23 June 1979: New Idea

Diana Turns Her Back On Hollywood and Her Career Blossoms

English actress Diana Rigg washes down the first bite of the fried fish dinner with a swig of champagne and shifts uncomfortably in her chair, searching for yet another black cigar.

She holds her back straight to ease the pain, which she says was caused by an incompetent acupuncturist whom she had recently visited.

"I had a small ache before I went," she explains in her sultry Emma Peel voice, "and now I'm a damned cripple. I've had enough of Chinese medicine. Give me the good old British National Health Service any day."

With a tilt of the head, Diana indicates she shouldn't be taken seriously. In fact, the actress doesn't take anything too seriously - with the possible exception of her new baby daughter.

"I suppose you could call that my saving grace, if I need to have one," she jokes.

Diana prides herself on being a good actress who will accept almost any part if it looks like fun; she refuses to complicate her life with anything as 'tedious' as another marriage (even her baby's father, theatrical producer Archie Stirling, and she seems to revel in the fact that she has just turned 40 - an age when a lot of other women, especially actresses, begin to despair).

"Some women become incomparably better as they get older," Diana observes. "Others reach the height of their attractiveness at around 25 and it's all downhill after that. Fortunately, I fit into the first category. From 25 on, I inherited myself. It was like stepping into a garment that suddenly fitted."

Diana's confidence is reinforced by a blossoming career. Ten years ago, she notes, the best West End plays were being written for actors like Albert Finney and Alan Bates, but now, more often than not, the blockbusters are built around an 'older' woman.

Such is Tom Stoppard's drama, Night and Day, in which Diana currently stars and which has brought her the best reviews of her 21-year career and the citation Best Actress of the Year from the London Critics Circle. (Plagued by back problems, Diana was forced to take a month off from her stage duties, but has since returned.)

Diana plays an alcoholic Englishwoman living in a turbulent African state on the brink of civil war.

Because her husband owns a Telex machine, she becomes the unwilling hostess to a group of British journalists, each intent on getting the scoop. The situation gives Stoppard, through Diana, a chance to take a harsh look at modern journalism.

"I don't think I could ever get tired of this play," Diana says, lounging in her cramped dressing room. "It's about one of those subjects that never gets fully discussed - at least on the stage - and the viewpoints from a man who knows something about the profession, since Tom was a journalist himself."

Diana also has her own strong opinions about newspapers and magazines, most of them being unprintable. But in the end, she goes along with Stoppard, who concludes that however harmful an unfettered Press might be for certain individuals, it's better than a controlled one.

"Even if some of my experiences have been crummy - indeed, most of them have been - I still can't envision how a civilised society can survive," she concedes.

Most of these 'crummy' experiences occurred during Diana's pregnancy two years ago. While making A Little Night Music, Diana and Stirling (with whom she still shares her Earl's Court flat) decided it was time to have a child.

"We just didn't anticipate the things that would be said and written," Diana, who had once been married to Israeli artist Menachem Gueffen for three years, says. "I would get sick every morning I read one of the papers."

Things have improved somewhat, especially since Rachael Atlanta is now 2 and judged to be stale news by most Fleet Street editors. But Diana is still wary of giving interviews. Still, she remains remarkably candid and enjoys nothing better than to tell jokes about herself.

"I love to laugh and have a good time," she says. "And, thank God, I don't have to run around and act profound all the time. People know I'm not, so why pretend?"

Diana began acting at 16 after an unhappy youth spent in India, where her father was a railway engineer. She trained at the prestigious Royal Academy and then joined the Royal Shakespeare Company when unconventional director Peter Brook was in charge.

After six years of great critical successes, she stunned Brook - and most of Britain's acting establishment - by deserting the 'serious' theatre for a television series, The Avengers. Her portrayal of the witty - but mysterious Mrs Peel created an overnight sensation.

Two years later, she just as suddenly quit the series and returned to the West End, and occasionally Broadway, doing plays like Abelard and Heloise, Pygmalion, The Guardsman and Stoppard's Jumpers.

In between shows, she also did a few movies, including The Hospital, with George C. Scott, The Assassination Bureau and the James Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

In 1973, she did a short-lived American comedy series called Diana, which was a critical and ratings disaster.

"After filming the second episode, I knew it was going to be garbage," says Diana, who rented a big house in Beverly Hills, complete with Olympic-size pool, to fit the network publicity department's image of her as the new Mary Tyler Moore.

She found the experience somewhat amusing.

"When I arrived in Los Angeles, the studio sent this three-block long, smoked-glass limousine to meet me," she says. "Six months later, the day I left they sent the banged-up studio station wagon. I never stopped laughing on the plane home. 'You've failed,' they were telling me, 'and just in case you didn't know it...'"

With Rachael, she doesn't have as much freedom to 'flit about'. She explains: "The scripts come in, of course, but I can't decide on anything yet. I'm pretty limited on where I can go, you know. I have to worry about my nappy supply lines."

The one part she would like to play is Maggie in Tennessee Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. She was set to do a production of the play with director John Schlesinger last year, but Rachael's arrival forced a cancellation.

And, if this isn't enough, she always has her 50th birthday to look forward to.

"If it's this good now, what will it be like then?" she asked, expertly opening yet another bottle of champagne. "I can hardly wait."

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