10 December 1998: The Stage

Ex-Bond Girl At The Front Of The Q

Theatre, Diana Rigg reveals, is in no danger of losing its appeal. And much the same can be said of thr actress, who, at 60 years old, was recently named by Playboy as one of the world's top 100 sexiest women of all time.

In the group interviews with Diana Rigg for the new BBC2 film adaptation of Henry James' The American in which she stars, the actress reduced the slavering press to a bunch of whimpering puppies. They seemed either too scared of her or too in awe of the woman who has, after all, been named 75th in Playboy's top 100 list of the world's all-time sexiest women.

Her reputation doth, after all, proceed her. Rumour even goes that when playing Bond's sweet wife Tracy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, she really hated swell-headed actor George Lazenby (who played Bond for the first and only time).

I am not sure which one of them is alleged to have eaten garlic before their snogging scene.

And even on the set of The American, to be shown on Boxing Day. Rigg's caravan, which lodged in the tranquil surroundings of the former convent of Mount St Anne's just outside Dublin, bore the clear sign penned in her own hand: "Bugger Off."

"It's very simple," Rigg says. "When I'm working I give everything I have to that work. If I have to tell people to bugger off I will."

But the 60-year-old grande-dame of the British acting profession was all sweetness and light, as we (and also director Paul Unwin) found, despite initial trepidation.

"I was terrified at directing her. I thought she would be a Rottweiler, but she is not the character we see on the screen," Unwin says, adding that he found that Rigg, like many actresses who have done so much theatre, was prepared to really muck in (and even offer suggestions over certain shots) during the tight, but collaborative 25 day shoot.

Rigg plays Madame de Bellegarde in the much condensed, highly passionate version of James' (rather over) long novel. Madame is the fierce matriarch of a dying aristocratic dynasty which thwarts her daughter's hopes of marrying an uppity Yank played by Matthew Modine, just as she was thwarted when she was young - only Madame de Bellegarde murdered the man she was forced to marry as a girl.

And this is perhaps the reason why the star of television's Mother Love, who also specialises in playing nasty classical women amd is currently starring in consecutive productions of Racine's Phedre and Britannicus and London's Albery Theatre, is so feared.

"Some years ago, in fact, I did the ultimate in embittered old bags. Typecasting happens. But here there is a difference. I would not do them unless I truly believed I was bringing something different to each.

"Goodness carries a depth to it, but it has a one-facet depth whereas evil, a woman like this vclinging very much to the past and who visits on her daughter what was visited on her, well the complications of that I find very interesting."

Perhaps another reason people seem to be daunted by Rigg is the way she brings to all these toles a sexiness which is both unsettling and also compelling. And there is also Playboy.

"For someone who has never consciously or actively promoted her sexuality, I just think it is a hoot. I was thrilled," she says. "But they look at me now and go 'WHAT?'!"

Likewise her younger work captured on film: "When you revisit films you adored at a certain stage, sometimes it is everything you remember, sometimes it isn't. It is perfect for that time. On stage the memory remains as pure.

"You give 100 per cent of yourself to one part. With Britannicus and Phedre, somehow I had to learn to develop another part, so it was almost like I had to, in my mind, just close Phedre up and allow myself two hours every morning to learn Britannicus before I went to rehearsals.

"I am regarded locally as a bit strange as I walk along the streets. And in the back of taxis, they look at me and think I'm a bit of a nutter."

But while she feels that fame on the big screen has eluded her ("Largely my film career is a stop-start - I am seen as a more theatre actress and this may be because of a reluctance to employ someone who has been on a lot of television in film"), time does not seem to wither her, and British theatre, her major love, could learn a lot from her example.

"Theatres will be every bit as full in 50 years time. I have always been optimistic. I was around when television came in and doom for the theatre was foretold, but to me it is absolutely fascinating.

"The lure of the theatre, the story being told on stage is still there and I do not see, unless human nature changes very profoundly, it losing its appeal."

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