The former Mrs. Peel tells why she moved out of 'The Avengers' and abandoned television-for the time being, at least television has often stretched the long arm of coincidence, but in the St. John's Wood district of London there is a situation that is practically wrenching it loose from the shoulder. Diana Rigg, the tall, cool beauty who, judging from her imploring fan mail, all too briefly adorned The Avengers, has moved into the house where, 140 years ago, the poet Thomas Hood first used the words "prime time" in connection with show business.
Miss Rigg did not know this when she was attracted by the peeling white paint (old houses fascinate her), though she knew Hood had written there, because a memorial incised in a wall records his death in 1845. But she collects information avidly and she might as well know that Hood coined the phrase for the most suitable hour for dropping in to a performance at the Drury Lane Theatre.
Miss Rigg welcomed us to her home, looking as if she had stepped out of an Avengers episode. She wore the same provocative clothes - a beige sweater tucked into brown hipster slacks, low-belted and very tight over the boyish hips, with brown cowboy boots. Her hair hung dark and lustrous on her shoulders and not a sign of makeup. Few actresses would dare as much at the age of 30 in the cruel light of an English spring.
Like many old houses here, the facade of this one gave no clue to the interior - a large, comfortable living room with a huge window where another celebrated tenant, the bohemian artist Augustus John, painted his subjects. Around a bend was an ultra-modern kitchen. Miss Rigg has a reputation as a good cook and even passed the ultimate test for a British hostess by producing drinkable coffee. Then she draped the long thoroughbred body on a couch, and over the cups talked about her decision to leave The Avengers at the height of her success in the series, what has happened since and her plans for the future.
She has an instinctive reaction to even the most searching questions - she answers them candidly. "The studio never liked me to give interviews," she said. "I would always try to speak the truth, you see. You've got to be honest in this business. The public believes in you."
Miss Rigg has mellowed a bit since we last talked, just after her descent from the heights of the Royal Shakespeare Company to The Avengers. Then she was baffled by what she frostily described as "the autograph syndrome" and drove around with sacks of unopened mail in her car. Now she showed interest in one of the many letters I had received about her.
"Emma Peel did a lot for me besides making me well known over most of the world," she said. "I used to be shy about talking about myself. I was worried about the avalanche of fan mail. The Royal Shakespeare Company doesn't prepare you for that. But I've come to realize and appreciate the interest viewers have in television people. It's surprising - and touching - that nearly a year later so many should write that they regret my departure.
"I simply had to leave the series. The Avengers was fun, but I had no idea when I followed Honor (Blackman) that it would make me a name like this. I began to feel claustrophobic. I began to feel The Avengers was taking over. The degree of success it was getting made it more and more difficult to leave as the weeks went by. If I had stayed, I would have been under pressure by forces outside myself. I knew I had to go, and why wait till I was stale if I could leave on a high note?"
She said she had no plans for another series, though she would like to do television plays if she could find scripts that really excited her. In the meantime she will continue with her new career in films after she sees the reaction to "The Assassination Bureau," which she has just completed for Paramount, with Telly Savalas and Curt Jurgens.
"I enjoyed making "The Assassination Bureau" very much. I picked it because it was the best comedy script I had offered me and it was sort of transitional from The Avengers since it's a fantastic story with a zeppelin about to drop a bomb on the crowned heads of Europe at a Peace Conference and so on. Now, obviously, I'd like something more emotionally demanding. But the Avengers character seems to have influenced writers. I've been offered any number of scripts about modern, emancipated, swinging women who don't walk through a door - they kick it open."
American viewers will see Miss Rigg in her famous role of Helena in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which was filmed for TV by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
"For me," she said, "it represented everything a film should be, working with actors and actresses whom I admired and respected. There was a great deal of discomfort, but it didn't matter. Nobody got star treatment. I did my own makeup, for what that's worth, since I'm covered with mud most of the time. But I had to look 16 and that was more difficult."
Miss Rigg's apartment contains a bust of Socrates, a gilded statue (identity unknown) and a sign, "Keep Smiling," presented by the man in her life. She has been in love with this fellow a long time, though she says with the irresistible crooked half-smile of hers that they have no present plans for marriage. "I'm a one-man woman," she said. "I'm faithful to the concept of marriage but not to the necessity of the sacrament itself. I'm happy and fulfilled and that's what counts isn't it?"
Miss Rigg is a night person (hence the strong morning coffee), fond of late dinner parties, the theater and discotheques. She has no hobbies except reading. She is politically aware and shares the deep European interest in American problems such as Vietnam, race and the Kennedy assassinations.
Unlike many who use race to be labor the U.S., Miss Rigg studies the American Negro situation because she thinks it relates to Britain's own growing color conflict. She regards with contempt the Oscar-winning "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and its glossy treatment of a mixed romance. "Negroes need security and background," she said "not treacle."
A broken irish harp propped in a corner reminded her that she once sang in a stage performance of "Becket" with Christopher Plummer, and this, in turn, recalled her keenest recent disappointment.
Alan Jay Lerner (who wrote "My Fair Lady") came over to ask me to play in the film version of his musical "Paint Your Wagon." I sang him an ancient lullaby and he thought that with a few singing lessons I could do it. The part calls for a Southern girl, and Joshua Logan, who is directing, thought I could pick that up in a few lessons too. But my father is very ill and I could not possibly leave.
"Still, it will give me time to think. Three or four months of concentration and some sort of privacy will be good for me. All my life I've been precipitated into everything - modeling, the stage, even The Avengers."
A delightful girl, but I wish she hadn't felt it necessary to help me on with my coat. It hasn't come to that yet, Diana, believe me.