It's not often that 68-year-old Dame Diana Rigg is mistaken for a prostitute, but it happened on the afternoon of our meeting in a west London hotel. “It was quite extraordinary,” she says. “I asked a member of staff for directions and I could see he thought I was prostitute looking for clients. Amazing.”
Rigg is more baffled than annoyed. One look at her and any normal person would think: blind me, there’s Emma Peel’s grandmother.
Next month marks 60 years since Indian independence and Rigg has celebrated this anniversary by taking a tour through her own imperial past – back to India where she spent the first seven years of her life. But talking to Rigg I realised that her story isn’t about the British Empire, or the rights and wrongs of partition. No, this is a love story. It’s about Diana Rigg’s love for a man she has hitherto never talked about in public: her father, Louis Rigg.
This sort of personal journey is not the kind of thing you would expect from a rather private figure like Rigg. She doesn’t do film premieres or first nights at the theatre and is the last person to drag out her secrets for all to see.
“People think that if you’re private you’re hiding something you don’t wish to be discovered. It’s just that I have always been that way,” she tells me. She lights a cigarette and pauses. “I had a long talk with my brother Hugh about how much we should talk about our family. We both have learnt not to discuss too freely our early days in India. We grew up with a sense of guilt about that. But I wanted to make a tribute to my dad.”
Few British actors are imbued with such iconic Englishness as Rigg. She first high-kicked her way into hearts in 1965 as Emma Peel in the hit televi-sion series The Avengers. With her leather jumpsuits and emancipated ways, Peel embodied the swinging modernity of the new Britain emerging in the 1960s.
But Rigg also became officially connected to the old Britain of the empire when in 1988 she was appointed a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) and then was made a dame commander in 1994.
Rigg was actually born in Doncaster in 1938. (Her parents – who had been living in India – agreed that her mother Beryl should return to Britain for the birth.) Louis Rigg was a working-class railway engineer from Doncaster who in 1925 answered an advertisement in The Times calling for railway engineers to work in India.
“Unlike most Brits in India my father worked not for the British government but the Indian Maharajah of Bikaner, Ganga Singh. He actually made the effort to learn Hindi,” she says proudly.
I get the feeling that for Rigg tracing her family history is a kind of elaborate therapy. Instead of laying on the analyst’s couch, she can travel across a continent and learn to speak freely of her love for her dad and that dark forbidden thing: the British Raj.
Her memories of her Indian childhood are of a “privileged” and luxurious life with a “big house, an army of servants, the colour-ful exoticness of the landscape and the horrors of tins of blancmange. My parents tried to stick to English food – it was dreadful, dreadful”, she says.
Tracing your family history may sound like good fun. But when you go back to the British Empire, the potential for finding skeletons in the family cupboard is probably a lot higher than poking through family life in Blackpool in the 1800s.
I wondered if she had been worried that she might find something rather shocking about her dad?
“Never. I knew what kind of man he was. I once met a former apprentice of his who had written to him ‘humbly begging for a leave of absence’. My dad called the man into his office and said to him, ‘You must never beg for what is rightfully yours’. How can you not worship a man like that?” asks Rigg.
Rigg was married to man-about-town Archie Stirling, who had an affair with actress Joely Richardson in 1989. When she discovered the affair she didn’t take a knife to Stirling’s suits, she took his suits to Oxfam – which says a lot about the kind of woman she is. But I suspect that no man has ever really managed to match her dad in her affections.
She is happy to admit: “I was utterly devoted to my father. He was very loving and we had a very close relationship. He was the only man I loved for years.”
What was it about this dad that led to such devotion from his daughter?
“Dad was so courageous going out there,” Rigg says proudly. “He was a thin, white 25-year-old. They said he would last only six months in that climate, but he lasted 20 years.
“My parents were romantic about each other to the end of their days. He loved my mother absolutely throughout their marriage and there was no question of erring or straying on his part.”
I get the feeling that one big disappointment for Rigg was that she couldn’t have had the same sort of man in her life. She says that from her parents she got “the belief in a happy marriage over many years. But I didn’t achieve it.”
Rigg is a devoted daddy’s girl, but she has plenty of admiration for her mother Beryl as well.
