Transcripts

08 June 1994: Chicago Tribune

No Mystery About Diana Rigg's Passions From Emma to Medea

There's no mystery as to Diana Rigg's feelings about her job as host of the popular PBS series "Mystery."

Along with her 17-year-old daughter, Rachael, reading and trout fishing, Rigg makes the job sound like one of the great passions of her life.

"They could retire me at any time, of course," she said, "but I'd be awfully sad."

The formidable British actress was interviewed in New York, where she was living during her critically acclaimed starring performances on Broadway in "Medea," a revival of Euripides' 2,400-year-old Greek drama about a wronged woman who avenges herself through the act of murdering her children. Nominated for a Tony Award for the role, she'll find out if she's a winner during the June 12 awards ceremonies.

Normally, the 55-year-old stage, screen and television veteran bases herself in England, at either her London or country house, and videotapes her weekly introductory pieces to "Mystery" all in a batch during annual two-week visits to Boston, where the series, now in its 14th year, is produced.

Rigg has been introducing "Mystery" since 1989, when she took over from the late horror movie star Vincent Price.

Her introductory "bits" as she calls them, which make her sound so authoritative on frequently arcane detective novel lore, are scripted for her to read from TelePrompTer by Americans. But the keen enthusiasm of her delivery is altogether real, because Rigg is a big fan of both the show and the literary genre.

She said she's particularly looking forward to the new season, which will feature for the first time a work by "queen of English mysteries" Ruth Rendell, entitled "A Dark-Adapted Eye," as well as a new "Prime Suspect," starring Rigg's old chum Helen Mirren. The two once made a film together, "ages ago," of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

"I'm a mystery reader, but I'm eclectic; I read all sorts of books," Rigg said. "Most dedicated mystery readers tend to read every mystery available and nothing else but mysteries, but I'm not one of those.

"I think the Ruth Rendell ones are brilliantly written, and I read Agatha Christie. If I'm watching, I love the `Poirot' shows. I think David Suchet's absolutely brilliant in the part, and of course I absolutely love `Prime Suspect'."

Few episodes of "Mystery" have been quite so chilling as Rigg's scary "Medea," which she and director Jonathan Kent brought forth with an electrifying power and immediacy seldom seen on either side of the Atlantic in even the most contemporary drama.

Rigg, who trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1959, considers herself a classical stage actress who does television and movie work to pay the bills. She initially took on Medea in the fall of 1992, for minimum union scale, expecting a brief run at London's small Almeida Theatre.

The production got great reviews, toured England, returned to London for a smash, big-time run in the West End, then became one of the few big hits of the New York theater season, ending its run in late June.

"We had no idea it would have this extended life," she said. "I think it's because the play has been crafted into an entertaining, accessible piece for a 20th Century audience."

She said she'd love to have her "Medea" produced on television, but there are no plans for that beyond an archival videotaping "for academics."

It was television, of course, that "made" Rigg's career. She's long been ranked as one of Britain's finest stage actresses, with Shakespeare and Moliere included in her impressive credits, but she's also done highly contemporary works by Tom Stoppard and Stephen Sondheim as well.

She'll play the aging actress Madame Arekadina in Kent's forthcoming London stage presentation of Chekov's "The Seagull."

But her greatest prominence comes from her quirky decision to take the role of leather-clad-cool Emma Peel on television's "The Avengers."

Riggs' movie career has been largely disappointing, ranging from such heights as "Midsummer Night's Dream," Paddy Chayefsky's "The Hospital" and Vincent Price's well regarded "Theatre of Blood," to such depths as the forgettable James Bond movie, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (starring George Lazenby); an Oliver Reed B-movie called "The Assassination Bureau;" Elizabeth Taylor's dreadful "A Little Night Music" and the "Muppet Movie II."

Rigg's quite pleased, however, with a film she recently made with Sean Connery and John Lithgow called "A Good Man in Africa," which is to be released next fall-"likely on video."

Though the product of a Yorkshire boarding school background and a childhood spent partially in then-colonial India, where her father was an engineer, Rigg considers herself unconventional, and has proved it.

She was one of the first actresses to do a nude love scene on stage (in London and Broadway's "Abelard and Heloise," for which she won a 1975 Tony nomination). She lived with a married TV director for seven years after college, and was then married for less than a year to Israeli artist Menachem Gueffen. She bore her second husband, wealthy British landowner Archie Stirling, a child four years before their 1982 marriage.

They've since divorced. Daughter Rachael, her only child, has been the center of her life, often to the exclusion of Rigg's career interests.

"She's in boarding school now and will be off to college in another year," Rigg said. "I'll be freer now to travel, and come over here (the U.S.) for work."

As her cool, measured archetypically British theatrical voice might indicate, Rigg in person is both sensual and forbidding-not unlike Medea. Critics have attributed some of her career problems to her "suffer no fools" attitude.

But when she gets to talking about books and the English countryside, "Emma Peel" mellows and softens.

"I do love the countryside," she said. "I develop a need for it when I spend too long in the city. I'm missing out on my trout fishing this year in England. I'm a real fisherman, and we've got some of the best chalk streams in the world for trout. I'm going to get `A River Runs Through It' on video."

She has just finished reading the best seller "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," about a bizarre murder in Savannah, Ga. Rigg, who has the anthology of theatrical criticism, "No Turn Unstoned," to her editorial credit, has just compiled another book, "Poetry of the English Countryside," which will be published in England this September.

She'd also like to put out the word to playwrights and TV and movie producers everywhere that she'd really, really like to do a comedy now.

"People are doing a sort of nudge-nudge, wink-wink, `My, you're awfully good at mother roles, aren't you?'," she said. "It's the same old story. They try to categorize you, and say, `Oh yes, you're very good at playing these crazy mothers,' etc. So I have to swim out to sea and prove I can do something else, yet again."


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