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08 October 2016

Diana Rigg

English actress Diana Rigg (1938) is well known as Emma Peel in the classic TV series The Avengers (1965-1968), and now as Lady Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones (2013-). In between she had an extensive career in film and theatre. Between 1959 and 1964, she performed for the Royal Shakespeare Company and won several awards, including a Tony and an Emmy award. In the cinema, she made her mark as Countess Teresa di Vicenzo, the only Bond girl to ever get 007 to the altar, in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969).

Diana Rigg
German postcard by Ludw. Povel & Co, Nordhorn.

The Avengers, Diana Rigg
French postcard by Universal Collections, 2002. Photo: Canal+ Image UK Ltd.

The Avengers, Diana Rigg
French postcard by Universal Collections, 2002. Photo: Canal+ Image UK Ltd.

Captivating little boys of all ages


Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg was born in Doncaster, then in the West Riding of Yorkshire, now in South Yorkshire, in 1938. Her parents were railway engineer Louis Rigg and his wife Beryl Hilda Rigg née Helliwell. Between the ages of two months and eight years Rigg lived in Bikaner, India, where her father was employed as a railway executive.

She was then sent to a private boarding school, where she suffered through the discipline and rigours until one of her teachers introduced her to the world of the theatre. From 1955 till 1957, she trained as an actress at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where Glenda Jackson and Siân Phillips were among her classmates.

Rigg made her professional stage debut in the RADA production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the York Festival in 1957. In 1959, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and stayed there till 1964. Her deeply distinctive voice, auburn red hair, and towering height (5'8") assured her such dynamic roles as Viola in Twelfth Night and Cordelia in King Lear.

In 1965, actress Elizabeth Shepherd was dropped from a popular BBC TV series after filming two episodes. Rigg auditioned for the role on a whim, without ever having seen the programme. Hal Erickson at AllMovie: “she was selected to replace Honor Blackman on the popular tongue-in-cheek TV-adventure series The Avengers and for the next two years captivated little boys of all ages with her energetic portrayal of coolheaded, leather-clad karate expert Mrs. Emma Peel.”

Fans were fond of the banter between Mrs. Peel and Patrick Macnee’s John Steed, delivered with champagne crispness. From 1965 till 1967, Rigg appeared in 51 episodes of the cult series. She became soured on the series when she discovered that she was earning less than some of the cameramen. After holding out for a pay raise, she returned for a second season, which would be her last.

Then film stardom followed. She became a Bond girl in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (Peter R. Hunt, 1969), playing Countess Teresa di Vicenzo a.k.a. Tracy Bond, 007's only wife, opposite George Lazenby. Although its cinema release was not as lucrative as its predecessor You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty's Secret Service was still one of the top performing films of the year.

Critical reviews upon release were mixed, but the film's reputation has improved over time. Donald Guarisco at AllMovie: “Diana Rigg also makes a vivid impression as Tracy, easily the toughest and most resourceful of all Bond heroines”. Rigg’s other films from this period include her film debut A Midsummer Night's Dream (Peter Hall, 1968), the black comedy The Assassination Bureau (Basil Dearden, 1969) with Oliver Reed, Julius Caesar (Stuart Burge, 1970) featuring John Gielgud, and the satire The Hospital (Arthur Hiller, 1971). All her films were well regarded but no box office hits.

Diana Rigg in The Avengers
French postcard by Universal Collections, 2004. Photo: Canal+ Image UK Ltd. Publicity still for the TV series The Avengers (1965-1968), which was called in France Chapeau melon & Bottes de cuir.

The Avengers, Diana Rigg, Patrick MacNee
French postcard by Universal Collections, 2002. Photo: Canal+ Image UK Ltd. Publicity still for the TV series The Avengers (1965-1968), which was called in France Chapeau melon & Bottes de cuir.

Diana Rigg in The Avengers
French postcard by Universal Collections, 2004. Photo: Canal+ Image UK Ltd. Publicity still for the TV series The Avengers (1965-1968), which was called in France Chapeau melon & Bottes de cuir.

Vincent Price’s loyal but homicidal daughter


In 1970, ‘ theatre animal’ Diana Rigg returned to the stage in the Ronald Millar play Abelard and Heloise in London. According to IMDb, she was the first major actor (along with co-star Keith Michell) to appear nude on stage in this production. She made her Broadway debut with the play in 1971, earning the first of three Tony Award nominations for Best Actress in a Play.

She received her second nomination in 1975, for The Misanthrope. A member of the National Theatre Company at the Old Vic from 1972 to 1975, Rigg took leading roles in premiere productions of two Tom Stoppard plays, Dorothy Moore in Jumpers (1972) and Ruth Carson in Night and Day (1978).

In the cinema she appeared in such films as the hilarious horror-comedy Theatre of Blood (Douglas Hickox, 1973) as Vincent Price’s loyal but homicidal daughter, and the disastrous musical A Little Night Music (Harold Prince, 1977), starring Elizabeth Taylor.