“My mother brought up two children healthy and strong and the cemeteries in India are filled with babies and young children.
“There were immense dangers – diseases, snakes and infections – and we survived. My mother was flung into an alien society with a man she hardly knew and she did it with courage and grace.”
There are other successful actresses – including Julie Christie, Joanna Lumley and Felicity Kendal – who were also children of the empire. I wondered if there was something about those circumstances that made one want to act?
“I think so. First of all the surroundings are so exotic, the colours the women of Rajasthan wear. There’s a kind of theatri-cality to everyday life and I think as a child you absorb that. I remember having a vivid imagination from an early age.”
A director who knows Rigg well once said: “There’s something of the outsider about Diana. She’s not quite of the mainstream like Dame Judi Dench or Maggie Smith. She remains more aloof with directors and audiences. There is a solitude and privacy about her.”
“I agree. I am an outsider,” she says thoughtfully. “I think my upbringing in India made me an outsider. I didn’t have a context; most people have schoolfriends or a family network. I was moved around a lot until I was about 11. You don’t have anything but your parents.”
The Rigg family were happy in India, but Louis could see that with the growing struggle for Indian independence, their days were numbered. He sent his family back to Britain on the ship SS Mahuada in 1945. Three years later Louis returned to Britain. In that same year the SS Empire Windrush with 492 passengers from the Caribbean docked at Tilbury, Essex, marking the beginning of modern immigration.
The Windrush passengers – mostly men from Jamaica – arrived to a Britain of high unemployment, rationing and prejudice. Many expats, like the Rigg family, shared a similar sense of disappointment with Britain as the new wave of immigrants. They came back to a postwar Britain that was rather embarrassed by the British Raj. Rigg’s father also had trouble finding work.
“In coming back to Britain we had really come down in the world. My parents had gone from having a big house with servants to rather reduced circumstances in Leeds,” says Rigg. “We were always short of money.”
Back in Britain the young Rigg quickly discovered that she had better stay silent on the subject of her life in the empire. “At my boarding school it was not the done thing to talk about our life out there – the luxury of having a big house, servants, dinners with the maharajah. People would have thought you were a terrible snob.”
This enforced silence about India followed her into adult life. In her twenties as an actress she found that among the new wave of taboo-busting young actors, artists and satirists of the 1969s, there was still one great taboo left: talking about her happy days in the empire. “I just had to shut up about it,” she says.
The rights and wrongs of empire were rarely discussed in the Rigg household but, inspired by the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, Rigg eventually confronted her mother about their life in India and the social injustices that were part of everyday life.
“In America blacks were not allowed here, there and everywhere. They were treated like second-class citizens, much like the Indians in India. My mother responded in the only way she could, ‘But, darling, that was the way it was’.”
I ask Rigg about a comment in the book that accompanies the Channel 4 series Children of Empire that begins with her story tomorrow night. The book says: “After this journey, perhaps Diana can wear her DBE with a little more pride than when she left.”
“Oh rubbish,” she says, “I have always worn it with pride – actually, I only wear it about once a year.”
Does she think that looking at her family history can teach the rest of us anything about the past?
“Definitely. The empire – though it contained many awful people – was also built by ordinary good men like my father. People like him tend to be excluded from the story of our past.”
But why have we all become so keen to trace our family history?
“I think that because the world is changing so fast that people are looking for continuity and constancy,” she says. “They are less certain about our national identity.”
One thing is for certain, that old imperial guilt that people like Rigg once suffered is gone.
“More and more people are visiting India now and they come back more aware of the great achievements by the British. Yes, there were stupid and snobbish people who treated the Indians badly but there were good people like my father. I wanted to rewrite history because you don’t hear about men like him.”
The conversation always ends up going back to Daddy. It then dawns on me: Diana Rigg has used her celebrity status as a way of letting her father shine in the media spotlight. “Yes, you’re right,” she says.
And what would he have made of seeing your tribute to him, I ask. Rigg pauses and looks almost tearful. In the shiny eyes of the 68-year-old woman I can see the little adoring girl looking out. “Oh my God, it gives me goose pimples just to think about.”