Before Marvel’s Black Widow, Jean Grey and Carol Danvers, pop-culture had another lady Avenger recognised across the world. The pop-cultural explosion of the 1960s often had Britain at its heart. Yet, just as UK television channels were opening out our small screen worlds with an influx of American TV imports, there were less shows going in the opposite direction.
Step forward The Avengers. And Diana Rigg.
The actress was not the first to star opposite Patrick Macnee’s umbrella-yielding John Steed in ABC’s Home Counties spy hit. Honor Blackman had already made great onscreen strides – and kicks – in the role of Cathy Gale in a new Swinging Sixties era of female screen empowerment and fun, yet left the role open when she decamped the camp to do 1964’s Goldfinger.
When The Avengers was one of the first British shows to be broadcast in a prime-time US slot in 1965 it was Diana Rigg’s karate-chopping Emma Peel they encountered as a playful, Carnaby Street spin on a fencing heiress in a Princess Margaret world of open-topped cars and mini skirted adventures. When the fifth series went full colour (three years before the ITV network did so itself), Mrs Peel truly peeled the lid off Rigg’s screen career forever more in an explosion of prime hues, camp surrealism and a genuine warmth between Diana and co-star Macnee. Like her predecessor, Rigg moved on from The Avengers to 007.
When 007 producers EON Productions were navigating the precarious position of the new Bond George Lazenby not being Sean Connery, they shrewdly hit on the idea of aligning the new Bond with an actress of a spiky English potency and audience familiarity. It had worked with Goldfinger and Honor Blackman – and soared when Rigg defied opinion to take on a Bond movie at the end of the 1960s and a time when many wondered (even Lazenby himself) if 007’s movie time was up. Curiously, it was the two Avengers actresses – Honor Blackman and Rigg – that shook off the sometimes career-haunting turn in a Bond film with ease.
Without publicly linking to the role much again and rarely taking part in any 007 events or celebrations, Rigg remained one of the best Bond women in one of the best Bond movies. It is no accident how Daniel Craig’s central love Vesper Lynd in the Bond reboot Casino Royale (2006) is portrayed by the English-accented Eva Green in a green baize-baiting role that haunts both the film’s end credits and the franchise’s very foundation.
Whereas Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore was the female lead in the Bond film that changed the production template forever more, it was Rigg’s turn as damaged Contessa Tracy di Vicenzo in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) that left the franchise and the Bond role itself with its emotional blueprint. The cold-hearted, serial womanising spy was not allowed to find love. And author Ian Fleming’s original literary creation Tracy did not change that singlehandedly. Diana Rigg and her immovable, mischievous and obstinate performance in OHMSS did.
Some large ensemble projects soon followed in the 1970s, with Rigg joining the starry casts of The Assassination Bureau (1969), Julius Caesar (1970), Theatre of Blood (1973) and A Little Night Music (1977). Theatre of Blood was a British horror comedy and allowed Rigg to flex some more humoured muscles in a satirical, cult title about the very thespian boards she had herself trodden with the Royal Shakespeare Company and productions like King Lear (1964) and Twelfth Night (1966).
However, it was arguably two screen roles in the early 1980s that allowed the movie Diana to leave that fateful Bond bride behind – just as Roger Moore was visiting her character’s grave in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only (a film that features a parrot she famously once owned having shared The Avengers screen-time). One of her most delicious roles is as the vampish Arlena Marshall in Guy Hamilton’s heavenly Evil Under the Sun (1982).
Flanked by the music of Cole Porter, the deathly whispers of author Agatha Christie and the most divine theatrical costumes from Anthony Powell, Rigg’s failing society empress Arlena cuts through each of the starry cast with succulent put-downs, those twisting red-nailed fingers of dismissal and a comedy slip of grace when she thinks no-one noticed. The same year she also trod the Christie movie boards again TV movie, Witness for the Prosecution (1982).
In an industry and world where leading ladies cannot always be older leading ladies, Rigg embraced the passage of time with a bullish grace and career fortitude. That modish, spychedelic face of a new 1960s TV era that syndicated across the globe its avenging style, quirks, surreal nods and colour had zero qualms playing ageing, often manipulative mothers with courage (Mother Love, 1989), Agatha Christie step-mothers with none and Mother Courage herself. With a movie CV that ultimately remained surprisingly small all told, she had no qualms settling on TV and theatre productions that would now look curious. All 1980s kids remember her pantomime turn in ITV’s The Worst Witch (1986) and today’s younger audiences still do not believe how the Bond and Avengers actress is the same person who then eats every scene the dragons left untouched with jabbing wit as Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones.
The writer and actor Mark Gatiss worked and dined with Rigg on a few occasions. He wrote the 2013 Doctor Who episode ‘The Crimson Horror’ in which Rigg played the ominous black-laced chemist Mrs Gillyflower opposite her real-life daughter Racheal Stirling, shared chat time together on Game of Thrones and the pair previously worked with Colin Morgan and Lesley Manville in the Old Vic’s 2007 production of Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother. Rigg played the role of Huma Roja in arguably the best Pedro story about women, matriarchs, acting and cinema. Gatiss remembers pacing when the rehearsal tech ‘would go on forever’. Rigg soon threw a ‘do sit down, darling’ before disappearing for a long lunch as ‘she knew how these things worked’. A lifelong Bond fan, Gatiss admitted ‘it took me three months to pluck up the courage to discuss On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with her, but it was worth it!’.
Read more: George Lazenby pays tribute to Diana Rigg
If you want to see a role that conveys the sense of fun, fight, and clear professionalism of Diana Rigg, then one could do a lot worse than watch The Great Muppet Caper (1981). Spoofing her onscreen society-bitches, Rigg’s Lady Holiday comes at the role with the realisation the previous Jim Henson fuzzy hit starred the likes of Orson Welles and The Muppet Show was – like The Avengers a decade before – was one of the biggest syndicated television projects ever. Like all her best roles, Rigg’s demeanour slips throughout and the costumes walk into the room before she does.
More recently Diana Rigg returned to her native Yorkshire roots for a cameo in nostalgic TV drama All Creatures Great and Small. However, it could well be her last movie performance for British director Edgar Wright that shines a final and perfect movie lamp on Rigg’s cinematic career. Early screenings of Last Night in Soho (2021) were held recently - and the emerging response to her role opposite Matt Smith and 1960s cohorts Terence Stamp and Rita Tushingham is purportedly magnificent. One observer calls it a ‘beautiful, final performance – all the flint, all the twinkle, all the depth. One of a kind.’
Diana Rigg was not just the Bond actress the emotions of 007 himself was married to forever more. She was the modish face of a new TV decade, Britain on Broadway, one of international theatre’s constant greats, an Agatha Christie jewel, a Muppets stooge, and a fierce dame.
Sleep tight, Mrs Bond.