Diana Rigg (Enid1 Diana2 Elizabeth3 Rigg) was born on 20 July 1938 at “Edenfield” on Thorne Road in Doncaster, Yorkshire, England, to Louis and Beryl Rigg. A brother, Hugh, had been born in India four years earlier.
As a young man, Louis (1903–1968) won a scholarship to apprentice as an engineer in his hometown of Doncaster, where the main employer was the locomotive and carriage building works for the Great Northern Railway. He later took a job in India, still under British rule, and after five years went back to Doncaster to marry Beryl Hilda Helliwell, daughter of a shop manager, returning with her to India, where they married in Bombay. When Beryl gave birth to Hugh at a military hospital there, it was unpleasant for her and she returned to Doncaster for Diana’s birth.
At two months old, Diana travelled with her mother to India, to Bikaner, a town and desert district in the northwestern state of Rajasthan (at that time Rajputana), where Louis was the railway locomotive manager. She lived there until she was seven.
“I remember that there were explosions on the railway. The nationalists were blowing up some of the lines and that sort of thing, but I can also remember being in a large house with servants and ayahs [nursemaids for the children]. When we went to the hills in the hot season, we travelled much as the Royal Family travels now to Balmoral, in our own carriage. And I can remember dreading the journey up to the hills because the train stopped at some of the stations. My parents used to get off and take a walk, and these leprous, awful faces would be pressed to the window, and stunted limbs would be hammering on the glass, all the beggars of course crowding round. I don’t remember observing much poverty apart from that as a child in India, because one was never allowed out of the grounds.”4
At seven years old, Diana was sent to study in England, at a small boarding school, St. Christopher’s, in the picturesque Missenden area of Buckinghamshire. “I remember wet pillows on several occasions and writing to Mother asking her to allow me to come home, but our letters were screened so I don’t suppose she received them. Even though one was unhappy it probably turned one into the person one is today, although I’m not saying one is all that brilliant.” She was rebellious, for example refusing to eat the porridge that appeared every morning for breakfast, determined instead to sit rigid in front of a bowl of it for days rather than give in, finally flinging it onto a wall. Diana did not see her parents for a year and half. Along with Hugh, she spent school holidays with a grandmother, 175 miles to the north in Doncaster. “My upbringing was very Yorkshire. If my grandmother caught me looking in a mirror, she’d say, ‘Vanity, vanity.’”
Around the time of India’s independence from Britain (1947), Louis and Beryl returned to Yorkshire and settled in Leeds, 25 miles northwest of Doncaster. According to Diana, her parents’ marriage was a thoroughly happy one. She was sent to the Moravian Fulneck Girls School in Pudsey, just west of Leeds, and again her independent spirit was challenged. “You weren’t allowed to question anything at all. Ugliness, physical ugliness, was what seemed most acceptable.”5 “They were bent on eradicating any sense of self, or sex.”6 Nevertheless, Fulneck’s elocution teacher, Sylvia Greenwood, recognized the 10-year-old Diana’s beautiful voice, encouraged her love of poetry, and eventually helped persuade Louis and Beryl, very much against the idea, to allow Diana, by then 16, to audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London. Diana had been smitten with acting from the age of 12, when her parents had taken her to see a performance of Henry VIII.
Diana was accepted into RADA in 1955, and it’s difficult to imagine her doing anything but well there. She insists, however, that she wasn’t a good student: she finally had a hint of freedom and she threw herself at it, with plenty of energy for boyfriends – some of them friends of brother Hugh, who was now in the Royal Air Force (and would become a test pilot) – and consequently not enough for the classroom. But she made it through and in 1957, for one of RADA’s productions for final-year students, played Natella Abashwili in Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
After graduating from RADA Diana took a few modeling jobs, then apprenticed at the Chesterfield Repertory Company, where she made her professional stage debut. It was March 1958 and the play was The Passing of the Third Floor Back by Jerome K Jerome, in which she played Vivian.
