9 March 2002: Dominion


DIANA RIGG in thigh boots? The image probably features in many a middle-aged fantasy. But it's 35 years since Rigg zipped up her leathers and, as Mrs Emma Peel, karate-kicked and eyebrow-arched her way through The Avengers. These days the boots are the waders of an angler.

"I'm a fly-fisherwoman as opposed to a coarse fisherwoman," she points out, for the record. And she's a devoted one, of 20 years' standing.

"It comes out of my love for the countryside," she says, down the phone line from her home in Kensington, London. "Fishing is like immersing yourself in the countryside. It's an art which I can't say I've perfected yet. You keep on learning. But it's a perfect antidote to any crises or any pressures you might have in your life."

It's heartbreaking, she says, that on her tour of New Zealand next month, she'll have no spare time to try out any of our own famous fishing spots. "I'm working six days a week and travelling on the Sundays," she says.

The tour, her first visit to New Zealand, is as part of a dream British cast for the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of The Hollow Crown. She'll take the stage with Sir Derek Jacobi, Ian Richardson and Sir Donald Sinden all, like Rigg, television and stage stars and actors who have spent time in the RSC.

The Hollow Crown was devised in the 1960s by John Barton, who's directing the production that's touring to New Zealand and Australia. It's a series of readings and songs about the kings and queens of England, not the conquests and political intrigue, but the personalities and foibles.

There are letters, speeches, chronicles, even some unreliable accounts of royal lives by the teenage Jane Austen.

Rigg says it's a wonderful entertainment but the challenge is to make the various parts of it a whole. The last time she joined a production of the popular show was in the 1960s, about the time she was, as she says, "catapulted into worldwide, I hesitate to say stardom, but people started knowing who I was".

The vehicle was The Avengers, in which she and Patrick Macnee, as John Steed, did battle with various evil geniuses, foiling plots and defusing cybermen with explosive fingers.

The shows have a slightly low-tech look nowadays, but the style and wit was matchless.

"It's a piece which still holds up after all these years," says Rigg. "There was never anything sloppy about it, and Patrick and I fought to keep the standards high. We'd play around with the words of the script, finding ways to make it spark, be bright and literate."

The show never took itself too seriously she says, which may be why it's so hard, now, to send it up in a fashionably ironic way.

Unusually for a British show, it was also a hit in the United States. Rigg was nominated twice for an Emmy, and went on to star briefly in her own sitcom.

In those days, Rigg says, television stars were often persona non grata in the movie world.

That might be a reason why she's seldom seen on film. Whereas Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman are never absent from the movie screen, Rigg's film roles have been few.

"I just don't get offered them," she says.

But her work on Broadway and in the West End has been frequent and adventurous. She won a Broadway Tony and a London Evening Standard award for her title role in Medea, and has won acclaim in Top Stoppard comedy, Shakespeare tragedy, and Stephen Sondheim musical.

For Sondheim's Follies, Rigg took many singing lessons and had to smarten up her dance steps. She finds musicals terrifying. "You have to come in exactly on time with the orchestra, or else they're off like the Scotland Express."

But the terror is educational. "It's always my philosophy that I have to keep learning in this business. It's pointless to keep on strutting the same old stuff. You get bored, the audience gets bored."

Rigg has also made some memorable television appearances, none of them the least bit Peel-esque. She was the image of cold evil in Mother Love, and played the mysteriously obsessive Mrs Danvers in Rebecca and a crime-solving socialite in The Mrs Bradley Mysteries.

Her latest stage job was in the comedy Humble Boy. In a few days' time, she's taking one of her regular breaks at her house in southern France.

Rigg, 63, is on her own after two divorces. She lived in Scotland for years with her second husband, Archie Stirling, but they divorced in the early 1990s.

Disenchanted with the urbanisation of England's countryside, she chose a hamlet at the foothills of the Pyrenees that had no shops, no petrol station, but a pretty 10th-century church.

She spends about a week each month overseeing plumbers and carpenters as they fix up the old house "you can't actually live there yet".

"I like working, but I quite like not working. In fact, I like it a lot," she says. "I like pottering around, doing my own thing fishing, reading."

Rigg has put together two books a collection of bad theatrical reviews, which she says could do with an updating, and a collection of English country lyric poems.

"There may be one more book, but quite what I don't know."

Her not-working time seems rather busy.

She sits on several theatre boards, helps raise money for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, is chancellor of a Scottish university, and helps charities she's patron of Children with AIDS.

As she lists her boards and charities, she sounds animated, warm and relaxed. The voice is beautiful. Suddenly, the idea of listening to her read royal letters, speeches and chronicles, or indeed the telephone book, becomes very attractive.

* The Hollow Crown will play at the Michael Fowler Centre from April 16-18. Bookings open on Tuesday.

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