The scene is a table set for two in the Mezzanine Restaurant at the Royal National Theatre on the South Bank. It is one o'clock and the celebrated actress Dame Diana Rigg has taken a break from rehearsals to have lunch with a middle-aged journalist who arrives, breathless, flustered, and holding his stomach in. Gyles Brandreth has had complicated feelings about his lunch companion since 1965 when he was 16 and first saw her as the leather-clad Emma Peel in The Avengers.
Gyles Brandreth: Hello
Diana Rigg (She looks up and turns her head slightly to one side.) We've met before.
GB: You remember? (He laughs.) How are you? You're looking wonderful.
DR: (She smiles.) Thank you.
GB: No, I mean it. You are looking very beautiful.
DR: (Wide-eyed.) You astound me. I am 63. This week.
GB: I don't think I would have believed, until this moment, that the day would come when I would fancy a 63-year-old, but you are incredibly fanciable. (They both laugh.) What's it like?
DR: (She hesitates.) Growing older? Well, you can't eat spinach any more because of the risk of that Limpopo green smile. You can't get on top of your lover in broad daylight. And some days you wake up feeling 104 and you have to treat yourself very, very nicely. I smoke, I love wine, I take the dog for long walks . . . (He glances at her hands, covered with liver spots. He gazes at her face. Her eyes are amused. Her skin is peachy. Her hair is fair, cut short. She looks modern, but has the manner of a leading lady from an earlier generation. She is not grand, but she is theatrical.) . . . and then there are the droops - the bosoms, the bottom, the jowls. (She sees his raised eyebrow.) I had a nip about 10 years ago, but I can't be bothered now. I let Coral Browne [the Australian actress] be a warning. She had her face done to the extent that when she smiled it was a terrible effort to get the lips back over her teeth again.
GB: Tell me about the play.
DR: I'd much rather gossip. (Food is being served.) What are you having? Pumpkin risotto. Doesn't it look wonderful? Do you still see Glenda [Jackson]? I bet she's fastidious about her work in the constituency. Do give her my love.
GB: (With mock reproof.) The play.
DR: (Quickly.) It's called Humble Boy. It's by an extremely clever young woman, Charlotte Jones. It's her third play, I think. It's about astrophysics, bees, variations on a theme of Hamlet, relationships. It's very funny, thank God, get some laughs, for a change. And - glory of glories - it is a new play, because I have done my whack at the old classics. (She skewers her ravioli.) Have I said enough to whet people's appetites?
GB: Who do you play?
DR: I play Simon Russell Beale's mother, a deeply eccentric, extremely funny woman. The piece rings quite a few bells. With my own mother, the ultimate full stop to any argument would be to say, "Do it because I am your mother." And that line is in this play. It's what parents used to say when I was a child.
GB: Tell me about your parents.
DR: (Waving her fork in the air.) They were great. They came from Doncaster. My Dad was particularly wonderful. He was very clever, won a scholarship as an apprentice engineer, got all the qualifications. He answered an advertisement for an engineer to go to India and ended up building railways for the local maharajah.
GB: When was he born?
DR: I have no idea. I'm not good on dates. He was called Louis Rigg. He did a five-year term in India and was then sent back home to get a wife and found my mother in the local tennis club. She was the daughter of the manager of the gentleman's outfitting department at Doncaster Co-op.
GB: They were happily married?
DR: Completely. Totally. (She beams.) So nice.
GB: Then there is the awful pay-off at the end of a good marriage when one of them dies.
DR: Yes. (She looks towards the window overlooking the Thames.) My mother was just marking time after my father went. She was very much of that generation whose life was her husband. I wonder if women nowadays are going to be quite as bereft when their husbands die? I don't think so. (Suddenly pulling herself together and cracking on.) My older brother, Hugh - he was in the RAF, testing Harriers, a good man - was born in India, in a military hospital, but my mother had such a terrible experience that she came back here to have me. I went out to India with her when I was two months old and stayed until I was seven, when I was sent to a small preparatory school in Little Missenden. It was filled with children whose parents were abroad. I didn't see mine for about 18 months. In the holidays I stayed in Doncaster with a rather reluctant grandmother who was quite cross at having two children to look after. Eventually, with Indian independence looming, my father decided to come back home. I went on to another boarding school, in Yorkshire. I did my school certificate and then I auditioned for Rada when I was 16. I was mad keen to be an actress.
GB: Why? Was it in the blood?
DR: No, not at all. It was Mrs Greenwood. It's always down to a teacher, isn't it? Sylvia Greenwood was my amazing elocution teacher and she was determined I was going to be an actress. She had white hair, even at 40, wonderful skin, big blue eyes. She was plump, and passionate about Shakespeare. She died this year.
