DON'T CALL ME EMMA!
Diana Rigg on the appeal of the fighting woman
THE restaurant we had arranged to eat in was closed. London in August is getting like Paris,with the best eating troughs shut for repairs or annual vacations.
I was waiting for her outside. Near the Strand. She came swinging along the cramped, cluttered street as if she'd just foiled another botanist read to take over the West with a blood-sucking vegetable or another dentist poised to mesmerise mankind with a high-speed dental drill.
She shrugged at the food news, "What about a Wimpy Bar," she said, trying to be helpful.
I had a better suggestion in Greek Street where interview facilities are cosier.
In the taxi she said that she'd been whistled at as she walked through Covent Garden. Since it was taking my own lips some effort to remain unpuckered, I was not unduly surprised.
With her tight, black velvet dress provocatively arrested at mini length, her long auburn hair dancing shimmeringly on her shoulders, her high cheek-boned face with its swamp-like eyes and teasing freckles, she was eminently whistleable at.
"They thought I was Christine Keeler. Or some other sexy lady. They didn't know who I was. And it's only five months since the last Avenger was on the box. That shows you how long the public remembers you these days."
She seemed genuinely pleased at this prospect of instant anonymity.
"Being a telly star hasn't made all that difference, you know." Disarming candour is one of Diana Rigg's most pleasing virtues. "Men used to look at me before because I'm attractive. When the Avengers is actually on the screen, women clutch each other and whisper when they see me in a supermarket. But in less than six months the image fades. Now the face is only vaguely familiar."
I hadn't intended to start the interview in the taxi but it seemed to be fizzing nicely.
"If you could think of one word to describe yourself, what would it be?"
You could hear the meter ticking in the long pause.
I paid off the taxi.
Over the meal we discussed the life and times of Emma Peel and what it felt like to be a television star in a popular series. She starts shooting another Avenger series next week. Twenty-four of them with American distribution.
"While Emma Peel as a character is emancipated in most areas, she's not emancipated sexually. No man reacts to me as if I was a woman. They all call me Mrs. Peel.
"Patrick Macnee, as Steed, treats me like a shire horse from time to time. My sexual relations with Steed are, to put it mildly, ambiguous. Let's say they're not active whenever we're on the screen. They may have been in the past. Or they might be in the future."
She indicated annoyance with this script insistence on passion Anglaise.
"It may have begun with the original idea for my widowhood. My husband was a test pilot killed in an accident. Inevitably that made me very sympathetic, clean and orthodox. I'd have been much happier if they had told me I'd eaten my husband or something else outrageous."
She hasn't taken lessons in judo or jiu-jitsu.
"I know how to do the necessary gestures and movements. I can now fight with a man." She paused. "But not in earnest."
Had she thought about the appeal of a fighting woman?
"At first men sat back and roared with laughter. Then they became slightly uneasy about it. It could be true! And they begin to like that insecurity. Maybe they like to be threatened by a predatory woman? I just think some of them adore the prospect of being seduced."
What about money?
"I now have more money than I've ever had in my life and through money I've discovered more freedom in my life. That's all.
"I have the freedom to stop work next year. Or do Shakespeare. And I have the pleasure of being able to buy things for myself and other people. The only thing that worries me is the tax I have to pay on it." She gave me the impression that taxes were something new in her life.
Since the natural corollary of money in a woman's mind is men, we moved on to them.
"I've always been chary of marriage. At 17 I dreamt of an early marriage and motherhood. But by the time I was 22 I didn't identify with it any more. I play everything by instinct and I know even though I'm in my late twenties that marriage at this moment would be a disaster for me."
She readily admitted that she was in love.
"But I don't think we're likely to get married." She shrugged off any more questions on the point. "Anyway, I wouldn't marry now because marriage might make me turn down work. It's not the disease of ambition. I have only one specific ambition and that's to work."
As a girl brought up in the serious theatre, does she think her fame as Emma Peel makes her a success?
"On the basis of TAM ratings and fan letters, I'm probably a success. Incidentally, I don't know what to do with fan letters. I have most of them bundled up - unanswered - in the back of my Mini.
"But if success means doing what I set out to do and doing it properly, then I'm not so sure. That's why I went back to Stratford-On-Avon to do Viola in Twelfth Night. It's really a one-dimensional career doing the same role over and over again. I doubt if I'll do it for much longer."
Over the coffee, she became more reflective.
"I've had no serious offer for work in the cinema. I was always considered a serious actress and not suitable. But Vanessa Redgrave in Morgan has changed all that. But now that I'm a TV actress, the cinema doesn't like mixing one image with another. Anyway I'd turn down a film part if it was just asking me to do another Emma Peel.
"From an acting standpoint, TV's taught me an economy of style that I didn't have before. But Emma's easy for me to do because I'm playing a part that's 75 per cent my own personality. Not the fighting, swinging lady, but the way I come into a room, the way I hitch my trousers, the way I flirt.
"And the way I project sex. When I'm allowed to. I can't convey sex overtly on the screen. I couldn't play an obvious sultry tart. I think sex should be conveyed subtly, unconsciously. It's more effective that way. Projecting sex just kills it."
She had to go. She was looking at a new mews house. She was finally giving up the small mews flat she'd lived in for many years.
"I'm much less lonely now, but otherwise things are much the same as they used to be. And when I finish this next series of the Avengers; I'm out of work as far as I'm concerned. I don't know what I want to do next. And that's how I like it."
From The London Evening Standard, August 1966. Exact date and page unknown..
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