28 May 1979: Time

Britain's Best Actress

What makes Diana Rigg so, uh, compelling?

We, the thinking makes of the civilized world, do not know. What we do know is that whenever she acts on the stage, on television or in a movie, something happens to us. Something strange.

Come, come, thinking men, think a little harder.

Her body? Slender, long, well-molded legs. Square shoulders. Auburn hair. Clean, classic Anglo-Saxon features: luscious mouth, curiously interesting nose. Regal carriage.

But you observe that in the elegant mannequins who adorn the fashion magazines. There must be something else.

Competence? She can take care of herself. She was one of the first women to take care of herself on American television. In the 1960s she was the karate-chopping Emma Peel on The Avengers. As a ravenous siren in the movie The Hospital, she was the perfect foil to a maddened, suicidal George C. Scott.

But a lot of women are competent and can take care of themselves, yet you are not attracted to them for that alone. Some men are frightened of female independence. Think again.

We will borrow from Critic Michael Billington of the Guardian. He says that Rigg conveys "both an independence of spirit and longing for the comfort and security of a long-term relationship." In other words, she needs men, sort of. Besides, she is funny. She can make us laugh. Better yet, she can make us smile. She describes Lady Macbeth thus: "She sort of peters out in a most dissatisfying way. She comes on with a candle and mutters, and that's it in the last act."

But there is still another dimension, right?

Well, yes. Diana reminds us that every man first fell in love at age 13 with a girl's voice and eyes, with her way of saying certain words, and that sexuality is not primarily in the body but in the mind and in language. On a single husky key of irony, she ranges from armoured-tough to self-mocking vulnerable. We love to see her laugh, even more to see her smile. The corners of her mouth get the least bit crinkly, the large brown eyes get the least bit twinkly. She is part imp, part nymph - an imph. She is in no way a sex symbol, but sexuality embodied. There is a difference.

Very good. We think you've got it. One more question. What do women make of Diana?

Everything we do, and more. Diana is less of an illusion, less of a fantasy, to women. She understands herself and other women, and she projects it.

And she does. As Ruth Carson in Tom Stoppard's acerbic play Night and Day, now in its 29th sellout week at London's Phoenix Theatre, Rigg delivers a performance of such depth, subtlety and sexuality that it won her the Plays and Players magazine award as best actress of 1978 and, at 40, established her as Britain's new leading lady. She is, as the Guardian's Billington says, the actress of the times, the woman to play modern woman.

Rigg's Carson is tough, a woman who fights for independence, her right to be herself, while holding her fears in check. As a seductress, she leaves nothing - and everything - the be desired. At one point in the play, which is set in a fictional African country in the throes of civil war, Rigg engages in a woman's fantasy as she seduces a young newspaper reporter. "I'm telling you this because it is interesting," she begins, her voice quiet and cool, as if she were telephoning an order to her greengrocer. "Went to bed feeling nothing more dangerous than a heightened sense of you being in the house. Woke up fluttering with imminent risk. Quite a pleasant feeling, really. Like walking along the top board knowing you don't have to jump. But a desperate feeling, too, because if you're not going to jump, what the hell are you doing up there?"

The audience giggles uncertainly but is seduced. Says Richard Broke, producer of the Oresteia trilogy, which was televised on the BBC in March with Rigg as Clytemnestra: "With Glenda Jackson, Diana is one of the two great verse speakers in our theater. She uses her voice not just like an instrument but a whole orchestra." At the Phoenix, in inflections ranging from hard-boiled to archly tender, Rigg adds womanhood and wit to Stoppard's words. "A lady, if surprised by melancholy, might go to bed with a chap, once; or a thousand times if consumed by passion. But twice, twice...a lady might think she'd be taken for a tart." Even when wordless and glaring at a former lover, Rigg commands tension and attention. Says Night and Day Director Peter Wood: "She communicates telepathically. She can stand downstage without saying anything, but there is such an intensity about her, the whole theater falls silent."

