Whether she's required to perform those tongue-in-cheek escapades in The Avengers, pour out towering passion as Lady Macbeth or glitter wittily in such classics as Pygmalion or The Misanthrope, Diana Rigg is always ready to have a go. The daring Diana, who helps to present the London Evening Standard Drama Awards this week, talks of the hits - and occasional disasters - of her her 21 years as a leading British actress.
As the thinking man's sexpot she has undulated through two Tom Stoppard plays: Jumpers (where she crooned) and Night and Day. Her long legs and bouncy brown locks were the pride of The Avengers. She has torn many a Shakespearean passion to tatters.She has played Greek tragedy, Shavian tragedy, 17th-century high French drama. She made a James Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and a horror film with Vincent Price, Theatre of Blood, which has become something of a cult movie in France. "It was very funny. I distinctly remember thinking, what a wonderful preparation for Lady Macbeth."
But, after 21 years in the theatre, Diana Rigg has yet to win a London Evening Standard Drama Award; a curious neglect which has not put her out. She believes in drama awards and looks forward to co-presenting the Evening Standard's prize giving, televised in most ITV areas on Tuesday. "They're the greatest fun imaginable, and quite necessary.
"Films are different. There's so much money at stake in films that, if you win an Academy Award, that Oscar automatically puts an awful lot of money into the box office for that film. But a theatre award is often for something that isn't running anymore. It's a recognition of the profession by the profession. Contrary to public belief, actors and actresses aren't at each others' throats. We roar with approval because nine times out of 10 we do approve."
Some far-flung recognition has come her way from time to time. She has won five Golden Ottos from Germany, squat little figures dished out to her for The Avengers. Once, from Chile, a crushed award in a bashed-about brown paper parcel flopped through the letter-box. Her fondest memory is of an illuminated scroll from a gay club outside New York that had voted her the woman they would most likely turn straight for.
That, she says, is the sum of her awards. She blithely declares she's been pipped at the post "by Judi, Janet, Glenda, Vanessa - you name them. I'm nearly always the bridesmaid, never the bride. I don't mind, but my mother is furious."
Diana reckons her first big breakthrough came one cold Warwickshire autumn when she played Helena in a magical production by Peter Hall of A Midsummer Night's Dream, for the Royal Shakespeare Company up at Stratford. "Oh, lawks, you can go back years. I'm not being defensive, I'm just very bad at dates. I'd been on the stage for years, so I must have been around 24."
As well as emerging in indisputable winners, she has backed some fairly loopy starters. one such was a rapidly cancelled American television series called Diana. "Would that it had been called Freda. But it's irrevocably mine. It was a nightmare but, my goodness, I learned some lessons. The cast became very dear. I still see some of them. In a situation like that you get terribly close. You huddle together and take refuge in laughter." The people who had money in it, she recalls, didn't see anything funny there at all.
She is a great one for seeing what is funny. She rolls her eyes heavenwards remembering how, only a few years ago, playing a naughty flirt in Molierè's The Misanthrope, she had to sit centre stage, stare across the footlights and murmur winsomely: "I'm only 20." Then she waited for the guffaws. It is a tribute to her lasting prettiness that mostly there weren't any.
One gloriously disastrous theatre production she recalls when Dürrenmatt's The Physicists, where she was totally miscast as bland, dogged Nurse Monica. "I knew I was wrong and on the first night I went on rather pretending I wasn't there. At least a couple of people shouted, 'Speak up, I can't hear.' My lesson from that is you have to be big bad, not apologetic bad.
"I can see the carpet now, because I spent most of the time looking at it. Blessedly, I was found murdered at the end of the first act. Gordon Honeycombe was the doctor who discovered me. It was Peter Brooks' idea that I should lie on the stage being dead for part of the interval. Gordon had to feel my pulse and declare me gone.
"One day I decided to present him with a bit of a surprise. I held a large hot sausage in my pulse hand. He had difficulty with his lines, I think." It's no wonder Honeycombe went off to newsreading.
She hasn't been in any Shakespeare since Macbeth. She longs to do some. Years ago she went, as Cordelia, to Moscow with Paul Scofield's Lear. She recalls it as a golden trip. The volatile and ample Elizabeth Spriggs was one of the company, and Diana Rigg brings to mind a morning show for 2,000 night workers, where, afterwards, Mr. Kosygin kept popping sweeties down Lizzie's front.
Diana Rigg played her Lady Macbeth and her even more sombre Phaedra, from the French tragedy by Racine, at the Old Vic. "It was a bit difficult because there's an ambulance station nearby and we dreaded lines like 'Oh woe is the day', in case they were followed by the blast of an ambulance siren. They often were."
Her most recent success was in Night and Day last year, in London's West End. This was a great hit, with Diana Rigg a great hit in it. But for a lot of the time she was acting with an excruciatingly painful back which would not clear up. She soldiered on until June and then decided to take an eight-month sabbatical. She felt 155 years old.
"There's nothing quite like physical debilitation ro make you sit back and assess yourself. I said, come on, don't rush headlong. Plan. So I planned not to work until the New Year." This meant she could spend time with her small daughter Rachael. Now, Diana Rigg hopes to do some Ibsen for the heavy brigade, Noël Coward for the light, on television this year.
These days she lives in some style, but she has never taken on work just to pay the rent. Those neat, small features in that broadboned face, that great white smile, that finely-placed voice have carried her through a good deal in the past 20 years.
She makes it all sound fun. Her tones constantly convey the lightest of ironies. For her followers her particular magic is that it clearly was all fun, even the flops. Where she had to pull herself out of the dramatic quicksand sucking at her ankles, she has mostly managed.
Because the great thing about Diana Rigg is that she has a go. She knew that, after The Avengers had made her a household name, she could have returned to the classical theatre every time. In fact, during an Avengers break, she did Viola in Twelfth Night for the RSC. "It would have been terribly easy to sit down at one point and say I'm only going to do highly credible things. But, to put it badly, if I want to minimise my achievements, I can say I have a chequered record."
Musing on this, she notes that when, 10 years ago, she was invited to play Peter Pan she refused, partly because she felt uneasy at the obvious rightness of her slender height for Peter. She prefers paradoxes. Now she gently mourns the fact that by the time Rachael is old enough to appreciate such parts, her mother will be too old to play them.
Still, triumphing in all those classics and turning in a couple of copper-bottomed modern hits, as well isn't a bad track record. The next 21 years should be even better.