05 October 1989: Chicago Sun Times

Mystery woman Former `Avenger' will host whodunits on PBS

Diana Rigg started her acting career in Shakespeare plays, but she is best known as the exotically beautiful, black-leather-clad counterspy in the ABC series "The Avengers."

Rigg played Emma Peel opposite Patrick Macnee's John Steed from 1966 to 1968. She starred in a short-lived American sitcom called "Diana" during the 1973-74 season. Since then, the British actress rarely has been seen in the United States.

Rigg's visibility here will increase this season as she succeeds Vincent Price as host of the popular "Mystery!" series on PBS. The anthology series presents TV versions of novels and short stories by some of England's best crime writers. "Mystery!" will begin its 10th season with the eight "Campion" episodes, starring Peter Davison as Albert Campion, the 1930s detective created by Margery Allingham. The first episode will air at 9 p.m. next Thursday on WTTW-Channel 11.

In 1973, Rigg co-starred with Price in the film "Theatre of Blood," a humorous thriller. She is familiar with Price's work, and she said she's comfortable with her role as his "Mystery!" successor.

"I'm not playing a part," she said. "I am myself. I suppose it will evolve, but it's always dangerous to speak up front. I'd rather wait and see. My job is to introduce each show. For those who know the characters, it's an affirmation. And for those who don't, it's an explanation."

"Mystery!" is noted for Edward Gorey's Gothic steel engravings for the title sequences. Gorey has designed a new black-and-white set for Rigg.

"We'll also take a wider approach to the subject at hand," Rigg added. "For example, we'll talk about the rules of law as they developed in England for the `Rumpole of the Bailey' series. I like the idea of giving a tidge of information."

She recently completed a BBC mini-series called "Mother Love," and it may show up on the "Mystery!" series. "It's the story of a woman who brings up her son by herself after her divorce," Rigg said. "She loves her son passionately and believes he's never seen his father in the years since the divorce. But the father and son carry on a deception, and when the mother finds out, murder and mayhem ensue."

She plays the mother, David McCallum is the father and the son is James Wilby, who stars in a new version of "A Tale of Two Cities" for "Masterpiece Theatre" on PBS this season.

"The Avengers," which began as a British television series, starred Macnee as a suave secret agent. The series was witty, absurd and diabolical. Macnee's first female partner was Honor Blackman, who left to play Pussy Galore opposite Sean Connery in the James Bond movie "Goldfinger."

Rigg played sidekick Mrs. Peel when the show began its run on ABC in 1966. She left after two years, and was replaced by Linda Thorson. The series left ABC in 1969.

"It was a very stylistic show, and it set the tone for a lot that followed," Rigg said. "It certainly set the pattern for women as equal partners. James Bond hasn't reached that yet. It was ahead of its time and quite original for television.

"Emma Peel saw herself as the equal of any man. She could compete without being strident. Patrick and I chose a very tongue-in-cheek approach. That made it more fun for us and more believable for the audience."

Married to British producer Archie Sterling, Rigg has tapered off her acting career since the birth of her daughter 12 years ago. She appeared in a new version of "Witness for the Prosecution" for CBS. And she recently returned to the London stage in "Follies," a revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical.

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