June 1967: Photo Screen

Thoroughly Modern Diana

Carefree Diana Rigg sees every day as a new adventure and - Wow - what adventures!

Thoroughly Modern Diana Rigg, the girl chosen by the BBC to typify "the swinging girl of today and forward-looking woman of tomorrow" on its Avenger series, looked at us, all luminous brown eyes and freckles, and said:

"I know non-conformity sounds gay and romantic, but, in fact, it's very lonely and miserable."

...And proceeded with an account of what life was like before she got the role of karate-chopping, mod-wearing Emma Peel.

"Right up to the age of 20 I was never a very serious or committed individual. I took everything so easily. Oh, I had a ball all right, but I never really gave a serious thought to anything at all. I was out to have a good time - and a good time I certainly had."

She drew herself up to her full length, all 5'8" of her, reminding one of Rex Harrison's late wife Kay Kendall. "I was no strait-laced killjoy, I promise you. I never knew what responsibility meant. I used to find the easy, short-cut way of doing things. I never put my time to good use. And you must, I think."

She looked up candidly, "I think that was such a waste, looking back."

Throughout her career, Diana Rigg has worn the labels of "kook" and "loner" and "rebel". She's strong minded, intelligent and insistent. In the two years since she deserted the musty robes of a Shakespearean heroine for "Emma Peel's" leather-and-vinyl clothes on The Avengers, some of us have been able to get to know her well, to study her quirks and foibles, to see what makes her tick.

And we can report that she is a very self-confident young lady. Extremely sure of herself. A girl who has the courage of her convictions and who's prepared to stand by them.

Here's a sample of what we mean:

When Diana took on the part of Emma Peel, she turned the challenge of her first series into a huge success - despite the fact that she replaced one of Britain's most popular TV stars, Honor Blackman.

Local wits had said that there was "no substitute for Honor" and noted that Diana would have to dispel the audience's fond memories of Miss Blackman - and transfer these loyalties to herself. But, in no time, it seems, they have accepted the switch from Honor's toughness to Diana's romantic warmth. London critics are now hailing her as the "most exciting potential star since Shirley MacLaine."

Independent Diana was intelligent enough to understand that, overnight, she had become a very hot property indeed.

And when she was approached by the production company to renew her contract for the next series of The Avengers, she shrugged. What's more, she shrugged in public.

"I'll sign," she said, "on one condition - that my pay is tripled," hinting that she'd be more-than-happy to resume her Shakespearean career if her conditions weren't met.

Red-faced and embarrassed by her public outcry, company officials gulped and agreed to negotiate. At that time, she was earning a mere 250 pounds ($450) a show. After some haggling, Diana got her way - at three times the pay.

But, then, she's made a habit out of getting her own way. She's the forthright type, one who will speak her mind if she has to. She's a modern woman, one who knows what she wants and where she's going. One who will not let sentimentality or politeness stand in the way of honesty.

"You know how I find challenges while I'm working on The Avengers?" she laughed, as we sat talking in her dressing room recently. "I'll tell you a secret.

"I commit the biggest crime in the acting book. I never learn my lines!"

She waved an Avengers script at me and exclaimed: "Let's face it, this isn't exactly Shakespeare. If I learned these lines - what few there are! - they'd be stale by the morning. And for shows like The Avengers, lines have to be fresh. You can't disguise a stale delivery on TV - it comes across as stale when you're saying it. So I just leave the lines until a couple of minutes before we shoot a scene.

"I have a rough idea of the storyline - although even that can be dangerous because the stories often change during shooting. Otherwise I just play it by ear."

She smiled broadly - that half-angel, half-devil smile that so fascinates Emma Peel fans.

Yet, one can't help feeling that, underneath it all, Diana Rigg is just another softie, that her hardness is, to a large extent, facade - an act she puts on to hide and protect the real Diana.

Much of this comes from the fact that she hates a lot of the things which stardom involves, simply because they intrude on what she considers her personal and private life. Signing autographs, for example, embarrasses her. She is uneasy at public appearances. She is close-mouthed during most interviews.

Diana Rigg is a complex and fascinating woman who is not about to let any old stranger take her to pieces. "I was brought up to believe in the privacy of the individual," she says. "That's something terribly important to me. I would never dream of going up to strangers in the street and expect to be able to ask them things about their personal life. You just don't do that sort of thing.

"I hate the fact that once you're up there on that pedestal, everyone assumes you've become public property," she continued. "In a way, I suppose you do - your performance, at least, is given to your audience.

"But I think it should stop at that. I don't think anyone has a right to impose themselves on actors or actresses simply because they are successful."

That's one of the reasons she's so difficult to interview - she won't start to talk about anything important until you've allowed her to get to know you.

In this way, Diana's quite unlike that new breed of actress - those breezy extroverts who don't mind talking about their amours, those live-it-up girls who seem to get a kick out of confessing everything to a total stranger.

In contrast, Diana is chilly and impersonal at your first meeting. It's easy to be put off by her abrupt and brisk manner. But persevere. Scratch the surface and you'll find a gay, delightful, animated creature.

Her coldness to strangers might be explained by her rough, lonely childhood. She's been on her own since she was 7 - when her father, a government official, was sent abroad with his wife. They left Diana to her own resources at a British boarding school. Quite a challenge for a 7-year-old - but Diana, as always, welcomed it.

"I was sent to a boarding school where pupils were given virtually total freedom to do whatever they wished," she recalls. "We were left almost entirely to our own devices, which suited me fine. And we formed our own 'society' and our own rules, which were rather just - in the way that a child's logic is just."

