When Diana Rigg was 16 she jumped from the severe discipline of a strict girls' school to the stage. As an actress she swings from Shakespeare to superspy thrillers on TV and in movies. If she isn't doing things for contrast, she's doing them out of perversity.
Diana was here before as Cordelia in "King Lear," not as a meek princess bullied by her sisters, but as and angry, fighting Cordelia. She's best known to American's, however, as the beautiful, karate-chopping Emma Peel to Patrick Macnee's Steed in the TV series, "The Avengers." She spent 30 months making 39 episodes.
"I saw only the first and the last one," Diana confided recently in her hotel room while sipping orange spiked with champagne.
A tall girl, 5'9", slender, shapely, with reddish brown hair, large brown eyes and exceedingly lovely, Diana opens on Broadway this Wednesday in "Abelard and Heloise," the classic love tragedy of the brilliant 12th century theologian and philosopher, whose love for Heloise led to marriage, a child and his castration by her father. She played it for nine months in England, the longest run she's ever had.
Diana Chose Acting
"But I've never been in commercial theater before," explained Diana, who spent five years with the Royal Shakespeare Company. "It's always been rep, doing one play at night, while rehearsing another during the day."
Her father was an engineer who helped build the state railway in Jodhpur, India. Her mother returned from there to Doncaster in Yorkshire to have Diana, and they both returned to India when Diana was two months old. At 8 she was sent back to England to be schooled as "a proper yyoung lady," first at Great Missenden Bucks school and when older to Fulneck, founded by the Moravians, a Protestant sect who had trekked from Czechoslovakia to a British Valley. The girls could walk only on one side of the corridors; their uniforms had to be a certain length; they weren't allowed to curl their hair; and all makeup was forbidden.
"All superficial aspects of discipline," Diana said. "It was wrong to demand that a growing girl conform to them. When the headmistress asked the 100 girls in my class about our goals, all the other chose worthy ones; teaching, medicine, nursing. A chill set in and remained until I was graduated because I chose acting. My parents desperately wanted me to go to a university. The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art seemed the opposite extreme."
All for $17 a Week
Even more extreme, after the academy she began her career as a model, then became an apprentice in the Chesterfield Repertory Company, in the British Midlands. She hunted down props from the local shopkeepers, served as an assistant stage manager and prompter, worked the lights, and the sound effects while raising and lowering the curtain - all for $17 a week.
"It was infinitely valuable," Diana said. "When I stopped out on the stage, I understood the burdens of everyone behind it."
It gave her the discipline - and courage - to venture into one of the biannual auditions of the Royal Shakespeare Company. She made it. Director Peter Hall, understand the frustrations of newcomers who rarely got parts, started free day classes for them in singingm fencing, movement, verse and voice production. Diana took them all.
"And I learned and watched and grew," she said, "from the best actors and actresses, writers and designers."
She was here as Cordelia when she was offered a second contract with the Royal Shakespeare Company, but without any idea of what she'd do next, Diana didn't sign it. She wandered off to Canada, took a holiday in Europe, then returned home to try her first TV plays and test for Emma Peel.
"Along with just about every other aspiring young actress in basic black," Diana said. "I dind't think it was my cup of tea, but two days later I was actually doing it. It was a pretty good contrast to Shakespeare."
It also helped buy her a handsome home on Ibiza, an island off the coast of Spain.
With TV success the pressures were enormous to keep her in a typed groove. A lot of greedy people are always around all ready to do that. Diana returned to the Royal Shakespeare to do Viola in "Twelfth Night."
"An actress must keep moving to change and grow," she said. "If she doesn't, it's an early death."
Why Not a Missus?
She also made two films, James Bond's "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" and "Julius Caesar" which she labeled "a disaster." Eager to get before a live audience she read scripts for four months until she was sent "Abelard and Heloise."
"The only things we have from them are letters and Abelard's poems," said Diana. "So the roles have to be a personal interpretation. But as theater it works and that's what I'm all about."
"A priest who saw it told me that he wished it could be performed in churches because it deals with the agony of not believing as much as believing."
One of the great prayers is "Lord, I believe; help though mine unbelief."
Incidentally, why is someone lovely as Diana Rigg still a miss not a missus?
"I hope my capacity to love and be loved is infinite. But I won't suscribe to anything expected of me, dictated to me or help socially necessary. I can be myself without being a missus."