The Girl Behind Emma Peel: Part 1.

...the two worlds of actress Rigg... above, as Emma Peel of THE AVENGERS; a series seen in 40 countries; men feast their eyes on her while muttering endearments in 22 languages.  Right, Diana as she is to herself...

Diana Rigg has returned to Shakespearean acting - she is the female lead in a film version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream".

As far as she was concerned, it was the most wonderful thing that had happened to her in years.

She had been Emma Peel's alter ego so long she had to get away - - or else.

"I had become paranoid," she assured me, "with an underlying urge to pack and run.  It is a curious thing.   People who have never been subjected to it can never really understand what it means.

"I can only describe it as a sense of panic that seizes you when you are Diana to yourself and you are walking down the street.   An instant later, you are somebody else to a lot of people who behave as if you belong to them.

"If you are quite a private person, which I am, this seems an intrusion on my privacy.  I just have to run.

"Mind you," she adds, with an apologetic smile, "I am not ungrateful.  I will be the last to minimise what television has done for me.  It is a phenomenon, a miracle medium, that can accomplish in six months what takes years on the stage.  Suddenly, you are famous.   Suddenly, everybody knows you.

"The point is, though, that you are not yourself.  Only the other person you portray in the series.  That person is, of necessity, imposed by television, one-dimensional.  You ask yourself - - is it worth it?

It should be.  In the three years that Diana Rigg has spent in THE AVENGERS she has been catapulted into a position of bargaining power.

Hollywood producers have offered 100,000 to work in one film.  It seem they would go higher, if that is what she wants.  But she has turned them down.

"So far I have not been offered anything I want," she says.  "I don't want a long-term contract.  As an actress I will work where and for whom I want, if the script is exciting enough.

"If a script is good and they have a director I can trust, then I will do it."

Really it is a matter of time.  The big, international film-makers are confident they will have lassoed this high-spirited long-legged English girl long before Emma Peel loses her hold on the masses - if she ever does.

THE AVENGERS is eagerly watched each week in 40 countries, and Emma Peel (Mrs.) is the series' irrepressible whimsical Amazon of the jet set.  Men feast their eyes on her while muttering endearments in 22 languages, and their women try to emulate her - - but they never will, of course.

Consumption of champagne the world over has been increasing ever since John Steed and Emma Peel began toasting each other in bubbly stuff, from the television tube.

"Avengerwear" - - Emma's fancy "cat" suits and things - - is reaching the shelves and racks of department stores all over the world.

"Emma Peel's" international fan mail, still growing by leaps and bounds, promises to assume astronomical figures before the winter is out.

Diana never touches this mail and has enlisted mother, in Leeds, to head the Emma Peel fan mail operation.

Says Diana: "We have this room at home, measuring 20ft. by 15ft., and it is full of letters.  More are delivered each day - all addressed to me.

"I am supposed to answer them.  But I can't, and that worries me deeply.  I get persecuted by the mere thought that there's an obligation which I am not willing to fulfil.

"That is where mother comes in.  She reads, and she answers.  And I feel ashamed.  But I can't help it.

"People have made up their minds to identify me with a fantasy of theirs on television.  In their minds they want to have a relationship with me based on fantasy which can take any form.

"I have heard from my mother that there have been letters from children saying: "You look like my dead mother and so I write to you."  I think that is terrifying."

The story of Diana Rigg is, in a way, the story of two women - the real one and the imaginary one.  They are identical twins.

The conflict within this beautiful and intelligent young woman, who is just a little older than 29, reminds me of the case of Sean Connery, alias James Bond.

In Connery's case, though, there was resentment.   Connery, the man, gradually developing such a passionate hatred for the image he had created that he refused to continue as Bond even at a million dollars a throw.

He made his last two Bond films under protest.   Bond made him a multi-millionaire, but you cannot escape the feeling that he would settle for half this amount if his identity remained - that of himself and not that of the slick, women-loving, superb and deadly Secret Agent 007.

Emma Peel has some of the same qualities as 007, well-screened and suppressed, to fit into a family-watching hour on television.

The innuendo, contained in the name has been a source of Rigg's unconcealed unhappiness.

Asked what innuendo, she blushes and confides in a conspiratorial whisper: "Believe it or not, Emma Peel is a phonetical transposition of "M Appeal", the M in this case standing for Men.  In other words, "Men Appeal."  Isn't it a scream?  Sorry that I blush."

She adds wistfully: "I wanted to be Lady Peel, not for any grandiose reasons, but simply because it seemed to get some rather good comments over on the English aristocracy.  Of course they wouldn't do it."

"They" being the producers who have been running the show like a tightly-run ship.

Not unlike Sean Connery after "Goldfinger", Diana Rigg said goodbye to THE AVENGERS on the last day of a contractual stay at an ITV studio in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, last August 31st.

"They" were highly hopeful that she would be back, if not immediately, then later.

The production schedule could be stretched to accommodate her, she was reminded.  A new regime was taking command of the series, and this, it was felt, would offer Diana an incentive.

She was not sure.  But on the last day of the last batch at the close of shooting at 5.20pm she produced a bottle of champagne to toast her co-star and co-workers.

They had become a closely-knit family, and she would miss them if she were not to come back.

"I am devoted to Patrick," she says, referring to co-star Patrick Macnee, who plays John Steed.  "I'm frightened of minimising him by talking about him, because it always sounds so glib, but he's an extremely generous and gentle and marvellous man."

They are comrades-in-arms on television.   Off screen they are the best of friends, but that is all.  Macnee married a second time during the series.  Again to quote her, she is "totally committed" to another man.

Diana is simply devoted to a number of other people on the series, including her stand-in, Diana Enright, and her double, stunt-woman, Cyd Child, who resembles her so much that all three directors of the series have dared to have Cyd perform her stunts in full-face and semi-close-up.

Viewers have yet to write to complain that the girl hurling herself through the air at an adversary is not Diana Rigg.

And then, there's Diana's studio chauffeur, John Taylor, who is also her "Man Friday".

"I wouldn't know what to do without him," she says.  A confidante, he also does her shopping while she is working, and has the ability to always be there when needed.

Diana didn't join the series under duress.   She was tested for the role, as were others after John Steed's leading lady Cathy Gale (actress Honor Blackman) left the series - - ironically for a Bond flick, "Goldfinger".

Why did a promising young Shakespearean actress offer her services to a television series Shakespearean actors have looked down on with patronising dismay?  To quote the lovely Diana: "I did it because I had left the Royal Shakespeare Company knowing that if I renewed my contract and stayed on for three or four years, I would have progressed and played good parts, but I was yearning for additional scope.

"To accomplish this I would have to plunge into the deep end, and nothing seemed deeper than this.  I was right.  Nothing is deeper."

on to part two

back to 1967



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