This happy "society" was cruelly ruined at the age of 9. "I was plunked into a Quaker school," says Diana, the look in her eyes seeming miles and years away from the Avengers set. "This marked a complete and utter change. From all that freedom to a life that was strictly bound. It was terrible and I hated it. I rebelled against the discipline. I refused to conform.

"I suppose I was a willful sort of child. I only did things that interested me. I was deliberately terrible at the rest, like mathematics and the sciences, which I hated. But I made sure I was good at literary and dramatic subjects. These I loved.

"I had a wonderful, crusading, enlightened teacher to help me through the classics I adored. But many times reading was forced upon us.

"Once we were given a great long list of masterpieces to read within a certain time. And, simply because they were forced on us without question, I left them right for the very last and then only skimmed them. They were a chore. Lots of children are 'taught' like that - and it's such a shame."

Today, Diana still keeps up with her great love of the classics. Collected volumes of many authors are included in her library.

She got into acting via her love of poetry. "It started when I was about 10," she said. "I would read poetry aloud - any sort of poetry - because I liked to hear myself declaim (a nickel word meaning "practice elocution").

"It was only later that I began to realize there was value in the words themselves, as well as in the sounds I made.

"From then on, I took everything easy. I just sailed through school, sailed through drama training, and sailed through all that grim training you get with the stock companies.

"As a result, I never applied any of the experience I was getting. I never made anything out of the things I did. I never profited from them. What I finally learned is that you must put your time to good use. I think that's so important for everybody. It helps you find yourself.

"Today I feel that I must constantly project myself into new and alien situations - in my mind. That's the only way to become mature. But, at the same time, there's no such thing as 'becoming an adult'. You continue to develop constantly.

"Development is merely the application of new experience," she concluded. "So it becomes necessary - as well as good - to plunge constantly into new fields and new endeavors, to cross new frontiers."

As part of her development, Diana spent two years at Britain's Royal Academy, but had a rought time getting started in the theatre because of her height. As a result, she spent some months as a fashion model.

Her first break came with a repertory theatre and then came the Big Opportunity, a long-term contract with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-on-Avon, the famous Bard's home.

"Accepting that Stratford contract was the single experience which I considered the most important in my life," says Diana now. This "new frontier" permitted her love for acting and her reverence for the classics to bloom. "I had lived a pretty easy life until then. I made no demands on myself - and no one else had made demands on me either.

"Suddenly, overnight, I had responsibilities - and I began to mature a great deal, very quickly. I was surrounded by people I had always respected: wonderful people like Sir Laurence Olivier and Paul Robeson. Here I was, in their company, working alongside of them - and it became terribly important for me to earn their respect."

Diana was a hit. She won strong praise as Helena in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "A Comedy of Errors" and in roles in "Ondine," "Becket," "The Devils," and "The Physicists" with the traveling troupe.

In 1964, she seized an opportunity to tour the U.S. in "King Lear" (as Cordelia) and "A Comedy of Errors."

But her successes in Elizabethan drama were not enough for Diana - and she fought for the chance to broaden her repertoire of roles.

Her friends say that she would have become one of the top Shakespearean actresses of the decade. Instead, she chose to dislodge herself from the cozy perch at Stratford and dive headlong into the new and exciting world of television.

She made the plunge from Shakespeare to Espionage in one very uneasy lesson - but the opportunity to explore a new and alien situation excited her.

"People who tell me that there's a danger of my being typecast as Emma Peel annoy me intensely. They are so short sighted. There was just as much danger of my being typecast as a Shakespearean heroine. I could have sat on my hands at Stratford, rotting and stagnating, the whole bit.

"But that's something I refuse to do anywhere. I refuse to get slotted into a pigeonhole. I will go on developing. Emma Peel won't be the last important role I play.

"I'm an actress!" she stressed. "Why do actresses have to be labelled? It's because people like to think they have you all sized up. You can be a straight dramatic actress. You can be a light comedy girl. But, according to them, you can't be both."

"Well, I am both, and I'm a whole lot more, too. I couldn't live with myself if I were only capable of playing one sort of role. That would be the time to hang up my karate chop."

Didn't her friends from the Shakespeare days think she was lowering herself by playing Emma Peel? we asked.

"You know," she said, "I went back to Stratford last summer, at their invitation, to do "Twelfth Night." Everybody there who had known me from before, even the ones who had warned me against going, said that I'd changed and matured from the experience on TV. They all said it had improved me.

"In television, I'm living dangerously, but then video is so different from live theatre. Naturally you learn Shakespearean lines. I mean, you spend time at it. On television, knowing 'lines' just isn't that important."

And things can happen on the theatrical stage that simply would never occur on television. Take the time at Stratford when Diana experienced "the most embarrassing moment" of her career.

"I was playing Lady Macduff in a children's matinee of 'Macbeth.' The idea was that I should die - then crawl off stage when the lights went out.

"So I died, very dramatically - and scrambled away on my hands and knees when the lights dimmed.

"Suddenly the lights came on again. Far too soon. And there was old Lady Macduff, in full view, racing away on all fours like a frantic greyhound."

She laughed at the memory. "What's next for you?" we asked her.

"If it were up to me, I'd like to sit down to a good old rehearsal session - really analyze a part with the other people who are going to be acting with me. I'd like to plan a portrayal.

"But you can hardly do that with Emma Peel, can you? She's established and there's no more character to describe or evoke. Just lines to say.

"So my new frontiers will have to come from having to learn those lines. The challenge lies in knowing what I must do - and wondering whether I will."

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