25 May 2005: Your

There's Nothing Like A Dame

There was many a hot-blooded male in the 1960s who turned weak at the knees at the mention of Diana Rigg's name, conjuring up as it did images of her as Emma Peel in The Avengers - that leather outfit, those karate chops, that beauty, the humour! And even now, as she turns 67 this year, Dame Diana is still strikingly attractive and continues to turn heads with classy performances.

Actors always bring elements of themselves to a role, and the liberated spirit Diana brought to her role as Mrs Peel is certainly reflected in her life for she's always had an independent streak. "It was a case of life imitating art," she once said. "I was like that myself to a degree."

As she was born in Doncaster, it could perhaps be a case of Yorkshire grit, though she spent the first 8 years of her life in India. Her father was a construction engineer and was manager of the state railroad. He took the family, including two-month-old Diana, to Jodphur in northwest India, where Diana was brought up with her brother, Hugh.

She then returned to England and boarding school, eventually going to Fulneck Girls' School in Pudsey, near Leeds. It was not the happiest of experiences, as she recalled in 1975: "Classes were incredibly boring, I took to dreaming."

But it was a sympathetic teacher who helped Diana channel her impetuous nature into a love of the stage, After graduating from school, Diana successfully auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1957, though she frequently butted heads with the authorities and was very nearly thrown out.

However, in 1959 she began a five-year contract with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), gaining recognition playing Cordelia to Paul Scofield's King Lear and Helena in Sir Peter Hall's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

It was the end of 1964 that Diana, along with most of London's other young actresses, audition for the role of Emma Peel in The Avengers. The show had been running since 1961 but Honor Blackman was hanging up her catsuit as John Steed's sidekick Cathy Gale, leaving the way open for a new partner to take centre stage with the hero.

"I didn't actually know the programme," Diana once said, "because I didn't have a television. I just thought it would be a bit of a hoot." Hoot or not, she got the part.

Many of her theatre contemporaries felt that, as a classical actress, she'd be wasted on TV, but Diana looked on her new role as a challenge. It was certainly that, because The Avengers was already a well-established series and she was replacing the hugely popular Honor Blackman, who was leaving to play Bond girl Pussy Galore in Goldfinger.

But Emma Peel, the woman of beauty and action, was the perfectfoil to impeccably tailored and bowler-hatted John Steed (Patrick Macnee) and they set about seeing off monsters and assassins with great gusto! The series was still a hit with Diana.

And unlike many actors who often feel shackled by the success of a particular role, Diana has never tried to distance herself from Emma Peel. "It was nothing to be ashamed of," she said. "The Avengers has kept its style... I can't complain because it certainly put me on the map."

When The Avengers was imported to America in 1966, Emma Peel and Diana Rigg became household names almost overnight, an unusual achievement in an era when British TV didn't often survive the Atlantic crossing.

She did, though, have to turn down many inevitably similar crome-fighting roles after she left The Avengers in 1967. And, unlike many actresses who were young sex symbols, Diana went on to forge a successful career on screen and stage in the following years.

After leaving The Avengers, Diana filmed Sir Peter Hall's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1968, reprising her role of Helena. After a brief return to the RSC, as Viola in Twelfth Night, Diana became 'Mrs James Bond' the following year in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, opposite George Lazenby - although the bride was killed on her wedding day!

Since then her career has blossomed on stage, screen and television. The 1970s produced some of her best theatre work as she joined The National Theatre to play Dottie Moore in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers, Celimene in The Misanthrope, and Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion.

Diana was also at the centre of a theatrical controversy, almost a scandal for the era, when she made a fleeting appearance in the nude as Heloise in Abelard and Heloise opposite Keith Michell. It was all very tastefully done, with discreet lighting - almost tame by today's standards - but a brave step in 1970.

In 1973, Diana starred in her own US comedy series, Diana, which unfortunately never took off, probably because it was too similar to the popular Mary Tyler Moore Show. But success came the same year, playing Edwina Lionheart in the gory horror film, Theatre of Blood, with Vincent Price.

She was married to Israeli artist Menachem Gueffen in July 1973, although it ended in divorce in 1976. Her second marriage, to Archibald Stirling in 1982, ended in 1990, but produced a daughter, actress Rachael Stirling, star of Tipping the Velvet, also a controversial drama.

After Rachael was born in 1977, Diana took roles designed not to keep her away too long from her family. In the 1980s she made several TV films, appeared in a Muppet movie and also in Agatha Christie's Evil Under The Sun (1982).

It was in the 1990s that she returned to the stage, taking on what many would agree to be some of the most demanding and difficult roles of her career so far. She played Cleopatra in Dryden's All For Love, the story of an older woman as desperate as she is powerful. In 1996 she appeared in Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage. She repeatedly takes up the challenge to play characters who are strong, mean or obsessive, roles where she can pull out all the emotional stops. Mrs Danvers, the creepy housekeeper in the 1997 TV film Rebecca, won her an Emmy. Earlier this year she joined fellow Dames, Joan Plowright, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren and Eileen Atkins on the London stage for One Knight Only, an evening of entertainment in aid of the Asian Tsunami appeal.

For many actresses, the roles dry up as the years advance. Not so for Diana Rigg, who has never been afraid to take artistic risks and who has readily acknowledged that she wouldn't have been ready for these roles as a younger actress. With filming recently finished on a new film of Heidi, in which Diana plays Grandmama, there are many more roles to come for the wonderfully talented actress still making the hearts of most of the male population beat a little faster.

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