24 April 2002: The Age

The Divine Diana

A table for two with the sexiest TV star of all time? No doubt an ungracious few would wrinkle their nose at coffee with a 63-year-old woman, but then, Emma Peel's appeal is timeless for any male whose eyes were captivated by her leather catsuit in the 1960s.

Not that Dame Diana Rigg, in Melbourne next week for a Royal Shakespeare Company season of The Hollow Crown, is taking the accolade seriously: "My daughter and I hoot, she hoots particularly!''

Dame Diana's hair today is fair and cut short, her English cultured ('cruel' is distinctly two syllables) and only occasionally theatrical, her laugh perhaps deepened by the cigarettes she enjoys. She is charming, a calm grace infusing our conversation as we roam over boarding-school childhood, the obligations on a senior actor and, of course, her entree to stardom as Mrs Peel.

Does she mind talking about a television series nearly 40 years past? "No, not at all. Thanks to The Avengers I am known to the degree that I am. I think when I first left and I was desperately trying to establish myself back on the stage it got a bit heavy. There you are playing something completely different and it gets mentioned and it simply doesn't apply.''

The TV show was also responsible for taking her to a career on the stage rather than the screen.

"It's not absolutely deliberate. When I finished The Avengers I was offered in those days the span of parts for women was terribly limited, and I was just offered these, you know, gun-toting women and I thought 'God in Heaven, I hadn't left The Avengers just to do that on a bigger screen', so I said no.''

She did relent once, though even then her part as a Bond "girl'' was as 007's wife, appearing opposite Australian George Lazenby in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

"Perhaps I wasn't entirely wise because in order to succeed in film, or really be offered films, you have to have a track record so I don't have much of a track record.

"I'd love to have done more than I have but not at the expense of the theatre work that I've done.''

And there Rigg is a star. She has won a Broadway Tony and a London Evening Standard award for her title role in Medea, and another major award for best actress in Mother Courage.

"Theatre is sort of my life, really, the live audience. It's actually much more strenuous than filming, or certainly the last one I did. It challenges the memory.''

During one recent season, her company performed two Racine plays, with Dame Diana in the title role of Phaedra. The company switched between the two works through the course of six days. ``It was mentally exhausting but I would not not have done it because it has you working at your optimum and that's what this business is about. It's not about standing on your back foot and delivering a performance that is tried, true and tested and you've done a thousand times before, but pushing yourself further each time.''

Married twice but divorced from her second husband, a Scottish landowner, 12 years ago, Rigg is the daughter of a Yorkshire engineer who built railways in India. When she was seven she was sent back to England to boarding school, spending the holidays with a grandmother. She didn't see her parents for 18 months.

``It was a matter of convenience for my parents, they thought they were doing the right thing. Your parents are three weeks away by boat and you can't telephone them. And certainly in the half terms I wasn't taken out.

``It didn't make me withdrawn, I think that's where the imagination started. You have an inner life very quickly that sustains you. And children are very adaptable. You know, I wasn't actively unhappy but I became very self-sufficient.''

After drama school in London and a stint with a provincial theatre company, she moved to Stratford in 1959. Her breakthrough came three years later as Cordelia in King Lear.

Rigg firmly believes in the teaching environment of a theatre company.

``I'm a company person, bred in the company ethos. We rather mourn the demise of companies in the truest sense. The National Theatre calls itself a company but it isn't. Each play is cast afresh, they don't always use whoever's in-house, as it were, which I think is a great mistake. In that respect the young aren't nurtured.

``A lot of actors go straight into telly from drama school and don't get much experience of stage. I think the stage is much more collaborative in spirit than telly and film.''

That ethos also places an obligation on senior actors to help the next generation. ``That's what it's about, it's a long-distance race. You've got to put the baton, clear and straight, into the hand of the young person who's at your shoulder, and turn to them and say `Go!'.''

Rigg is also playing a growing role in higher education. She was professor of drama at Oxford for one year and is now chancellor of Stirling University in Scotland. ``I'm steadily working my way though all the departments in the university so that I know what I'm chancellor of. The fact of the matter is I'm fascinated by just about anything - aquaculture! Ask me something about aquaculture.''

Rigg also finds time to be chairwoman of a Scottish arts centre, which has 3.4 million of lottery money to create a children's theatre. ``I'm passionate about that, the educative qualities of theatre that spark the imagination in children. It gives them an arena for self-expression that maybe they don't have at home.''

Rigg was tempted to direct, ``but then I realised what a dreadfully onerous responsibility it is. You've got actors' careers on the line. It's a very courageous business, ours, and I thought `I can't handle that'.'' Nor did she ever consider moving to America to push a career in film.

``It sounds a strange thing to say but I think you've got to be competitive in order to enjoy America and, although I'm in a competitive profession, I'm not deeply competitive. I'm jolly lucky to have got as far as I have with as little competition as I have inside me. I don't think I would be entirely comfortable in America.

``And if you want to prolong your professional life, the theatre is going to do it for you, not film. Generally speaking, if you get to 70 in films you're out of it apart from the odd walk-on or miraculous part, whereas if you've got as far as 70 on the stage you're honoured and you are the sum of your parts.''

The range of her parts in The Hollow Crown is from an old Elizabeth I to a 15-year-old Jane Austen. ``It begs the audience's participation - lend me your imagination!''

The Hollow Crown is, in effect, a recital of writings about and by the kings and queens of England. All five actors - Rigg, Donald Sinden, Ian Richardson, Derek Jacobi and musician Stephen Gray - are on stage throughout.

That, for Rigg, is the treat of a lifetime.

``On stage in a normal part you are in your character so you haven't got that sort of `step back and watch somebody else' objectivity, and it gives me untold pleasure watching them.

``I started as a walk-on when I was very young at Stratford and even in those days had a relish for watching other people at work. You had to have a relish because otherwise why were you going to be there, carrying a spear or whatever.''

Rigg enjoys the very different acting styles of her male companions. ``Even though you're playing Henry VIII or whatever there's a large degree of your own personality in there because you can't hope to sink your own personality in one five-minute piece. So you see on stage five really different characters, actors we are, but we're very different characters.''

This is Rigg's first visit to Melbourne apart from a flying PR visit some years ago. If you can't see her on stage, you may still bump into her on the street. ``I grab whatever time I have, I'm a great walker so I'll walk over the city. When I check in I get a map and then explore. I always go to the museum, I always try and find an antique shop, and buy if I see something, I love the galleries and I'll try and see what the young artists are doing.''

The Hollow Crown is at Her Majesty's Theatre from May 8-19.

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