“How long did it take me to decide I wanted to play a homicidal psychopath?" Diana Rigg asks sweetly on the phone from her London home. "Oh, about the time it took to whip up a batch of marzipan cookies." She gives a delicious, throaty chuckle at the in-joke.
You see, poisoned marzipan cookies figure prominently in Mother Love, the three-part Mystery! presentation that stars Rigg in her most accomplished TV role in ages. She plays beautiful divorce Helena Vesey, first wife of world-famous symphony conductor Sir Alexander Vesey, obesessive mother of their blond, blue-eyed son, Kit (James Wilby). Embittered and vowing revenge after the marriage fails, Helena denies Vesey any contact with his son.
But unknown to Helena, Kit has been secretly seeing his father for years and challenges his mother's domination by marrying the independent-minded Angela (Fiona Gilles).
For her performance, Rigg has received some of the best notices of her career. One British critic called it "rip-roaring TV, some of the most thumpingly compulsive I've ever watched." As Helena, Rigg won Britain's Bafta award, the combined equivalent of the Emmy and Oscar.
"Gosh, it seems strange talking about it now," she says. Production wrapped up a year ago June and the mini-series ran on British TV last October. "After something's done, I try to forget it and go onto the next character. But something about Helena exerts a strange fascination. She's just about the most devious character I've ever played."
Rigg, best known to North American audiences as Emma Peel on the TV series The Avengers, says she approached Helena's character from the outside. "First came the clothes; Helena is compulsive about everything, so I shopped with the BBC wardrobe mistress for the most elegant dresses. Nothing I'd ever wear! Too uncomfortable! But for Helena, appearances are important. She never has a strand of hair out of place. Everything in her home is just so.
"She sees her Kitten as merely an extension of herself. I talked to psychiatrists who explained hers is a character who has never grown up. She has no sense of humor and is a puritan about sex. Another clue I got was her horrible isolation. Without giving away plot, I'd say this sums it all up. She has made herself utterly alone, which is a terrible position to be in."
Director Simon Langton shot on location in London. Helena's home was a composite of several houses.
In one scene, Helena tries out her poisoning skills on a neighbor's cat she detests. The next shot finds Rigg peering out her kitchen window at a pair of stiff cat legs partly hidden by a garden bush. "I hasten to assure you it was a stuffed cat," Rigg says.
Cool and elegant at 52, Rigg agrees she enjoys two very separate careers. For North American audiences she hosts Mystery!, but these introductions are never seen in Britain. Twice a year she jets to Boston, checks into the fashionable Ritz-Carlton hotel, and tapes her segments at WGBH-TV's studios.
"I'll be going back to finish my season's work in about two weeks. But I think Mother Love is the first time a host has ever starred on the series. Vincent Price never did for all his 11 years."
In Britain, Rigg's acclaimed for her stage work and allows, "I shall be doing something classical, but I'm superstitious about talking about it until the contract is actually signed."
Few North Americans have seen her on the stage, although she recently enjoyed a stint in the play Love Letters in San Francisco. "I haven't done many movies, I'm afraid. I liked The Hospital, (1973) but that's about it. Television has been far more rewarding." Indeed, she did King Lear (1983) with Laurence Olivier and Bleak House for Masterpiece Theatre a few years back.
It's a long way from the stylish Helena to the days she romped in the buff in the 1970 play Abelard And Heloise in London's West End. Later, she was a James Bond heroine. Her career has always been filled with surprises. She'd jump from a horror movie like Theatre Of Blood (1973) right back to the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Rigg agrees with Alfred Hitchcock's assertion that murder by a sunlit, babbling brook is far more scary than an anonymous nighttime killing. "The more polite Helena becomes, the more obsequious, the more she is planning to strike. She is a woman who has never forgotten her betrayal and will never let anyone else forget it.
"But just for the record, please, please write that I do not know how to make marzipan biscuits and I certainly never intend to learn!"