Audiences depart both drained and uplifted, captivated by Rigg's performance. Declares Douglas Fairbanks Jr.: "Anyone who doesn't find Rigg devastatingly attractive must be an Outer Mongolian monk." Broadway Musical Director Burt Shevelove is simply agog. "I'll remember this as long as I live," says he. "It is that superb."

What hardly anyone in her audience knows is that Rigg delivers her sexy, comic brilliance while enduring biting physical agony caused by a pinched sciatic nerve. Not long after the opening of Night and Day on Nov. 8, doctors told her that she could choose between an operation or six months on her back. She chose neither, played on, and relied on anesthetics to fight pain during almost every appearance. She was finally forced to stop acting for 36 performances, but returned in mid-March, the ailment not much improved. Says Director Wood: "She'd rather have the pain than not act. That's why she is who she is."

Offstage, there is not much difference between Rigg and Ruth Carson, reason enough, it seems, for Rigg's enthusiasm for the part. Says she of Ruth: "She's a totally modern woman. She's not afraid of appearing intelligent, hard, ironic, witty, predatory." Nor is Rigg, who has filled her own unconventional life with zest and panache aplenty. She lived with a married man, TV Director Philip Saville, for eight years. She allowed herself to be swept off her feet by Israeli Artist Menachem Gueffen, becoming his fourth wife and then separating from him after all of eleven months. She then found a peaceful relationship with Archie Stirling, a wealthy British businessman, has resisted marriage, yet is the mother of his child. Their daughter Rachael is two years old.

Although Rigg had played in a 1972 Stoppard play, Jumpers, and is an old friend of the playwright, Stoppard did not have Rigg in mind when he created Carson. Yet when he showed her the part, she embraced it. From the beginning, part and player worked on each other. Stoppard's original Carson was self-possessed, with a thick shell. But, says the playwright, "Diana broke up the shell" by making the character more humanly fragile. As Rigg told TIME London Correspondent Erik Amfitheatrof: "When it's right, it's so goddamn easy. I inherit the stage. It's my right in this play, thanks to what Stoppard has written. There is absolutely nothing I can do wrong on that stage, unless I've got a temperature of 103 or am crazed with drink."

Playacting has been a part of Rigg's life since childhood. Born in 1938 in the Yorkshire mining town of Doncaster, Diana spent her first eight years in Jodhpur, India, where her father was a colonial official on imperial railways. Rigg has mixed recollections of those pre-independence times. "I remember that there were explosions on the railway. The nationalists were blowing up some of the lines and that sort of thing, but I can also remember being in a large house with servants and ayahs. When we went to the hills in the hot season, we traveled much as the Royal Family travels now to Balmoral, in our own carriage. And I can remember dreading the journey up to the hills because the train stopped at some of the stations. My parents used to get off and talk a walk, and all these leprous, awful faces would be pressed to the window, and stunted limbs would be hammering on the glass, all the beggars of course crowding round. I don't remember observing much poverty apart from that as a child in India, because one was never allowed out of the grounds. The dogs had rabies so one one stayed more or less in the garden. I'd love to go back to India, but I suspect it would depress me - not because I wish to return to the grandeur of the past but because I think the privation and poverty there are so terrible."

These experiences led Diana to seek refuge in fantasy; it was necessary, she recalls, to "transport yourself to another place and become somebody else." The Indian experience annealed Diana and her older brother Hugh, now 44. He went on to become a Royal Air Force test pilot, and she began the arduous process of becoming an actress. In Britain, which prides itself in the best dramatic education system in the world, that meant half a dozen years of rigorous training.

For Rigg, it started at the Fulneck Ladies' School in Yorkshire. Teacher Sylvia Greenwood recalls that even as a ten-year-old "Diana had that beautiful voice"; Greenwood played a major role in persuading Diana's parents to let her become an actress. "In those days in Yorkshire," Rigg remembers, "being an actress was only one step up, really, from being a prostitute."

