She turns up on American TV each week to present a "Mystery!," but a titled British actress is appearing in a famous one herself. Tony Award-winner Diana Rigg -- or, bowing to the protocol of England, Dame Diana Rigg (whom she has been since 1993) -- plays sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers in PBS' new "Masterpiece Theatre" adaptation of the classic Daphne du Maurier story "Rebecca".
The PBS production begins at 9 p.m. Sunday on Channel 17 and concludes next Sunday. Also turned into an Oscar-winning 1940 movie by Alfred Hitchcock, the saga centers on a young woman (portrayed by Emilia Fox) who becomes the second wife of Cornish aristocrat Maxim de Winter ("The Jewel in the Crown's" Charles Dance).
Fox's mother, Joanna David, played the shy Mrs. de Winter in a 1980 BBC adaptation of the suspense classic. Jeremy Brett (who later played Sherlock Holmes for "Mystery!") played Mr. de Winter in that production.
His first spouse was the deceased Rebecca, and her spirit continues to hang over the estate known as Manderley, reflected strongly by Mrs. Danvers' intense devotion to her memory. Faye Dunaway also is featured in Part 1 as Mrs. Van Hopper, the flamboyant social butterfly for whom Fox's character initially works.
"When I heard that they were doing this, I pursued the idea of playing this role," Rigg admits, adding that she "had to go back to the book" to recapture what she felt was "Rebecca's" real essence.
"The film that we all remember was based on the play; there was the book first and then a play, which is what Hitchcock used for his version, because he couldn't get the rights to the book. It's quite a long, thick book . . . and because of that, it really does give much more attention to Mrs. Danvers.
"I seem to remember that she had some speeches in the old black-and-white movie," Rigg reflects, "but they weren't quite as long or as detailed as the ones I give in this adaptation.
"In the book, she talks about Rebecca when she was young, and about how far back their relationship went. I just found it fascinating to bring those things out, and I enjoyed working with this cast very much. I think they're all wonderful."
The new production of "Rebecca" maintains the sense of dread and tension that makes the story as renowned as it has always been, and Rigg found the setting highly valuable in helping her to define her own Mrs. Danvers:
"I think it all feeds into your interpretation, and one also had to deal with the period in which this was set. All housekeepers were called 'Mrs.', whether they were married or not, and I suspect Mrs. Danvers was never married. That would account for her obsession with Rebecca."
As that opinion suggests, Rigg often invents her own background for the characters she plays, classic though they may be. "You have to do that at some times more than others," she reasons, "especially when it's not particularly well-detailed on the page. Since Mrs. Danvers never speaks about her family -- or about anything in regard to herself personally, other than that she had looked after Rebecca since (Rebecca) was a little girl -- I suspect that she really had no family of her own. Until the final scene, when the dam finally bursts with Mrs. Danvers, you have to keep a tight rein on your interpretation."
That wasn't the case with the other major role that Royal Shakespeare Company alumna Rigg has had recently, because she has just ended a six-month London stage run as the loud and brash Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" by Edward Albee.
She deems that play "a wonderful masterpiece, and it was a great privilege to be in it, but it sort of eats your life away. I'm a resurrected woman now. I spent a weekend in the country right after we finished, and got absorbed back into life right away. My relish for theater work has been well-fed over the last few months; now, I just want some time to lead my life and to be a person, as opposed to being an actress."
Also seen on "Masterpiece Theatre" last fall in "Moll Flanders," Rigg feels she has been "very lucky" in the television work she's had lately. "I love playing character parts. I'm reaching that age now anyway, but I find that great fun."
Rigg also finds great acceptance of her ongoing pursuit of fictional roles while also appearing as herself in her weekly "Mystery!" chores on PBS. "It's expected now," she believes.
Not as expected of Rigg these days are the skin-tight leather outfits and martial-arts moves that were staples of her portrayal of Emma Peel on "The Avengers," which will be reborn in an upcoming feature film (with Uma Thurman slated to assume the part).
Many TV critics cited that series as an obvious influence in reviewing ABC's recent "Spy Game," and Rigg maintains that Mrs. Peel and her derby-wearing "Avengers" partner John Steed (played by Patrick Macnee) have "never really gone into obscurity. I was astonished to find a couple of Russians outside my stage door recently, and they told me 'The Avengers' is still running there. I found that pretty astonishing, since quite a lot of the villains were Russian."
Also remembered fondly by James Bond fans as the only woman Agent 007 ever married in the movies (in 1969's "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"), Rigg muses that there's "absolutely no difference, interestingly enough" in now being Dame Diana among her fellow countrymen.
"I don't use (that title) when I'm working in the theater, because I like to be a part of the entire company and don't want to feel any sort of separation there. I hardly use it in America, either, but what I really like about the title is that your first name is used with it. 'Dame Diana' just sounds really nice."