The Making of Rebecca

Diana Rigg as Mrs Danvers

Diana Rigg's heart has always been on the stage. Over a career spanning thirty-five years, she has chosen her television appearances carefully, so it was a veritable coup to get her to star in Rebecca.

"The stage is the place for me," she says, a statement supported by the fact that only a few years ago she was happy to earn 165 a week on stage in Liverpool while her hotel room cost her more than 40 a day. 'Television helps subside that sort of thing," she adds.

Her television roles may have been comparatively sparse but they have been nonetheless memorable, from that Sixties icon, the leather-clad Emma Peel in The Avengers, through the vengeful mother in the award-winning Mother Love via scene-stealing guest appearances on Morecambe and Wise, Parkinson and The Muppets. Hilary Heath, producer of Rebecca, has no doubt that, in Mrs Danvers, Diana Rigg has conjured up another superb performance.

"We talked a lot about Mrs Danvers and how Diana saw her. We came to the conclusion that Mrs Danvers had probably gone to Manderley as a maid in her twenties and had subsequently been promoted to being Rebecca's personal maid. Consequently, Rebecca became her life and Mrs Danvers was absolutely devoted to her. She lived through Rebecca and that gave some pathos to the woman - it doesn't just make Mrs Danvers evil. It makes her also very sad and when she breaks down at the end, it is a very sad moment. Her loss was probably greater than anybody's. In the scene where she is showing the heroine around Rebecca's room and is talking about her clothes, you can see how great her loss was. Diana did the breakdown absoulutely beautifully - it was just heartbreaking."

Diana Rigg was born in Doncaster on 20 July 1938. At the age of seven, she was sent to boarding school in Buckinghamshire. It was not an enjoyable experience, principally because of the appalling consitions, and the young Diana was hugely relieved when her parents moved back to Leeds and sent her to Fulneck School in Pudsey. There she came under the wing of theatre-loving teacher Sylvia Greenwood who was to exert a profound influence on her life. Diana's first role was a tiny part as Goldilocks in the school play, at the age of nine, but Mrs Greenwood saw enough to realise she had unearthed a rare talent. "She had a magnificent voice, even at that age," said Mrs Greenwood many years later. "You didn't have to tell her what to do on stage. She was a natural."

Diana's parents were not particularly interested in the theatre. She did not make her first visit until the age of 12, and then it was to pantomime. When they finally took her to see Shakespeare's Henry VIII at Leeds, she was captivated and asked to go again. Diana fell in love with the theatre and Mrs Greenwood suggested she consider a career as an actress.

Overcoming her parents' anxieties, Diana went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art where they seemed at a loss as to what to do with her. "I was a tall young woman who was patently never going to be a juvenile or character actor. One teacher wrote in my report that I was not cut out for the theatre." She then worked as an enthusiastic assistant stage manager in repertory at york and Chesterfield. At the latter venue, she earned a rave review from the local paper's drama critic... even though she was only the prompter. She made her presence felt so much throughout the performance that the critic suggested she should have taken a curtain call. "It was just enthusiasm," she laments, "but the cast didn't talk to me after that."

In 1962, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company but two years later left to star in The Avengers. Her place at the RSC was taken by a young actress named Glenda Jackson.

Some of Diana's classical peers viewed her decision to join a popular escapist television series with scorn. "In those days, television was a step down," she explains. "But acting was my profession and I wanted to dip my toe in every part of it. I wanted to show that it was possible to do the whole range."

As Emma Peel she became what she jokingly described as a "pre-puberty sex symbol", receiving bundles of fan mail from schoolboys, "mostly from the fourth form and under." She did not always enjoy the attention which went with her newfound fame and once locked herself in the lavatory to escape from admirers at the Motor Show. Nor could she understand why she was - and indeed still is - seen as something of a sex symbol.

"The idea of me being a sex symbok has always made me laugh," she says. "To be a sex symbol you have to take yourself seriously. I have a very low esteem about my looks and even when I was a teenager, I dressed like a middle-aged woman. I don't take compliments very well and I suppose a lot of it goes back to my childhood. I was brought up to only glance in the mirror and if my mother caught me staring in it she would tell me not to be so vain. She was a no-nonsense Yorkshire woman who believed that children should be seen and not heard so compliments were very thin on the ground. I must admit that I found the mass lust that surrounded me during and after The Avengers very hard to cope with, particularly when there was nothing about my body that I liked."

After two years on The Avengers she left and returned to the theatre, with occasional breaks for film and television. "I've never had a career plan," she insists. "Ive just ricocheted from one job to another."

Throughout her life, she has always put her family first. She turned the prestigious female lead in the 1969 movie Paint Your Wagon with Lee Marvin because her father was seriously ill. And when, at thirty-eight, she gave birth to her daughter Rachael (by her second husband, Scottish landowner Archie Stirling), she concentrated on motherhood. "I wanted to spend as much time as possible with Rachael. I even chose some parts for her. I did a Muppet film and the children's TV series The Worst Witch because I wanted her to see what I do when I go to work."

Prior to Mrs Danvers, Andrew Davies's Mother Love ws arguably her most sinister television role to date. "This was one of the few times I found myself taking the part home. I had to take a long shower each day to wash her off. If you're playing someone psychotic twelve hours a day, it rubs off."

Awarded the CBE in 1987 and made a Dame in 1994, Diana Rigg is justifiably regarded as one of our most accomplished actresses. It has been a rewarding journey from Goldilocks to Mrs Danvers.

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