01 May 1997: San Diego Union

Beyond Emma Peel, Dame Diana Is One Of Stage's Most Luminous Stars

Uma as Emma. It's one of the worst-kept secrets in Hollywood. On second thought, it's not even a secret anymore.

When the big-screen machine that seems to have its dial stuck on Adaptation of '60s TV Shows gets around to remaking "The Avengers" for movie audiences, the film will star Ralph Fiennes as John Steed (a role originated by Patrick MacNee) and Uma Thurman as Emma Peel.

That part, of a sleek and quietly sensuous British secret agent who succeeded as much by her wits and her wit as by her expertise at the martial arts, was played by a young Shakespearean-trained actress -- Diana Rigg. In so doing, she created an international sensation that transcended the spy-spoof television of the late '60s.

The prodigiously bright, fiercely independent Emma Peel was a departure from the stereotyped female characters of the genre who were usually -- and regrettably -- reduced to scenery. At the same time, Emma Peel mirrored the singular fashion of the London mod scene more than perhaps anyone but Twiggy. (Rigg's leather "cat suits," prominent in her first year on the series, had some pop- culture critics speculating that the show catered to leather freaks.)

This is no knock on Uma Thurman, a luminous screen presence and accomplished actress in her own right. But, aside from the fact that she's not British, she is not Diana Rigg. "The Avengers" was a series -- and Emma Peel a character -- that should be spared the indignity of an inferior Hollywoodized reincarnation.

But that's just my take on it. Rigg, I'm sure, wouldn't mind having Thurman or any other actress stepping into shoes Rigg stepped out of 30 years ago. Invariably in interviews with her, the subject of "The Avengers" past and future arises, and Rigg always responds graciously, even though the now-58-year-old actress has compiled a body of work since that is of remarkable depth and diversity.

Her commercial-film career has, over the years, included a few nuggets like "The Hospital" (written by Paddy Chayefsky) and "The Assassination Bureau." But it has been Rigg's devotion to the classics, on both stage and screen, that has earned her the esteem of her peers and even the royalty-bestowed title of "Dame."

Her resume includes, for the BBC: Dickens' "Bleak House," and a definitive Regan to Sir Laurence Olivier's lead in "King Lear"; "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with the Royal Shakespeare Co.; "Medea" on Broadway (she received a Tony Award for her performance), and, most recently, Edward Albee's stylishly volatile "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" in London.

The latter is fresh in my mind. Sometimes, you see, one can be in the right place at the right time:

I was fortunate enough to be in London during Rigg's long run in the hot-wired role of Martha, a woman full of booze and vitriol. Brazen with Albee's epithetic language between battling spouses, and moving about the stage like a caged tiger, Rigg wrapped the West End's Aldwych Theatre in tension. Lengthy and enervating for cast and audience alike, "Virginia Woolf" is not lightweight material -- but it wasn't likely that anyone's mind could wander, so commanding was the presence on stage.

And it occurred to me, on the street outside the theater, moments after the final curtain call, that in the entire three hours I'd spent inside, not once had I thought about Emma Peel.

This was no small revelation. But the nature of the stage, or similarly, the screen, is its illusion, irrespective of real time or other characters once portrayed by the same performers. The acting persona is that of a chameleon. Each part is a life lived in miniature . . . with someone watching from a distance.

Characters exist in parallel worlds, each as alive as the actor - - or actress -- can make them. So, I realized, the definitive mod heroine, Mrs. Peel, hadn't disappeared at all during "Virginia Woolf."

In a recently aired "Masterpiece Theatre" production of Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca," Rigg portrayed the icy -- let's face it, the bloody mean -- housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. She had no qualms about looking the part, either.

"I am the right age (for the role)," Rigg told an Associated Press reporter, "and I don't give a damn about how I look."

Typically plain-spoken words from Dame Diana.

Now then -- some advice for the Emma-to-be, Uma: Give it your best shot. Don't take it seriously. And stay away from reruns of a certain British spy show.

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