13 March 1966: New York Times

From Lear to Leer

The lady is tall and shapely. The combination of her natural contours and the white trouser-suit and the black peaked-cap are quite enough to turn the normally level heads of smart Bond Street shoppers on a chilly March morning. The whole enticing effect is simply Diana Rigg proceeding from the coffeehouse of Fortnum and Mason's to Cartier's the jewelers, a 400-yard trail of turned heads. If Miss Rigg has to buy a present, she likes to try Cartier's. This particular present is a gold cigar-cutter; a belated Christmas gift to a friend who knows her well enough to understand Santa Claus not showing up till early spring.

Coming out of Cartier's, Miss Rigg is stopped by a large Jamaican holding out a small piece of white paper. "excuse me, madam, but are you the lady who throws men through walls? Could you give me my autograph? Miss Rigg smiles and complies without correcting his English. She is indeed the lady who throws men through walls, and, for that matter, through doors, windows and any other suitably placed solid surface. As Mrs. Emma Peel, judo expert, she has been doing it once a week for the past six months on a British television series called "The Avengers," which starts on American television on ABC March 28 at 10 P.M.

For Diana Rigg, this sort of celebrity makes quite a change. Up till this year no one ever stopped her to ask "Weren't you Cordelia to Paul Scofied's Lear?" or "Didn't I see you as Adriana in that marvelous production of 'The Comedy of Errors'?" Miss Rigg, in fact, achieved considerable eminence in these parts in a five-year stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She toured the United States and Russia in these roles, playing to Russia's elite in Moscow, and to their British counterparts at Windsor Castle. Celebrity only came, however, when she made the decision to change from Culture to Pop.

Miss Rigg has a typical Yorkshire bluntness about the switch. "I decided to try and become commercial for a change. The trouble with staying classical company is that you get known as 'a lady actress.' No one ever thinks of you - except for parts in long skirts and blank verse." Miss Rigg's experiment succeeded admirably. In "The Avengers", a holey mixture of adventure and counter-espionage, she has worn just about everything except a long skirt, including the way-out leather ensembles, harem bras and panties, toreador outfits with bare midriffs, and indescribably modern outfits, half spaceman, half country girl. And if any blank verse gets into one of the scripts it would be by the purest chance.

Miss rigg admits that the whole experience is a lot of fun after a regimen of straight Shakespeare, but quickly adds that she doesn't want to make a career of it. She has already signed up to play the part of Viola in the Shakespeare Company's production of "Twelfth night" at Stratford in May. After that, she is open to any attractive acting offers and, if "The Avengers is a success in the United States, she may well find herself back for another TV judo-and-sex stint.

"The Avengers" began on British television in 1961 and attracted an "in" group of devotees with its brand of tongue-in-cheek cloak-and-dagger. It was catergorized by its intellectual followers as a kinky send-up of the James Bond books in the days before there were Bond films. After a couple of years, the cognoscenti moved on to more esoteric pastures, leaving "The Avengers" to a wider, more plebian audience. Ever since, the series has maintained a happy and fairly consistent position among the top six most popular programs.

John Steed, the hero of the series, is a true blue British gent caught up in wild adventures that cross Ian Fleming with John Buchan. Patrick Macnee, who has played the part since the show began, sees Steed as a latter-day Scarlet Pimpernel. Certainly the character is conceived in the great escapist tradition of British hero figures - Sir Percy Blankeney, Beau Geste, Bulldog Drummond, Lord Peter Wimsey, and even James Bond as originally conceived by Ian Fleming. They are all made of an elegant pasteboard and, if they had not had a taste for adventure and the bright lights, might have become successful stock-brokers or games-playing headmasters of elite old public schools. Frequently black sheep from impeccable backgrounds, they are snobs about pretty much everything, from wine and food to art and games. Only in women are their tastes fairly catholic.

The 46-year-old Macnee appears made for the part. The son of a well-known racehorse trainer, he is the cousin of David Niven and an Etonian. He has been acting in and around England, Canada and America for the last 25 years. He openly admits thatthe fantasies the debonair Steed caters to are not too far from his own. He is the master of those two esentials of British egentility, the wry smile and the raised eyebrow. His clothes look his own and not the creations of some flashy wardrobe department. When he sips a claret and pronounces on its vintage he does it as if to the manner born.

What gives this formula its unique quality in the hokum stakes is Steed's female sidekick. For the first three years, the part was played by Honor Blackman, who was tough, sexy and nearly always in black leather. Now that Honor had graduated to Pussy Galore in "Goldfinger" and other movie roles, Diana Rigg has added an extra touch of wryness and humor to the old formula.

Why Emma Peel is a Mrs. has never been explained in the series, though the publicity hand-outs claim that she is "the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, and the widow of a famous test-pilot." More simply, she's probably a Mrs. because, in Miss Rigg's own words, "It shows she knows what it's all about."

In the series, there has never been a kiss or a pas between Steed and Mrs. Peel, though the atmosphere between them is subtly erotic. T mIss Rigg, no great spy addict herself, this is an attractive and sophisticated alternative to the coarser, predatory sex-interest of the Bonds and neo-Bonds. Macnee sees the relationship as being open entirely to the TV viewer's interpretation. "We're each there separately for the audience, not for each other," he says. He sees a typical episode in the series as "erotica spaced out between tension."

Needless to say, Mrs. Peel is frequently threatened with numerous fates worse than death. Needless to say, Steed invariably and immaculately comes to the rescue. The real twist is always the absence of a final clinch in the sunset. The denouement is invariably the feeling that what's left of the British Empire, or all that's fine in the british Way of Life has been preserved and left intact for the tourist trade. Mr. Steed and Mrs. Peel live to fight another day.

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