GB: And she just felt you had it?
DR: She just did. She persuaded my parents, who were incredibly doubtful about the whole thing. Anyway, I came up to London, the city of sin, accompanied by Mrs Greenwood and my mother. And I got into Rada. Sian Phillips was in the same year. Peter O'Toole was in the year above, with Albie [Albert Finney]. Susannah York was in the year below. I'm still in touch with three or four from the class. Not all are still actors.
GB: At 16, were you aware that you were beautiful?
DR: (Without hesitating.) I had no idea. My upbringing was very Yorkshire. If my grandmother caught me looking in a mirror, she'd say, "Vanity, vanity." I remember at Sunday supper she always served pickled beetroot and I put a tiny bit of beetroot on my fork and rubbed it over my lips and tried to sneak a look to see what I looked like with lipstick. I was caught and slapped down mightily.
GB: When you left Rada . . .
DR: Eventually I got a job as an ASM [assistant stage manager] with walk-on parts at Chesterfield Rep, pounds 4 a week. I was sent around the town to collect all the props. We had one sofa and two chairs and each Saturday, with tacks and glue, we'd re-cover the sofa for the next week's play. I lived in a house with a young widow and her son. It had an outside lavatory and when I wanted a bath the widow filled a zinc tub in front of the fire. It was very D. H. Lawrence. I loved every minute. And then I did the summer season at York, and then I got to Stratford.
GB: In 1959, doing walk-ons with Eileen Atkins and Vanessa Redgrave.
DR: Isn't it wonderful about Eileen becoming a Dame?
GB: Yes. We had supper last week to celebrate. We talked about you. And how Julian [Glover, Atkins' first husband] understudied Paul Robeson as Othello.
DR: I was living in digs with an actress called Edna Landor. I thought she was a lesbian, but she went on to have an affair with Paul Robeson. He was living at a place called Shottery Lodge and Edna would say, "Paul wants me to hear his lines. Will you come with me?" So I used to sit in the kitchen at Shottery Lodge, with Paul's secretary, truly believing that Edna was in the bedroom hearing his lines. It's a wonderful euphemism, isn't it? I was so naive.
GB: That's not what I gathered from Eileen.
DR: Eileen does exaggerate.
GB: She said you were at it constantly.
DR: No, I was so innocent it isn't true. (She laughs, a deep, sexy laugh.) I wasn't a virgin, but I certainly wasn't boffing anybody in the company. How astounding that Eileen had that impression.
GB: Maybe she meant later. Eileen said, "I like sex, but Diana was insatiable."
DR: (Her laugh is almost a gurgle.) I quite like the idea, actually. (She takes a cigarette from its pack.) I was a slow starter (Lights the cigarette.) All I wanted was to earn enough money to buy my father a bottle of whisky a week, and eventually I did. They were wonderful at Stratford then. They nurtured you. I was a walk-on, then I had small parts and all the time you had voice lessons, verse lessons. Michel Saint-Denis taught us Chekhov, so when the time came  and I got the part of Cordelia in Peter Brook's King Lear with Paul Scofield, and one of the leads in Comedy of Errors, I was ready.
GB: (Sensing he is running out of time.) How do you think you are perceived by the public?
DR: (Deliberately, with conviction.) I don't care.
GB: You've done everything, all these great classic roles, Shakespeare, Shaw, the Greeks, you're a Dame, and yet, still . . .
DR: Yes, still, we talk about The Avengers. I don't mind. It was more than 30 years ago, but I really don't mind.
GB: We haven't talked about men, husbands.
DR: I haven't had a husband for 12 years. As soon as I could afford it, I had a housekeeper. Lucinda has been with me now for 20 years. And I have a dog called Mabel. My last husband was Archie Stirling, landowner, father of my actress daughter Rachel Atalanta - so called because at birth she had very long legs. Considering my background and my parents' stable, loving marriage, I'm rather appalled that mine didn't work. There was an earlier husband, too. I contracted this mad passion and married an Israeli painter [Menachem Gueffen]. Don't ask. It was doomed. It lasted two minutes. Now I've bought a house in France. I want to press rewind. I want to find rural and you can't in England, so I've found it in France, in Landes, in a village without a shop, just a handful of houses and a 10th century church. I don't feel the lack of a man. When I was young, women were considered incomplete without a husband, and it has taken me years and years and years to come to the tranquil conclusion that life can be complete without a man.
GB: (Trying to look boyish.) That means . . .
DR: (Smiling indulgently.) I am not on the prowl. There is nothing worse than a woman on the hunt. But I am always open . . . The door is always open. Always.