In 1959 Diana auditioned for and joined the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company, which became the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in 1960. For two years she received minor parts – but also a wealth of further training, part of the RSC’s mission. By 1961 she had grown into more interesting, if still small, roles and was also understudying. By 1962 she was playing Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which also starred Ian Holm, Ian Richardson and Judi Dench; and Cordelia to Paul Scofield’s King Lear. She spent much of 1963 touring the country in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in 1964 there was a world tour of King Lear and The Comedy of Errors, in which she played Adriana (also recorded for television). The tour included Eastern European capitals, the Soviet Union and the United States, and ended in a royal command performance at Windsor Castle. Later that year she played Anita Fender in The Hothouse, a play for television that drew her to the attention of those casting her next role…
…the role for which, perhaps to her mild chagrin, she is most well known: Emma Peel in The Avengers (1965–1967). Still being rerun around the world, it made the thoroughly independent, witty, and memorably catsuited Mrs. Peel an icon of hip self-sufficiency and wry sexuality, along with Patrick Macnee’s elegant and unflappable John Steed, who never doubted for a moment that Mrs. Peel was his equal. So was starring in this captivating series a dream job? Not entirely, because while Diana and Patrick enjoyed each other’s company and felt comfortable with the crew, and were grateful for the success of the series, they were saddened by and eventually came to resent the producers’ attitude towards them, which they felt was grossly presumptuous and dismissive. Diana also believed her salary to be virtually insulting. Dispirited, she left the series after 51 episodes. Patrick regrets not trying to persuade her to stay. “Sometime later, she said to me, ‘Pat. If only you had been stronger with me, more forceful, and said, “No! You’ve got to stay!”… we would have gone on and done another two years together… and it would have been great!’”7 Years later Patrick wrote of the connection they felt upon meeting: “She had a gorgeous, direct carriage, a wonderful voice, stunning auburn hair and a look of flashing insolence. I thought, ‘My God. I’ve got to get to know her!’ So I took her to dinner at the Connaught Hotel. We were both perfectly outrageous, obviously trying to test each other’s limits of what we liked and didn’t like, and naturally everything gravitated to sex. Di said she only made exceptions for men of intellect, and gave me a withering look which suggested that I didn’t fit the bill. I realised then that we had this strange communion. The very next day we went to work.”8 And they would work together again in 1973.
In 1966, still during her time with The Avengers, Diana took on Viola in Twelfth Night, and in 1967 she became an Associate Artist of the RSC. In 1968 she reprised her role as Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to be released in 1969 as a feature film in the UK and Europe.
In 1969 she was Sonya Winter in the film The Assassination Bureau, with Oliver Reed and Telly Savalas, and was the only Bond girl, Tracy Di Vicenzo, to marry James Bond, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
In 1970 she joined Sir John Gielgud, Christopher Plummer and David Warner for an NBC television appearance discussing Shakespeare. Later that year, she was back on the London stage, this time opposite Keith Michell in Abelard and Heloise, which was taken to Los Angeles and New York the following year. 1970 also saw her playing Portia in a film of Julius Caesar, with Charlton Heston, Jason Robards and Sir John Gielgud. In 1971 she starred opposite George C. Scott in the film The Hospital.
Diana joined the National Theatre of Great Britain at the end of 1971. In 1972 she was Dottie Moore in Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, Hippolita in ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. There was a scene in Jumpers that had Diana dragging an actor off stage, and during one performance this task injured her back, so much so that she was hospitalized for several days.
Jumpers and Macbeth continued into 1973, to be joined by The Misanthrope, in which Diana played Celimčne. The Vincent Price film Theatre of Blood, with Diana as Edwina Lionheart, was also released at this time.
By late summer 1973 Diana was in Los Angeles working on a new television series, Diana, in which she played fashion illustrator Diana Smythe. It was produced by the very successful Mary Tyler Moore Show team, but it lacked the snappy writing and was cancelled at the beginning of 1974, after 14 episodes. There was something special about the show, however, namely the reunion opportunity it provided Diana and Patrick Macnee. Patrick played an old lover of Diana’s in a delightful episode rife with Avengers references.
Diana returned to London. From May to November 1974 she was on stage as Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion.
In 1975 The Misanthrope played in Washington, D.C., and New York, then returned to London. Shortly afterwards there was also Phaedra Britannica, and for her role as The Governor’s Wife in that play Diana won her first Plays and Players Award for Best Actress. She was also nominated for an Emmy Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Single Performance for her role as Philippa Talbot in the television movie In this House of Brede.
In 1976 Diana, Richard Burton and George C. Scott hosted the Tony Awards ceremony in New York. It was also the year that Diana played Charlotte Mittelheim in the film version (released in 1977) of Stephen Sondheim’s musical A Little Night Music, in which she did her own singing.
In 1977, a daughter, Rachael9 Atlanta10 Stirling, was born on 30 May to Diana, and Archie (Archibald Hugh) Stirling.
For four and a half months in 1978 Diana played Ilona in The Guardsman. She filmed her role as Klytemnestra in The Serpent Son, a three-part television adaptation of The Oresteia. And for seven and a half months, to June 1979 – minus a month in late winter when she was again hospitalized for the 1972 back injury – she was an absorbing Ruth Carson in Tom Stoppard’s Night and Day, for which she received her second Plays and Players Award for Best Actress. Stoppard said of her: “…the theatrical event [is] a technical problem, a pragmatic affair. Whatever else it has to be, it is also a mechanism. Diana has that, as well as a knowingness about the world, which gives her characterizations tremendous clarity and intelligence.”
