September 1973: Los Angeles Magazine

The Prime Time of Miss Diana Rigg

"How does Los Angeles Magazine feel about nipples?" asks Diana Rigg, getting ready to pose for a cover photograph. The answer is that we are fundamentally in favor of them. "Fine!" she says, "I'm not wearing a bra and this sweater's a bit thin. NBC doesn't like nipples at all, or navels, or any manifestation of humanity."

Diana is currently making a sitcom for NBC, to be aired on Monday nights this fall, and she has had to resign herself to company policy on foundation garments. She comes to Burbank direct from her recent appearance in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers at the National Theatre in London, where she lay stark naked on a papier mache crescent and sang "Shine On, Harvest Moon." But she is nothing if not adaptable, and on her own time she can still hang loose.

The make-up man arrives, and Diana says not to bother with the "full slap" but just do something with her eyes. "Perhaps you could cover those bruises on her arms?" asks the photographer. Diana, who was married last July to Israeli painter Menahem Gueffen, begins to giggle. Has someone been a little over-masterful? The make-up man does his best, sponging and spreading heavy creams. "But there's nothing at all I can do about these teeth marks on your shoulder," he says, lifting her hair to expose an odd group of blotches. "That must have been my producer," the star murmurs.

In front of the camera Diana snaps on hard like a high-beamed flashlight. She moves and wears her clothes like a model, but smiles and poses like an actress playing the part of a dumb movie star. She knows her body exactly, and races with the camera, clicking in and out of a shot every thirty seconds. It is an arresting and almost scornfully efficient performance. She is wearing dark pants and uses a TV console as her sole prop. Sitting on top of it, she opens her legs in a wide vee. "How does that grab you? A crotch shot." The photographer blinks and loses the beat. She is obliging, but bored and in the mood for a little British bawdy. She sticks out her backside - "How about a bum shot? Okay?" She twists round at the waist. "Now a tit-and-bum shot. Okay?" "Oh great, Diana. Terrific!" says the art director. "Well darling, we have done it all before, you know." "Perhaps you could look a bit defiant?" he suggests, tentatively. "Defiant?" she says. The bounce is suddenly gone. Shades of Mrs. Emma Peel of The Avengers, that mid-'60s fantasy of elegant sado-masochism. "Well, you know, something feline or...challenging." He hesitates - "A karate chop movement, perhaps?" "No, not karate!" She is studiously polite. "If you don't mind, I would rather not do a karate chop movement. That isn't really where we're at now."

Where Diana's at now is prime time femininity, which means a bra, a skirt at least some of the time, a little unthreatening comedy - and leave the fighting arts to the men.

There's a rehearsal of Diana next day at the studio, and I go to watch, and perhaps talk to her. The suggestion is that I'll be very lucky. The atmosphere does not bode well. Diana is white-faced and lank-haired, wearing a track suit top, a pair of very baggy jeans, and bright red, patent leather, high heeled sandals. She is sitting apart, way off on one side of the set, and she is smoking fiercely as she tears up a batch of pages from her script. On set, sitting slumped on a sofa with his eyes shut, and wearing an extraordinary pair of women's clogs, is Richard Schull, with whom Diana has just been rehearsing a scene. Some urgent technical muttering is in progress around the cameras.

Onto this scene, loaded down with photographic equipment, tape recorders and beaming smiles, come a reporter and photographer from the Louisville Times. With unobservent confidence they bear down upon Diana. After a few moments, they appear to back away. There is some panicky whispering among the publicity girls. "Daphne, Diana is very, very upset!" Whereupon, the team from Louisville and all other extraneous persons, including myself, are ushered abruptly from the set.

Back again in the evening, for the first taping of a completed show before a live audience, and now everyone is smiling continuously. Diana has washed her hair, and put on her bra and the "full slap," and she's looking stunning. Leonard Stern, producer and co-writer of the show, and originator of Get Smart, He and She, and McMillan and Wife, is introduced as "one of the giants of our industry." By way of a warm-up he does an entertaining monologue of the origins of Diana, and expresses a modest hope that it will run at least as long as the Watergate hearings.

The "concept" for Diana is that its star is a 30-year-old English girl, divorced after 10 years of marriage, and comes to Manhattan to work as a house fashion illustrator for a department store such as Bergdorf Goodman. She is going to have some of the single girlhood she missed in her twenties, and will be sumptuously accomodated in an apartment belonging to her archaeologist brother who has gone off for a protracted dig in South America. This explains how she comes to be living in best Bloomingdale decorator splendor, tastefully got up with a few examples of primitive sculpture - but not how come the archaeologist himself got so rich. (In any case, they are very proud of the set at NBC.) Before heading for the ruins her brother has issued keys to his apartment to a wide circle of his aquaintances. We thus have the first sitcom crashpad, with endless potential for the regular discovery of total strangers taking showers, practicing yoga in the dining area, and so forth. Guest stars may thus be introduced as well. Regulars of the show will be the standard Girlfriend (Carol Androski), The Boss (David Sheiner), The Boss's Wife (Barbara Barrie), and The Colleagues at the department store (Richard Schull and Robert Moore).

