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28 May 1966: Woman's Mirror

The Other Side of Emma Peel

Diana Rigg counted "One, two, up, back," belted a small, dirty, baleful man sharply in the midriff, hurled him by his neck against an infernal machine, hit him again and flung him into a corner. Griffith Davies, an actor, sprawled there, looking like Bill the lizard kicked up the chimney by Alice.

"What shape are you in, Griff?" asked Don Leaver, the director. "That fall was super." They closed and scuffled for the tenth time. One of the set hands sang softly, absently, "all by myself in the toilet." Miss Rigg picked up her gun and swept her hair ritually out of her eyes. "That was a giggle," she said.

The 23rd episode of ABC TV's The Avengers was under way at Elstree Studio in Boreham Wood. Diana Rigg sat on the set and worked inexpertly at some knitting belonging to the continuity girl. "It's more relaxing to do somebody else's knitting."

Miss Rigg is quite as pretty as her pictures. A layer of tan make-up blued the whites of her eyes. Her hair is that real purply auburn and she brushes it often between takes. Her teeth are marvellous and she smiles a lot. Her stride is swinging, wide-shouldered. As she walked away into the gloomy cavern of the studio to get a tangerine, she made it seem somehow intrepid.

For all Avengers episodes - 26 of them - she arrived at the studios around seven every morning and worked until six at night. Sometimes she had fitting after work, and worked weekends.

"Most people let the long hours dominate their lives or they just keel over. I refused. I tried to ignore the fact that I had to get up early. I taught myself to cat-nap at lunch-time too."

Miss Rigg says she needs excitement. That's why she liked the fights. "The prospect of them beguiled. Everything moves." She did them all, except for the real back-breakers over banisters or on to tables. For these she had a very self-conscious male double called Billy, who had to wear a padded bra. Ray Austin, who arranged the fights, said Miss Rigg was the easiest person to teach he'd ever known. She enjoys things physical. "I love swimming. I like watching Rugby League. It's a rough, very basic game."

There's a great deal of resilience in that long, easily elegant frame. Twenty-eight-year-old Miss Rigg has several years of hard slogging in rep. and the Royal Shakespeare Company behind her. Her first part was walking on with a spear as an amazon in A Midsummer Night's Dream. In 1964 she toured the United States and the USSR as Cordelia to Paul Scofield's Lear - "the Russians loved us. They wept copiously."

But invincible Mrs. Peel had even Miss Rigg wilting by the end. When the series finished she had worked flat out for 14 months with only a two-week break, and she feels she can't face such a stretch again. "In future I'd only ever make 13 films at a go. But whether or not I sign up next September really depends on the Americans. If they like it, we'll go on and do them in colour. If they don't, there probably won't be any more."

In March she went with Patrick Macnee on a whistle-stop tour around the US to launch The Avengers now showing all over America. "No one had seen it except the bosses: they sent flowers from time to time, just to let us know the insects were being watched. Patrick was so English and grand in a limousine with smoked glass windows that after being exposed to him for a bit all the people going round with us referred to themselves as the peasants."

However it takes America, The Avengers has proved to be the most popular thriller series on British television. At first its viewing lagged behind The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and it was rapidly switched from Thursday to Friday nights to avoid competition. But its particular in-jokeyness together with a heavy leaning on Bondish gadgets and gimmicks sent it straight to the top. During their last fortnight, Emma and Steed even beat Napolean and Illya into the Top Ten.

Certainly The Avengers has come a long way from its beginnings. Its odder sexual overtones finally disappeared when cool, classy Miss Rigg replaced Honor Blackman's muskier, more commonplace charms. In spite of her clothes and, in early episodes, the make-up of a plucky film heroine in the war-torn forties, Diana Rigg's Emma Peel remained indestructibly county. Her crisp, self-confident tones, in fact, recalled no one so much as Flora Post, the impeccable heroine of Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm. Like Flora Post, Miss Rigg has a wonderful managing charm which contrives to sort everyone out to her lights. This operates both off-screen and on. Next month she rejoins the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford to play Viola in Twelfth Night.

"If The Avengers starts filming again in September, I can do both. I much prefer to work hard at two utterly opposed things than on one not so fulfilling as I would have wished."

No one, she said, had ever got round to explaining exactly what gives between Emma P. and Steed. "Patrick and I have often wondered. Once we decided they'd had a wild, swinging love affair and then gone their own ways. Or they knew they mustn't so much as touch each other or they'd burst into flame. We had to motivate it somehow for ourselves.

"When we first started I knew I'd get lousy notices and I did. But people came round. I get a lot of fan mail, particularly from children of ten or 12. I suppose it's because my performance isn't sexy, so it must be wholesome. I'm the Doris Day of Boreham Wood."

She considered her controversial gear with detachment. "It was a conscious move on our part. They wanted to market the clothes and catch the teenagers. The trouser suits are absolutely marvellous. They adored them in America.

"I'd rather be way-out than wear the very safe styles everyone advised. It's a statement rather than a vague flurry of pleated skirts and blouses. But I think it's a pity in a way that Emma doesn't wear more of the sort of clothes you'd expect from a girl with her background - cashmere sweaters and expensive casual furs.

"She might even go to Givenchy occasionally. If I could buy clothes at will I'd go to Givenchy."

The only expensive, casual fur Miss Rigg owns herself is a three-quarter-length lynx, her only costly jewellery a Charles de Temple ring in uncut, coloured diamonds in a bed of molten-looking gold. She loves precious stones and gold to look at as they are, of the earth, mineral, coarse.

She is fairly happy to generalize about life, but concerned for the privacy of her own. She finds what is happening to the state of marriage in England fascinating. "Romance and confetti have quite gone out. It's a serious step which is taken between two people, the ceremony is a sealing of something very deep which has gone before, so fewer girls my age are contemplating it.

"You can have a relationship like marriage without the ceremony. I wouldn't mind being kept by or keeping a man. That's sharing. The rest's a load of codswallop. People come up with this ludicrous proposition, marriage versus career. If the occasion arose, you'd care enough to make them mix. Anyhow, I loathe habits. I can't bear to take anybody for granted or for them to take me for granted."

For her, such attitudes were not easily arrived at. Defining her background as upper-middle (her parents live in Leeds and her father was a Civil Servant in India), she says, a little evasively, that it's the sort that takes a lot of kicking. "There are pretensions and gentility which have to be got rid of. By the time I'm 40, I'll probably do it."

Patrick Macnee, who has been with The Avengers from the start, says that Emma Peel is more feminine than Cathy Gale and this gives him a chance to be protective.

"If I do come back in September," said Miss Rigg, "I shall make certain artistic conditions. They're necessary for my development."


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