Leaving Rachael at 5.00 every evening to get to the theatre was a less-than-ideal arrangement, however, and once Diana’s contract for Night and Day ended she returned to the stage for only relatively short periods over the next few years. At the beginning of 1982 there was the ill-fated musical Colette, the pre-Broadway tryout for which, in Seattle and Denver (Rachael was with her), closed after two months – the director and choreographer were fired in Seattle. She did six months of Heartbreak House in 1983. In 1985 there was a month and half of Little Eyolf, and 3 months of Antony and Cleopatra in repertory. And in 1986 there was one month of Bess Garrison in Wildfire.
Instead she spent more time doing plays for television: The Marquise, Hedda Gabler, Little Eyolf, Witness for the Prosecution, King Lear, in which she played Regan to Sir Laurence Olivier’s King Lear, Bleak House and The Worst Witch; and films for theatrical release: The Great Muppet Caper (loved by Rachael) and Evil Under the Sun – for which she won the Variety Club of Great Britain Award for Best Actress.
Devoting time to Rachael during these years affected Diana’s career – she has claimed that afterwards she had virtually to start over – but she has never regretted it. “I’m not prepared to hazard the relationship I have with my daughter.”11 Rachael has since stated: “I had the most wonderful childhood. We lived between London and Scotland and I was the centre of my parents’ world. Actually, I believe that that knowledge is all you need to become a happy, stable human being. I was a deeply longed-for child. Pa was in his thirties and Mama was 39 when she had me. … They are great company, fascinating individuals whose company I adore.”12
Mid-1987 saw Diana on stage for a year as Phyllis Stone in the Stephen Sondheim musical Follies. For a few weeks in 1990 she performed Love Letters with Stacy Keach in San Francisco. And for two months in 1991 she was Cleopatra in All for Love, which also had a few performances in Spain for the international festival in Almagro. There were short runs of Putting It Together and Berlin Bertie in 1992. But 1992 is better known for the triumph that was Medea, for which Diana won her first Evening Standard Award for Best Actress. The play also ran for several months in 1993 and, too, in 1994, when it was taken to New York, where Diana won a Tony Award for Leading Actress in a play.
There were more films and plays for television during this period: Snow White, A Hazard of Hearts, Unexplained Laughter, Mother Love – for which she received a British Academy Television Award for Best Actress, Mrs. Arris Goes to Paris, Road to Avonlea, Genghis Cohn, Running Delilah, and A Good Man in Africa, as well as stints as a narrator and as host, for years, of the American anthology series Mystery!
1995 through 1997 saw Diana on stage as Anna Fierling in Mother Courage and as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. She won her second Evening Standard Award for Best Actress for her performances in these plays, the Variety Club of Great Britain Award for Best Actress for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and, along with her co-star David Suchet, the South Bank Show Award for Theatre for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
She also did more work for television: Zoya, The Haunting of Helen Walker, Moll Flanders, Samson and Delilah, and Rebecca. For her role as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, she won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Special. In 1998 she made the Mrs. Bradley Mysteries and The American.
Diana was on stage in 1998 as Phedre in Phedre and as Agrippina in Britannicus, which were subsequently taken to Broadway, at the beginning of 1999. In 2001 she was Flora Humble in Humble Boy. In 2002 she toured Australia and New Zealand with Derek Jacobi, Donald Sinden and Ian Richardson in the “static” play The Hollow Crown, readings from the final days of English monarchs. In 2004 she was Violet Venable in Suddenly Last Summer.
There was also more television work, including In the Beginning – in which she played mature Rebeccah to daughter Rachael’s young Rebeccah, Victoria and Albert and Murder in Mind, and there were films: Parting Shots, Cinderella, and Heidi. In 2001 Diana was given the Women in Film and Television Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Daughter Rachael Stirling is an increasingly successful actress. An interviewer remarked recently that watching Rachael on stage very much reminds one of the young Diana. “Doesn’t [Diana] find the similarities, vocal and physical, uncanny?” “Well, yes. To be honest, I do! Though she’s absolutely her own person, and her approach to what she’s doing is very different from mine.”
In 2005 Diana was in Beijing playing a mother superior in the film The Painted Veil, starring Naomi Watts. Spring of 2006 sees her back in London as Honor in the play Honour. She much prefers the stage: “I find it more difficult to divulge to a machine. The camera doesn’t draw out of me what people draw out of me.”
Many people have been happy to help draw her out.
But: “I really don’t care what people think of me. My manners are good. I do care about people’s feelings, but I’m so far beyond caring about anything else. There’s a wonderful freedom in being my age.”
Diana has a house in Chelsea and one in France (she speaks French). “I want to press rewind. I want to find rural and you can’t in England, so I’ve found it in France, in Landes, in a village without a shop, just a handful of houses and a 10th century church.”
She has compiled two books: No Turn Unstoned – The Worst Ever Theatrical Reviews (which includes one about her for Abelard and Heloise), published in 1982; and So to the Land (an anthology of country poetry), published in 1994. She was made a Dame (DBE) in 1994. And she is Chancellor of the University of Stirling.
For a more complete listing of play, film, television and radio appearances, along with recordings produced, see our Career section under 'About Diana'.