Rigg hated Fulneck's regimentation: "They were bent on eradicating any sense of self, or sex. We wore the ugliest uniforms on earth." She discovered poetry and literature and strove for excellence in school theatricals. At 16, before playing Emily Brontë, she practiced the ailing writer's cough for hours until schoolmate's complained.

At 17, after graduating from Fulneck, Rigg read Joan's lines from Henry VI and Katharina's lines from The Taming of the Shrew in an audition and was accepted by London's hallowed Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. A recent graduate was Peter O'Toole; Albert Finney was in his final year. In Diana's class were Glenda Jackson and Susannah York. Rigg studied hard, but the delights of the city and boyfriends were welcome changes from puritanical Fulneck. "I'd never actually had fun before," says she. She dated young military officers and her brother's R.A.F. friends. Her face turns impish: "I went through the armed forces in about three months." So preoccupied was she with extracurricular activities ("Let's say there were divers lovers") that she was, in fact, almost expelled.

After the Royal Academy came her professional debut, in 1957, in Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle. It did not go well: Rigg, then 19, spent opening night in a hospital with shingles. "My light did not exactly burst upon the world. Rather, I burst out in spots." In 1959 she auditioned with dozens of other candidates before a panel of veteran actors, excelled, and was accepted into the Royal Shakespeare Company. She mingled with biggies. During her first year there, Sir Laurence Olivier played Coriolanus; Paul Robeson, Othello; Dame Edith Evans, Volumnia; and Charles Laughton, King Lear.

Rigg got small parts for a small salary ($18 a week for "rent and makeup"), watched, listened and learned. Her biggest problem was not stage fright but high spirits, sometimes showing up as an uncontrollable urge to laugh. That annoyed Leading Lady Leslie Caron, who on one occasion told Rigg acidly: "Think of something sad; think of being fired." She was not, and instead, under a new contract, moved up to understudy roles and finally to such major parts as Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew and Adriana in The Comedy of Errors.

By the mid-1960s, after 5 years with the RSC, touring the US and the Soviet Union with the company and enduring gossip writers' wisecracks ("the statuesque Shakespearean," "Britain's most desirable bachelor girl"), Rigg was becoming restless. She got offers from West End theaters but, but playwrights were still turning out 1930s-style comedies with small and inane roles for women. "The juvenile was the juvenile," Rigg says. "And the leading lady was approaching 50, with a handbag." Besides, Rigg wanted more money. So she did what a number of other frustrated stage actors were doing: she turned to television.

Her vehicle was The Avengers, the urbane, tongue-in-cheek series about skulduggery in places high and low. The show began in 1961 in Britain, spread to the US and other countries in 1966. Rigg's agent lined her up for a screen test, and in 1965 she joined the series as Emma Peel, the female lead opposite Patrick Macnee, the utterly cool, utterly indestructible hero. Rigg wore leather. She fired pistols. She disposed of enemies with karate chops. And she gave the distinct impression that between bouts with villains, she and Macnee were casual lovers. Audiences adored the program, and almost overnight, Rigg became a worldwide star.

The recognition was almost distasteful to her. "All of a sudden there were photographs of me everywhere. it's a shock, and I feel very sympathetic toward anyone who has had to go through it." The series taught her a different kind of acting, one where speed at mastering up to 60 pages of dialogue a week is all-important. "You've got to be positive and slick," Rigg says of television. "In the theater you've got time to reach the depths." She worked up to 14 hours a day, learning lines and pretending at judo. She approached violence as choreography: "The stunt men were absolutely wonderful, throwing themselves over my shoulder at the merest press of a finger."

Big money did not flow to her immediately: inexplicably her agent signed her for a salary of $280 a week for the first 14 Avengers shows. After that, she rose to $700 an episode and moved into a studio apartment in St. John's Wood. In 1967, after 52 TV episodes and "nothing new to discover," Rigg left the series; it faded way in 1969. Little is seen of the program nowadays, although in March US viewers got a snippet of the old team when parts of one of their episodes were spliced into The New Avengers, a pallid CBS attempt to revive the show.