So what if it all sounds very much like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, says Leonard Stern. He reckons that the pattern for that show belongs in his office since he originated He and She which, he says, inspired The Mary Tyler Moore Show. According to the pattern, both heroines are normal, cheerful, independent career girls, with no problems and remarkably uneventful personal lives. Their independence is expressed principally by the fact that they live alone and have no apparent sexual attachments. They are, however, surrounded by "characters" in whose lives and problems they are constantly embroiled. Both girls display great skill and patience in their sympathetic dealings with distressed middle-aged married men, and also with other unmarried girls. Both girls appear to be younger than anyone else in their shows. Of the two Diana shows I saw, one was as funny as a bad Mary Tyler Moore Show, and one was as good as a good one, which probably means it was better because it worked without the advantage of a familiar set of characters. In both episodes, Diana's role was distinctly passive, her part being to react to comic situations developed by other players.

One obvious difference between the two series is that whereas Mary Tyler Moore is pretty and smart looking, Diana Rigg is exotic and gorgeous. There seems to be some diffidence, however, about emphasizing either of these characteristics. For all the differences her origins make to the part she plays in the show, she might as well be American. Asked about this, she said "The audience will see a new face, and hear a new voice with new vowel sounds. That'll be England for them - and that's enough newness to be going on with."

Her unconcealable sexiness, which has been described ardently by Oui Magazine as of a sort to "make men's teeth hurt with desire," is similarly glossed over. She is best chums with the women in the show, and her male co-workers treat her as one of the guys. Leonard Stern insists the series is going to be sexy. The sexiest thing visible during the filmings I saw was when Diana came on in a tennis dress at the end of the first show. There was a gasp from the audience, followed by a burst of applause for those marvelous long legs and the splendid, wide, smooth shoulders. It was the kind of clapping that sometimes greets a particularly spectacular piece of scenery design in the theatre.

"The shoulders are extremely wide and very square, and the breasts don't compensate for this width. The hips are too wide. The arms and wrists are slender, but the knees are those of a hockey player and the calves are over-developed. The jaw is much, much too strong, and the mouth is too small."

Diana is being "realistic" about herself to a woman from The Dinah Shore Show, who is doing a sort of feasibility study, a pre-interview to see which topics might best be discussed with Diana when she is a guest on that show. It is thought that they may talk about clothes, but then there is the fear that an audience of housewives in bathrobes will have trouble identifying. Diana offers this run-down on her figure faults to demonstrate that she has her problems just like everyone else. Dinah Shore's representative then asks Diana , who reached a pinnacle of her ambitions a few short weeks ago in London by playing the part of Lady Macbeth, what advice she would give to women who are short-waisted. Diana is being extremely cooperative. She tackles shortwaistedness gamely, and then moves on to a discussion of how to make your own mayonnaise, and a powerful garlic sauce called aioli used to dress hors d'oeuvre of raw vegetables or "crudites." Yes, she would be quite willing to demonstrate all this on The Dinah Shore Show. Her interviewer is elated - "I know our audience is extremely interested in all kinds of health foods!"

We are sitting around a table at The Saloon in Beverly Hills. The noise level is barely tolerable, and Diana, who has been working all day, has not yet had a drink, let alone her dinner. You have to admire her as she heroically deplores the lamentable cut of the average American woman's pants with the Dinah Shore interviewer. I have read that she hates to be interviewed, and have overheard her description of the process to a press agent - "PAIN! PURE PAIN!" But not being a girl to do things by halves, she lavishes attention upon whoever happens to be playing gadfly.

Later in the evening she will tell me a story about an experience she had in Los Angeles two years ago. She recalls the event as an illustration of loneliness in this city, but in fact it is more revealing about her own unusual receptiveness. "I like to walk alone, and I was walking one day along The Strip near the Chateau Marmont when a man joined me and asked if we could talk. So I said 'Sure!' Maybe it was because I seemed sympathetic, but suddenly it all came pouring out - his problems with the family, with his wife, and in his job. He must have talked for at least fifteen minutes, and I found myself making suggestions - 'Perhaps you could do this, maybe you could try that...' I really felt sorry for him. It must be hard sometimes here to find an ear you can bend."