On television, she appeared as the title character in The Marquise (1980), a TV adaptation of play by Noël Coward. In 1981 she appeared on TV in the title role of Hedda Gabler, and in the cinema as Lady Holiday in The Great Muppet Caper (Jim Henson, 1981). The following year she received acclaim for her performance as glamorous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall in the film adaptation of Agatha Christie's Evil Under the Sun (Guy Hamilton, 1982), with Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot.

Craig Butler at AllMovie: “Diana Rigg and Maggie Smith in particular make scenery chewing seem the most natural way of acting in a movie. (Riggs' performance of You're the Top - constantly interrupted by Smith - is particularly memorable.)”

Also in 1982, Rigg published the hilarious book No Turn Unstoned, in which she gathered together the worst reviews ever received by the world's best actors. The book, which includes a review by New York Magazine’s John Simon with uncouth remarks about her nude scene in Abelard and Heloise, became a bestseller and cult favourite.

She appeared as Regan, the king's treacherous second daughter, in a TV production of King Lear (1983), featuring Laurence Olivier. She costarred with Denholm Elliot in a television version of Dickens' Bleak House (1985), and played the Evil Queen, Snow White's evil stepmother, in a film adaptation of Snow White (Michael Berz, 1987).

In 1987 she took a leading role in the West End production of Stephen Sondheim's musical Follies. Then Rigg played obsessive mother Helena Vesey, who was prepared to do anything, even murder, to keep control of her son in the TV Mini-series Mother Love (1989). For her role, she won the BAFTA TV Award for Best Actress. In 1988, Rigg was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and in 1994, a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE).

Diana Rigg in The Avengers
German postcard. Photo: ZDF. Publicity still for the TV series The Avengers (1965-1968), which was called in Germany Mit Schirm, Charm und Melone.

Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg in The Avengers
German postcard. Photo: ZDF. Publicity still for the TV series The Avengers (1965-1968), which was called in Germany Mit Schirm, Charm und Melone. Patrick Macnee was John Steed and Diana Rigg was Emma Peel.

Diana Rigg
Danish postcard by Forlaget Holger Danske, no. 951.

The Queen of Thorns


In the 1990s, Diana Rigg had more triumphs on stage with her role as Medea at the Almeida Theatre in Islington in 1992. The production transferred in 1993 to the Wyndham's Theatre and in 1994 to Broadway. Rigg received the Tony Award for Best Actress for this performance. Other triumphs were her Mother Courage at the National Theatre in 1995 and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Almeida Theatre in 1996.

She won an Emmy Award for her role as the sinister Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (Jim O’Brien, 1997). She also appeared in The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders (David Attwood, 1996), and as the eccentric old amateur detective Mrs. Bradley in The Mrs Bradley Mysteries (James Hawes, Martin Hutchings, 1998-2000).

On stage, Rigg appeared in 2004 as Violet Venable in Tennessee Williams' play Suddenly Last Summer, and in 2007 as Huma Rojo in All About My Mother, based on the film by Pedro Almodóvar. She played in 2008 in The Cherry Orchard, and in 2009 in Noël Coward's Hay Fever. In 2011 she played Mrs Higgins in Pygmalion, opposite Rupert Everett and Kara Tointon, having played Eliza Doolittle 37 years earlier at the Albery Theatre.

In the cinema she could be seen in as Grandmamma in the family film Heidi (Paul Marcus, 2005) and as a French Mother Superior who presides over a Chinese orphanage in The Painted Veil (John Curran, 2006) with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton.

In the 1960s, Rigg lived for eight years with actor/director Philip Saville. She was married to Menachem Gueffen, an Israeli painter, from 1973 until their divorce in 1976, and to Archibald Stirling, a theatrical producer and former officer in the Scots Guards, in 1982, until their divorce in 1990. With Stirling, Rigg has a daughter, actress Rachael Stirling (1977).

In 2013, she appeared with her daughter Rachel in the hit series Doctor Who in the episode The Crimson Horror (Saul Metzstein, 2013). The same year, Rigg secured a recurring role in the third season of the HBO series Game of Thrones (2013-present). She portrayed Lady Olenna Tyrell, a witty and sarcastic political mastermind popularly known as the Queen of Thorns, the grandmother of regular character Margaery Tyrell. Her performance was well received and earned her an Emmy nomination in 2013. She reprised her role in the seasons four, five and six, in an expanded role from the books.

In October 2015, to mark 50 years of Emma Peel, the BFI (British Film Institute) screened an episode of The Avengers followed by an onstage interview with Diana Rigg about her time on the cult 1960s TV show.


Official Trailer On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). Source: Movieclips Trailer Vault (YouTube).


Trailer Theatre Of Blood (1973). Source: Ian Hendry (YouTube).


Trailer Evil Under the Sun (1982). Source: jirluin (YouTube).

Sources: Stuart Jeffries (The Guardian), Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Donald Guarisco (AllMovie), Craig Butler (AllMovie), Pedro Borges (IMDb), TCM, Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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