Rigg's next venture into television came some years later. It was not successful, although she hoped it would be. Called Diana, it was about an Englishwoman who seeks her fortune in America, and it paid Rigg about $23,000 an episode. Says she: "I really wanted to have a bash at something the Americans do incredibly well, and do it on their own soil, and do it under their own terms." Diana became one of NBC's casualties of the 1973 fall season after a run of only 13 weeks. Poorly written, it made ill use of Rigg's talents. The producers, it seemed, wanted to transform her into another Mary Tyler Moore. The demise was complete. As Rigg recalls: "When I arrived in Los Angeles, the studio sent this three-block-long, smoked-glass limousine to meet me. Six months later, the day I left, they sent the banged up studio station wagon. I never stopped laughing on the plane home. 'You've failed,' they were telling me, 'and just in case you didn't know it...'"

Another casualty of Diana, at least in part, was Rigg's shaky marriage to Artist Gueffen. The two are still on good terms; he speaks tenderly of her, admires her work. "For me, she was never a sex symbol," he says. "She is a marvelous person and an extremely talented actress." During their marriage, says Gueffen, Rigg enjoyed domesticity and recognized that "cooking is a part of giving." She was "trying to enjoy the real things in life, a real relationship. I think that's beautiful.

It was a relationship of intense feeling. They had first met in London in February 1973, then again in Israel the following June. "We quarreled all the time," Gueffen says. "To her, not quarreling is not relating." During a 3 a.m. argument, Rigg threatened to leave him, and packed her bags. As she started downstairs, Gueffen said, "No, let me do it." Whereupon he lifted the suitcases, walked over to the window, held them over the sill and let them drop seven floors to the street. "I was absolutely amazed," recalls Rigg. "Most of my shoes lost their heels on impact."

The next morning the two flew back to London. As the plane soared over Rhodes, Gueffen pointed out the window and said that this was where the Israelis made peace with the Arabs after the 1948 war. There was a brief silence. Rigg said: "Let's make peace too." Then she asked Gueffen an odd question: Did he feel that his judgment was as good at 35,000 ft. as it was at sea level? "Yes, why?" he answered. Replied Rigg: "Will you marry me?" They were married in July. Within a few months, Diana had failed, Diana was down, Gueffen hated Los Angeles, and worse still, he felt that Rigg was turning their marriage into a contest over who was the better professional. They separated in June. Rigg views the marriage as a mistake: "Reviewing it is not particularly pleasurable for me."

Between The Avengers and Diana, Rigg tried movies, all of them interesting, none of them milestones: Theatre of Blood with Vincent Price, On Her Majesty's Secret Service with George Lazenby as James Bond, The Hospital with George C. Scott. In Hospital, Rigg performed powerfully and with surgical precision, and she earned the unending devotion of the film's writer, Paddy Chayefsky. "She is a very unusual lady," he says. "No hang-ups." Rigg says that Hospital was her best movie role because of Chayefsky's writing and Scott's encouragement. "Scott is so incredibly intense. He made me change tack and re-examine what I was doing. It was the best kind of hard acting." At the same time, Scott became a Rigg fan. "She made me feel very relaxed," says he. "I love her. She's a terrific woman and a great talent."

But television and the movies seemed to lead Rigg down a path she did not want to follow. She preferred live audiences to cameras: "I find it more difficult to divulge to a machine. The camera doesn't draw out of me what people draw out of me." Worse, in watching herself on the screen, she discovered that she did not like what she sees. "I think I'm physically absolutely repulsive on film. I suppose it's because I always think of myself in terms of intellect and emotion. The physical part of me is just a biological necessity. I think my fingerprint would be more interesting to me than a photograph of myself." She keeps no tapes or prints to remind of her ventures into TV and movies, and winced when she saw and Avengers rerun in New York City not long ago: "It was like an early Joan Crawford movie. It had dated so fast."

