadcast tended to fit more snugly into familiar anglophilic conventions. In the United States, these television appearances early on included The Comedy of Errors (1967) and Women Beware Women (1968) for N.E.T. Playhouse; in the 1980s, they included Hedda Gabler, Witness for the Prosecution, Lady Dedlock in a multi-part adaptation of Bleak House (1985), and Laurence Olivier's King Lear (1985).

During the decade between, however, NBC attempted to capitalize upon what Rigg jokingly called her "exploitable potential" following The Avengers. After one failed pilot, the network picked up Diana (1973-74), a Mary Tyler Moore Show-inspired sitcom, and Rigg returned to series television as a British expatriate working in New York's fashion industry. As if to acknowledge the sexual daring of her first series, Rigg's character became American sitcoms' first divorcee, just as Moore's character had been initially conceived. But the comic actress television critics had once praised as wry and deliberately understated did not appear; in Diana, Rigg appeared rather bland, and the series provided no Steed for verbal repartee. (Perhaps even more damning, Diana showed few traces of The Avengers always dashing fashion sense.) NBC programmed Diana during what had once been The Avengers' time slot, but the sitcom shortly disappeared.

Only a year later Rigg successfully played off both her previous roles and her sometimes bawdy public persona in a sober religious drama, In This House of Brede (1975). Portraying a successful businesswoman entering a convent, Rigg's combination of restraint and technique seemed quintessentially British, and earned her a second Emmy nomination.

In recent years, however, Rigg's range of roles seem more limited to one-dimensional versions of the days when she masqueraded as The Avengers' "Queen of Sin." Of course middle age has, as for many other women, resulted in a narrowed range of options, particularly in film. Still, Rigg carries a coolly sexual charge: she has taken on a range of "ageless" stage roles (including Medea, for which she won a 1994 Tony award), as well as more and more character roles on television. Most often these latter roles are villainous to some degree, whether in bodice rippers (A Hazard of Hearts, 1987), light comedy (Mrs. 'arris Goes to Paris, 1992), or edgy comedy like the Holocaust farce Genghis Cohn (1994).

In 1990, Rigg impressed American audiences as the star of an Oedipal nightmare, Mother Love, a multi-part British import presented as part of the PBS series, Mystery! Rigg had also succeeded Vincent Price in hosting Mystery! in 1989. In a sense, Rigg has become that "lady actress" she had once entered television to avoid: ensconced in finely tailored suits and beaded gowns, her performance as host displays all the genteel, ambassadorial authority of a woman now entitled to be addressed as Dame Rigg (Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire, 1994).

-Robert Dickinson


Diana Rigg
Photo courtesy of Diana Rigg

DIANA RIGG. Born in Doncaster, Yorkshire, England, 20 July 1938. Attended Fulneck Girls' School, Pudsey; Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London. Married: 1) Menachem Gueffen, 1973 (divorced, 1974); 2) Archibald Stirling, 1982; child: Rachel. Began career as stage actor, making debut with RADA during the York Festival at the Theatre Royal, York, 1957; made London stage debut, 1961; member, Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), 1959-64; made London debut with RSC, Aldwych Theatre, London, 1961; toured Europe and the United States with RSC, 1964; made television debut as Emma Peel in The Avengers, 1965; film debut, 1967; joined National Theatre company, 1972; has since continued to appear in starring roles both on screen and on stage; director, United British Artists, since 1982; vice-president, Baby Life Support Systems, since 1984. Companion of the Order of the British Empire, 1988; Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, 1994. Chair: Islington Festival; MacRoberts Arts Centre. Recipient: Plays and Players Award for Best Actress, 1975, 1979; Variety Club Film Actress of the Year Award, 1983; British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award, 1989; Evening Standard Drama Award, 1993; Tony Award, 1994. Address: London Management, 235 Regent Street, London W1A 2JT, England.


1965-67 The Avengers
1973-74 Diana
1989- Mystery! (host)


1975 In This House of Brede
1982 Witness for the Prosecution
1987 A Hazard of Hearts
1989 Mother Love
1994 Genghis Cohn
1995 The Haunting of Helen Walker
1996 Chandler and Co.


1964 The Hothouse
1981 Hedda Gabler
1982 King Lear
1985 Bleak House
1986 Masterpiece Theatre: 15 Years
1992 The Laurence Olivier Awards
1992 (host)

FILMS (selection)

Women Beware Women, 1968; A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1968; The Assassination Bureau, 1969; On Her Majesty's Secret Service, 1969; Married Alive, 1970; Julius Caesar, 1970; The Hospital, 1971; Theatre of Blood, 1973; A Little Night Music, 1977; The Serpent Son, 1979; Hedda Gabler, 1980; The Great Muppet Caper, 1981; Evil Under the Sun, 1982; Little Eyolf, 1982; Held in Trust, 1986; Snow White, 1986.

STAGE (selection)

The Caucasian Chalk Circle, 1957; Ondine, 1961; The Devils, 1961; Becket, 1961; The Taming of the Shrew, 1961; Madame de Tourvel, 1962; The Art of Seduction, 1962; A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1962; Macbeth, 1962; The Comedy of Errors, 1962; King Lear, 1962; The Physicists, 1963; Twelfth Night, 1966; Abelard and Heloise, 1970; Jumpers, 1972; 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, 1972; Macbeth, 1972; The Misanthrope, 1974; Pygmalion, 1974; Phaedra Britannica, 1975; The Guardsman, 1978; Night and Day, 1979; Colette, 1982; Heartbreak House, 1983; Little Eyolf, 1985; Antony and Cleopatra, 1985; Wildfire, 1986; Follies, 1986; Love Letters, 1990; All For Love, 1991; Berlin Bertie, 1992; Medea, 1992.


No Turn Unstoned. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1982.

So to the Land. London: Headline, 1994.


Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York and London: Routledge, 1992.

Nathan, David. "Heavy-Duty Lightweight." (London) Times, 20 April 1991.

Rogers, Dave. The Avengers. London: ITV Books, 1983.

Story, David. America on the Rerun: TV Shows that Never Die. New York: Citadel Press, 1993.


See also Avengers