Now she goes soldiering on, talking about meat prices and the differences between British and American food buying habits. Next to her, and opposite the Dinah Shore lady, sits her husband, Menahem Gueffen. Next to him, and opposite me, is a publicity girl. He is being charming and amusing, extraordinarily so considering the fact that his evening with his wife has been invaded by a group of remoreseless working women who have no great interest in him. On The Johnny Carson Show the night before, Diana had got into a thing about how American men are conditioned to a type of lumpish masculinity which makes them "boring companions and bad lovers." Diana's husband's decorative good looks, and his gentle manner, must serve her as a live demonstration of the qualities she finds wanting in the U.S. male.

Until about a year ago Diana had lived openly, for eight years, with the English producer Philip Saville, who happened to be married to someone else. No big deal nowadays, but initially this domestic arrangement excited some attention. So she got into the habit of denying flatly that she had any interest in matrimony. Her mother was so delighted when her 35-year-old daughter finally mentioned marriage and Menahem in the same breath, that she lept into a cab and went straight to the nearest registry office - the equivalent of City Hall - to set the wheels of conventional union in motion. "We hadn't a clue how to go about getting married," recalls Diana, "but it didn't take her five minutes to find out everything about the papers we needed, Menahem's passport, and all that." Mrs. Rigg also handles her daughter's fan mail. "She's really a very healthy element," says Diana. "I seem to get all these letters from spotty youths who say 'I love you and can I have your photograph?' My mother writes to them and says 'My daughter is much too old for you, and what you need is a good run round the block.'"

The leading question I have to ask Diana, now that the Dinah Shore lady has finished her survey of Women's Topics, is of course "Why have you come here to play a smiling likable zero for $2,000 a week, when you could be back home giving your all for Art and $185 a week?" I hope we can get this one out of the way quickly by her giving the obvious monetary rationale. But the nearest she will come to such forthright realism is to remark, defensively, "If I did everything for some sort of artistic justification, I could only work for half my life." And indeed, the contemporary issue of who is, or is not, too fancy to condescend to television has lately become somewhat blurred. With Patricia Neal being staggeringly sincere about Maxim coffee, and Sir Laurence Olivier speaking up for the virtues of Polaroid cameras, Diana can hardly be thought to have done anything disreputable. She is, at heart, a middle class "English gel," who has endured the brutal gentilities of an English girls' boarding school, and those of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. And, as she says, "We English don't like to talk about money." So little does she concern herself with such matters that she has somehow managed to avoid making a nickel from the seven re-runs of The Avengers. "Of course, it would be nice if there were money filtering into the bank from that," she comments mildly, "but Patrick Macnee and I would have to get organized, and be completely mercenary, and have a lawsuit or something, and I'm not about to do that. What's done is done. I love working and make a good living."

She makes a living at the National Theatre, but not a good one, even by British standards. So she needs to subsidize her work in the theatre by an occasional switch to television or the movies - and so far movies haven't worked very well for her. I remarked that she seemed to be managing the transition from Moliere's Comedy of Manners to television's comedy of situation very smoothly. She set her jaw at me. "And that makes me suspect! Right?" Anyway, she can't be cool about her own versatility. She has been quoted as cherishing a hope that her appearance on the tube may inspire the general public to rush out and lay seige to theatre box offices. But to me she now represented the sitcom undertaking as a quest for vital new skills. "You'll have noticed that the actors and actresses who work with me in the series are brilliant, the best there are at that type of humor. I play straight man to them, and that's the way I want it because I'm learning. I'm learning timing and inflection, which are both very different in America. I'm learning the three-camera technique in front of a live audience, which I've never done before. And I'm learning American comedy, which seems to me to be infinitely more lively than British, and more subtle, once you're into it."

But a day must come, particularly if Diana is renewed and she begins to commute between Burbank and the National Theatre, when she will become aware that she has completed the course on timing, inflection, the three-camera technique, and American humor as revealed in the television sitcom. What she will be left with then is Diana Smythe, straight man, and friendly fashion illustrator at Butley's department store.

Whan Diana was last in Los Angeles, playing Heloise at the Music Center to Keith Michell's Abelard, she said that she loved the part because Heloise had "a passionate single-mindedness which allows me to be for an evening on stage as I would like to be consistently in my life." Diana Smythe is unlikely to risk all for love in her brother's apartment, but Diana Rigg has hopes for the role. "In time perhaps we can become a little more bold in the series about me as a person, and me as a woman." If not, that NBC regulation bra may get to seem more like a straitjacket.

For now, though, we'll have a genuine phenomenon to watch on Monday nights, a powerful dramatic talent squeezed into a small lace, a Cordon Bleu chef cooking us a McDonald hamburger.

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