She felt, in short, that everything she was came off far better on stage. In 1972 she joined the National Theatre, where Sir Laurence called her "a brilliantly skilled and delicious actress." In Stoppard's philosophic farce Jumpers, she played delectable Dottie, wife of an unfashionable academic humanist. One scene required Rigg to disrobe. She quipped: "I have to make up my backside, otherwise when I show it on stage it looks just like an old piece of cod." She was a flawless Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion in 1974, a giddy yet complicated coquette Cèliméne in The Misanthrope in 1973. Her Lady Macbeth in 1972 was venomous. It was also fun. During a rehearsal, Actor Denis Quilley, playing Macbeth, was directed to put his hand inside Rigg's bodice. He recalls: "I had my hand down, fondling her bosom - as I was required to be doing, let me hasten to add - and Diana was murmuring, 'Up a bit, left a bit, down a bit - golden shot!'"

In Rigg's view, she failed in Phaedra Britannica in 1975, a morality play about fate and divine intervention. "I saw it as a task. It was like looking at a huge mountain and wondering if you'd get to the top." Indeed, tragic parts are difficult for her, as she acknowledges: "You must thoroughly enjoy your misery, relish it. There's a masochistic element to it. Phaedra was written with me in mind, and one of these days I would like to have another go at it, practicing the lessons I learned the first time around. Number one: Enjoy the unhappiness."

Offstage, Rigg has much to enjoy. She and Father Archie share the duties of making Baby Rachael's morning demands, which begin at 7 o'clock. But for Night Person Diana, who usually does not get to bed until 2 a.m., the duty can be tiring. She makes up for it by relaxing in the afternoon, smoking thin brown Napoleon cigars, reading in the library of her three-story townhouse in Earl's Court and worrying mildly over Britain's strike-prone industrial workers. Her views are generally conservative; she values "the honor of doing a fair job and receiving a fair wage for it." Politically, she feels distant from fellow actresses like avid Leftist Vanessa Redgrave, although she admires Redgrave's acting ability.

Archie Stirling, whom she met at the home of a friend, plays the role of liv-in lover with the aplomb of the English gentleman that he is. Handsome, as have been all of Rigg's men. Stirling represents a sharp swing away from Rigg's exotic adventure with Artist Gueffen to her life with an archetypal upper-class Briton, the kind of man who might have been a colonial administrator or trader in the India of Rigg's childhood. Three years younger than Rigg, Stirling is a dashing entrepreneur whose family owns land in Scotland. Their relationship appears stable, but Rigg is wary of marrying again. "One is rather more successful in a relationship outside of marriage than in it," she explains. "That statement contains an implied criticism of myself. Why there should be, I don't know. In a sense I suppose because I failed. You are sort of chary the second time around."

For Rigg, 6:30 pm is her witching hour. She has bathed Rachael and put her to bed. Grabbing a tangerine, her hair uncombed, she jumps into a taxi and goes to the Phoenix. "I couldn't be starting at a lower ebb," she says. "And yet nightly this incredible thing happens to me. One looks a bit pale and tousled and tired and in the space of half an hour, a glass of champagne, making up, talking to people, the adrenaline flows. Thank God it happens. I just look at my face in the mirror sometimes and marvel. I don't know where the energy has come from." At the shows end, Archie and a cluster of join her in the dressing room for more champagne, then a later supper, mostly at home but occasionally at a favorite restaurant. She intends to keep up the pace until the end of June, when her contract runs out and Ruth Carson's role is picked up by Oscar Winner Maggie Smith. Then Rigg plans to rest for six months, writing a book about the stage and nursing away her back pain.

There are critics, all of them friends, who wonder if Rigg demands too little of herself. One of them is former husband Gueffen. He believes Rigg could have a film career like Jane Fonda or Diane Keaton if she marketed herself better. She has been, he feels, far too modest in assessing her worth. Says Benedict Nightingale, drama critic for the New Statesman: "I can't reckon that I place any other actress much higher, but she still hasn't proved herself on the really high-octane stuff." Rigg might agree.

Yet she remains remarkably versatile and continues to grow. For the momentum it is sufficient that she has already achieved the capacity for making something happen to us. Something strange. Something quite wonderful.

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