Transcripts

30 November 1996: Toronto Star

Mistress of Mystery

The prime of Miss Diana Rigg is happening right now. At an age (she's 58) when most actresses complain about the quality of parts offered them, Rigg is busier than ever.

On stage she has offered devastating portraits in Medea and Mother Courage. On TV she gave a definitive study of near madness in Mother Love.

This season on TV, besides her hosting duties on PBS's Mystery, she has co-starred in Moll Flanders and will play the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers in the latest version of Rebecca (both for Masterpiece Theatre).

And she has just opened in London in a theatrical revival of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf opposite David Suchet (Mystery's Poirot). The reviews were glowing but they almost always are where Rigg is concerned.

`I think I've been very lucky,' she says modestly in the garden of the Ritz Carlton hotel during an interview in Los Angeles this summer.

The day we chatted she had just started working on the text of Woolf. She admits to being intimidated by the reputation of the play but a close reading indicated it had more humor than the Taylor-Burton movie she had rented on video.

Rigg does not know why she is attracted to these towering roles of darkness. During Mother Courage she never got out of bed until noon, she says, and had to carefully preserve her voice during Medea's run. Martha will be another one of those parts to tax her physically.

`Give me a light comedy next!' she jokes.

Rebecca offered her the chance to visit the beautiful Hampshire-Sussex borders and take in a little trout fishing on weekends off. She also got to visit old pal Maggie Smith at Chichester.

`On The Avengers it was all a matter of style and I seemed to spend forever in the makeup chair under those hot rollers. These days I do not care how I look, except when in character. So I give them exactly 30 minutes to make me up - that is as long as I will tolerate it.

`Of course, with Mother Love, appearance was everything. That character had to be perfectly turned out, hair in place, a change of wardrobe for every occasion, the gloves just right. That was part of her psychosis.'

She was born Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg in Yorkshire in 1938, the youngest of two children of a civil engineer and his wife. She spent the first eight years of her life in Jodhpur, India, where her father managed a railway line.

At 8 she was shipped home to boarding school in England - the Fulneck Girls' School run by the Moravian Church. She caught the eye of a drama teacher and won a spot at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. She made her professional debut in 1957 in a production of The Chalk Circle.

In 1959 she was accepted as an apprentice at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre with fellow aspirants Vanessa Redgrave and Albert Finney. In 1962 she joined the RSC for a five-year run.

But she's resigned to the fact that for one part of the population she will always be Mrs. Peel in The Avengers.

`Why fight it? That is my image. When we were making them we never thought they'd last 30 years. I think that given the circumstances they were very expertly turned out. And a whole new generation of fans seems to have latched on to them.'

When she went to audition as a replacement for Honor Blackman she found hundreds of girls in line.

`I went because I had nothing better to do that afternoon,' she admits. The next day a phone call confirmed the part was hers.

After five years of derring-do in The Avengers, the show had become so slack, she and co-star Patrick Macnee would direct their own scenes.

Everything became rather grotesque when the series was sold to ABC and the pace of production had to be speeded up. Sometimes cast and crew would be shooting three episodes simultaneously. When she left she was replaced by Toronto actress Linda Thorson.

Critics called her the thinking man's fantasy woman. But she got just as much press when she stripped to the buff for four minutes in the play Aberlard And Heloise.

After The Avengers she could have gone on wearing leather in any number of tacky movie scripts offered her but politely demurred. She isn't quite sure why she didn't cash in on her then-notoriety.

`There just wasn't a thriving British film industry. In an earlier time I could have become a Rank film starlet but even that had gone by the Sixties. The only British films being made were grotty.'

But she did get into some big productions, such as the James Bond movie with George Lazenby - On Her Majesty's Secret Service plus The Assassination Bureau with Oliver Reed and years later a Poirot undertaking with Peter Ustinov, Evil Under The Sun. She was fighting with the pompous Lazenby so she deliberately ate garlic before their love scenes.

In 1973 she temporarily chucked her British career for a run at U.S. television with the sitcom called, appropriately enough, Diana.

`I didn't understand American humor at all,' she says of the short-lived series, `But then neither did the producers, as it turns out.'

She remembers that after the series was cancelled by NBC she was being driven to the airport `and I had this enormous feeling of release. I could have been stuck there for as long as The Avengers. Only this time it was not going to be great fun. I was doing it for a giggle. There were none.'

Her versatility has kept her going. She remembers the 1973 film Theatre of Blood opposite Vincent Price.

`I played his daughter. And he was this ham Shakespearean actor who went around killing off all the London theatre critics who had been unkind to him using the death scenes in Shakespeare. Wonderful idea that.'

It was Rigg who introduced Price to his future wife actress Coral Browne on the set and watched a love affair blossom. And it was Rigg who took over from Price as host of Mystery when the actor was too ill to continue.

`I liked that concept of the daughter inheriting dad's mantel.'

She finds it strange most Americans know her as the mistress of Mystery which she has been doing for the past five years.

It is a good gig - Rigg flies in to Boston's WGBH studios once a year to tape the introductions. She is careful about what she wears - many of the clothes come from her own collection - and she prefers to wear simply tailored outfits so as not to clash with the busy backgrounds.

Recently she took time out to catch another actress - 19-year-old daughter Rachael - playing Desdemona in the National Youth Theatre's production of Othello and admired her daughter's courage.

`That's what's needed as an actress. Just going out there and doing it can be the most terrifying of experiences and it never really gets easier.'


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