With her headmistress mien and plummy Queen's English, Dame Diana Rigg has served as the pitch-perfect host of PBS's "Mystery" series for the last decade. No one, however, would accuse this British star of putting herself on the shelf. Not with a 40-year career that ranges from the Royal Shakespeare Company to the popular television series "The Avengers" and back again.
"I think it's easier for British actors to have that kind of varied career," Dame Diana said from her home in London. "What happens in America is that you get successful in one medium and stick with it. But it's always slightly irritating to be labeled one thing or another because in general actors try to lose labels."
Which may be explanation enough for Dame Diana's latest incarnation: playing the glamorous divorcee turned amateur sleuth Adela Bradley in "The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries: Speedy Death," which has its premiere on "Mystery" at 9 P.M. on Thursday.
It is her first prime-time role since her Emmy-winning performance two years ago as the gothic, obsessive Mrs. Danvers in "Rebecca" on Mobil Masterpiece Theater. "One of the reasons for doing this is that you can get stuck in those grotesque women's parts, yes?" said Dame Diana, 61, with a throaty laugh. "After Mrs. Danvers, I thought it was high time to move on to something stylish and funny."
Stylish and funny Mrs. Bradley may be -- but the cheeky Jazz Age heroine created by Gladys Mitchell in the 66 "Mrs. Bradley" mysteries is far more obscure than the detectives of Agatha Christie and P. D. James.
I didn't know about the books when this plopped onto my desk," said Dame Diana, who admitted that not being a mystery buff (she prefers biographies) remained one of the paradoxes of her "Mystery" duties. "Supposedly they're practically unreadable, since old Gladys fairly pounded them out and was somewhat less than meticulous about her plot lines."
What Dame Diana did recognize, however, was an appealing role as a feisty, wealthy woman who spurns social convention and would-be admirers to pursue her ad hoc sleuthing career. "She's a progressive modern woman, and that modern element interested me a lot," said Dame Diana, who will star in four additional "Mrs. Bradley Mysteries" next season.
Born in Yorkshire and raised in India before she attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Dame Diana has long scuttled convention. A founding member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, along with such colleagues as Vanessa Redgrave and Albert Finney, she turned her back on classical theater at 26 to become Patrick McNee's leggy, cat-suited colleague on the hit television spy romp "The Avengers" in 1966. "There was a certain amount of criticism and an attitude of 'Oh, she's wasting herself,'" Dame Diana recalled. "But being doomed to the classics is as limiting as doing a series for the rest of your life."
She did another about-face when she joined the National Theater in 1971 and developed a reputation as a skilled comedian with starring roles in several Tom Stoppard plays, including "Jumpers" and "Night and Day." Today, despite a varied career that has included stints as a Bond girl (in "Her Majesty's Secret Service," "the only Bond movie they never talk about," she noted) and a short-lived 1973 NBC sitcom, "Diana," she said theater remained her first love. It was during the Broadway run of "Medea," for which she won a Tony Award in 1994, that she was named Dame Commander of the British Empire.
"The day the stage crew heard I'd been Damed, they all gathered outside my dressing room and sang a version of 'There Is Nothing Like a Dame,' which I have to say is unprintable," said Dame Diana, who will travel to New York in December to tape the remainder of her introductions for this season of "Mystery."
So how does she introduce herself on "Mrs. Bradley"?
I just say, 'Here I am.'"