03 May 1999: The Times

'There's one good scandal left in me'

Behind the upper-crust wariness and moral grandeur of the Sixties sex icon Diana Rigg is a theatrical grande dame looking forward to a disgraceful old age. Interview by Grace Bradberry

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the female journalist in search of an interview with Diana Rigg will be disappointed. Dame Diana Rigg has not "done" women since 1992, when a "grubbette" (her term for female scribblers) reported a conversation as an attack on Joely Richardson, who had had an affair with Rigg's then husband, Archie Stirling. "I thought 'Enough. That's it. No more'," says Rigg, snapping out the words.

Yet here we are, in the bar of the Halcyon Hotel, Rigg attempting to establish a chatty rapport (generally the journalist's job, but faced with Rigg and her reputation I don't feel quite up to it). She is surprised I order a gin. "You don't strike me as a gin-drinking sort of person," she says. I mutter something feeble about friends drinking it. "How interesting, so it's come back as 'twere," she says, rolling the grandiloquent phrase on her tongue, then ordering a Campari.

I'm more interested in her distaste for women journalists. Why is she here? "It was Michael," she says. Michael Winner that is, who has directed a new film, Parting Shots, in which Rigg plays the callous former wife of a man dying of cancer. "The honourable thing is to do interviews when you've done a film," she says.

Few actresses agree to publicity out of anything so grand as a sense of honour, but then few have Rigg's aura of moral grandeur. She sweeps into the hotel wearing a swathe of sheepskin, her back straight as a rod. Yet when she smiles there's humour in her eyes, and her eyebrows creep quizically up her forehead.

At 60, she remains beautiful - but you could guess her age. She has never succumbed to the surgeon's knife. "There are things like under the chin that are very obvious to you as a person, which are just awful," she says, pinching the skin there. But she won't have surgery? "Well, I may. Enid Bagnold had one at 60."

She insists she was never vain. "Sometimes I see photographs of myself and I think, God, I was really quite tasty. But I didn't know it at the time." She admires women like Sophia Loren and Joan Collins who have preserved their original look. "But I can't do that. I'd feel foolish. I don't think they are, but I'd feel 'Everybody knows I'm 60'. And the Avengers girl I was then, I don't think would translate to a 60-year-old."

The girl she was then, in the Sixties, was Emma Peel, dominatrix heroine of The Avengers. Having been an acclaimed RSC actress, she found herself a national sex object. "The mantle got put round my shoulders, which made me feel deeply uncomfortable," she says. So who was Rigg? And what has she become? She is now hailed as one of our greatest stage actresses for a series of performances in which she has emotionally spilt her guts - Medea (1992-94), Mother Courage (1995), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1996), Phedre (1998). Yet her ability to let go on stage is matched by her formidable control off.

From the beginning of her career those who have met Rigg have noted an upper-crust veneer, as well as a wariness. At first it seems unlikely that her background could have produced this. The daughter of a railway engineer from Doncaster, she spent her earliest years in India. At seven, she was sent to a boarding school in Buckinghamshire. "My parents made mistakes which people simply wouldn't do now," she says.

"I was always viewed as The Child. My parents loved me and they were wonderful parents, but it was generational. I was The Child, even when I was 35." Vanity was suppressed. "My family - and this is very Yorkshire - sat on you. If my grandmother caught me looking in a mirror, she'd say 'What are you looking at? Silly little face' - a real put down."

Nevertheless, her parents found the money to send her to RADA at 17. "Mum found me a bed and breakfast in Kensington run by a genteel lady fallen on hard times. I was among a lot of people who seemed to know more about the theatre than I did, but one had to get on with it, and it did make me a bit self-contained. Mine were not the sort of parents where I would talk about my lack of confidence."

She spent a year in rep, then joined the RSC, where Vanessa Redgrave was a star, and in one production did carry a spear. Then she was cast in lead roles by Peter Hall and Peter Brook. "But I was not confident for many years, playing big parts at Stratford."

The Rigg of the Sixties was liberated. She and her partner, the film director Philip Saville, lived in the bohemian splendour of Augustus John's old studio, and she was fond of saying that she intended never to marry and had "no desire to be respectable". In 1973 she did marry - her first husband was an Israeli painter named Menachen Gueffen from whom she separated the following year, describing the marriage as "a grotesque error". A year later she fell in love with Scottish landowner Archie Stirling. In 1977 they had a child, Rachel. Rigg was 38.

Rarely has there been a more radical change. Having married Stirling in 1982, she became the lady of the manor, salmon fishing in Scotland, opening fetes, attending church.

"With marriage I became conventional," she begins. "No, not with marriage - with a child. I backpedalled my career because I wanted to be consistent, yes? And I discovered I had a religion which I hadn't been brought up with."

Biological change led to religious conversion, she says. "Out of you is coming this other being which is going to develop. I had a good assessment of what I was and had been, and I had an ambition of the kind of mother that I wanted to be. I wanted to give her a really safe base, where I could share with her my beliefs." But she didn't have any beliefs. There were, she says, "creaky prayers to begin with. And then, when Rachel was born, she was christened, and when she got older, I wrote a prayer for her to say when I was putting her to bed."

Rigg's respectability melded seamlessly with her past. "I was quite naughty in the Sixties," she acknowledges. "Sexually free. That's what we could do. And we did it and I don't regret it for an instant." But is she so frank with her daughter? "Totally. I can't pretend that I'm anything other than who I am, so I'm not about to."

Self-determination matters to Rigg. She was not at all happy when she noticed her daughter, now an actress, being moulded by her academic boarding school, Wycombe Abbey. "Rachel got a good part and I rather resented that because one of the delights of children is that they are different. And there were these people who were pushing her into being a little version of me. But I didn't say anything, because she was thrilled to play those parts."

The edifice of family life, so carefully constructed, crumbled in the late Eighties when Stirling embarked on his affair with Richardson. Yet it was after the affair, in 1990, that Rigg sued for divorce. She says she needed to work but no one offered her parts.

Then came her resurgence in Medea, directed by Jonathan Kent. "Jonathan and I found each other," she says, in a phrase normally reserved for lovers. "He's the director I can fly with." Finally, she let her emotions show on stage. Why then? "It was something to do with bottoming out; you have nothing to hide."

She won't be specific about the lowest times in her life, but she does say that she once tried three therapists. "Absolutely pointless," she pronounces. "The first person I went to see made me lie down. I remember looking at these blinds, and the silence grew. It was Pounds 80 an hour and it had to be Wednesdays between two and three. That was my time and if I didn't come I'd still have to pay her."

I dare not ask what goes on in her private life now. She has said she is shocked to find herself a "twice-divorced woman". "It's got to do with how you see yourself. I saw myself marrying late and maintaining a marriage because I think those that do are laudable. The older you get, the more you realise that marriage - two disparate people coming together and living together for 40, maybe 50 years - is something of a miracle."

Would she marry a third time? "Not in a million years, no. I do exactly what I want, when I want, and I don't answer to anybody, which is largely what marriage is about. I don't think I could possibly, I couldn't bear it..."

Will she grow old gracefully? "I hope there's a tinge of disgrace about me. Hopefully, there's one good scandal left in me yet. One surprising thing, yah?"

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