31 December 1989: Parade

In Step With: Diana Rigg

Diana Rigg's suite in the Wyndham in New York looked delectable. There was a carboard box opened to display a dozen long-stemmed red roses. A silver ice bucket beaded with moisture was chilling a bottle of Taittinger champagne. And there was Ms. Rigg herself - long-legged, slender, every bit as appealing as when she first gave the world the formidable Emma Peel 23 years ago in the old Avengers television series.

She'd just come in from Boston, "a gentler introduction to New York," she called it, "a lovely, very European city." It is in Boston that Diana videotapes what they call "wraparounds" - the introductions she does for the Mystery! shows on PBS-TV, a job done for years by Vincent Price. I'd seen Diana open the first Mystery! show of the season, and I now said, frankly if not politely, that it didn't seem a very demanding role.

"Well, no, it isn't," she admitted. "I hope to maintain a decent balance between my private and professional lives," she added, "and I chose not to work (full-time) for this period." Her daughter, Rachael, aged 12, had just entered boarding school in England. Was that a traumatic moment? "Oh, yes," Diana said, laughing, "for both mother and daughter. I'm on the phone with her every day."

Although she was trained as a stage actress in Britain, Diana said that because of her daughter she would have to turn down a major Broadway play if it involved being away from home for a long run. "I wouldn't commit to a year's run until she's standing on her own two feet," Diana said. And what age would that be? "It differs with every child," she replied. "You have daughters. You know that."

Diana stood on her own two feet quite young. Until the age of 8, her childhood was spent in India, where her father worked for the state railroad. There was a bit of teenage modeling and then, at 17, Diana wangled an audition (over parental objections) to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. "You get 4 1/2 minutes out there on stage to do one classical speech and one modern," she explained. "I did a 'Catherine' speech for my Shakespeare, and I can't remember what I did for modern, but I got in." That launched a stage career of exceptional range - including everything from Shakespeare to Sondheim (Rigg was in the London production of Follies in 1987).

In films she has done such extraordinary things as marry James Bond and co-star with George C. Scott in that black comedy The Hospital. And on TV, as Emma Peel, she made sexy black leather a fashion item. But she is very much a woman of the theater,having played daughter roles in King lear opposite both Paul Scofield and Laurence Olivier.

What was it like working with the great Olivier? She shook her head, searching for the precise words: "The passing of the man... the passing of an era. He was an astonishing man. He gave more to the theater than he ever got back."

For now, much of Diana's work is in television. In a TV movie she has already taped, Mother Love, Diana Rigg may be in the curious situation of introducing herself. Mother Love is due to play on Mystery! sometime next season.

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