06 March 2004: Northern Echo

And They Called it Mother Love

She has had an acclaimed career both on stage and screen, but for some people Diana Rigg will always be Emma Peel. Steve Pratt meets the Dame who found fame in a catsuit.

Dame Diana Rigg has been caught red-handed and there is no point denying it. She's been discovered with her hand, not in the till, but the fridge of the function room, helping herself when she thought nobody was looking.

"Oh dear, you've caught me," she says guiltily as we enter. Between interviews, the actress had fancied an ice cream and raided the fridge. She destroys the evidence, eating the tub of cookies-and-cream flavour ice cream as we talk.

Her image makes you expect to meet a grande dame rather than the down-to-earth woman - Yorkshirewoman, she comes from Doncaster - speaking amusingly and honestly as the conversation wanders over fishing, theatre touring, living in France, Emma Peel and cannibalism.

The latter is the reason for an audience with Dame Diana at Sheffield's Lyceum Theatre, where she's starring in a revival of the Tennessee Williams' play Suddenly Last Summer before taking it on tour to, among other places, Newcastle Theatre Royal.

The steamy, New Orleans-set drama has Rigg's formidable Mrs Venables determined to extract the truth about son Sebastian's death from the girl (played by Victoria Hamilton) who witnessed it all.

The play is best known through the film version starring Katherine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, although Williams disapproved of the screen adaptation. "He hated it and walked out of the showing because they'd taken the story out of the enclosed atmosphere, and he wanted it to remain a claustrophobic piece," she explains.

Michael Grandage's brilliant new production offers 95 minutes of powerful drama set inside a drum that opens to reveal a hothouse of passion. Rigg calls it "heightened theatre", which is why it's a courageous piece to be doing in this day and age.

The themes of obsessive mother love and cannibalism, not to mention Sebastian's homosexuality, made it a shocking piece back in 1958 when Williams wrote the play. Not so much now, although none could deny the intense theatricality of the production.

Oddly enough, Rigg has managed to use her love of fishing in the role. As the skeletons come toppling out of the cupboard, Mrs Venables "gasps like a fish" at the revelations. Rigg knew exactly how to do this. "I fish and when you kill a fish it sometimes makes a noise like air escaping from its stomach," she says, in a reply hardly destined to endear her to the anti-fishing lobby.

"My dad used to fish," she says, by way of explaining her interest. "I did a lot of fishing when I was living in Scotland. You have to be strong because you're wading in very strong rivers. It can really be quite frightening."

She boasts of catching a 24-and-a-half pound salmon ("not the biggest" she admits, but she's proud of it) but thinks that trout fishing just has the edge on salmon fishing.

She now lives in France some of the time, at a home in a remote area lacking even such basics as shops. Don't get the idea she's gone for good. "I love England. I don't live in France, but it's so nice to have another place in life, particularly when you're on tour. It's that psychological thing of having an alternative place," she says.

She admits that when she said yes to Suddenly Last Summer, she envisaged a season at the Donmar in London, a theatre with which Grandage is associated - "and I get this tour into infinity", she adds.

"But it comes with the territory. I was thinking the other day that I haven't done a commercial play in the West End for over 20 years. It's all been subsidised theatre which ended up in the West End.

"I very much believe in touring and taking good theatre to the provinces. Having said that, I will have done my bit by the end of this tour."

At 65, Rigg finds herself being offered some of the best roles of her career. It's been that way for a decade or more, with stage roles in Mother Courage, Follies, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and Medea to name but a few. On TV, a pair of fearsome women - possessive mum Helena in Mother Love and Mrs Danvers in Rebecca - brought her awards.

Actresses approaching later life often bemoan the lack of decent roles for their age group. Rigg has found the opposite has been true. "I haven't done it deliberately. It just happened that way. I am ornery. I bucked the trend," she says.

Any suggestion that Mrs Venables, who offers another form of extreme mother love, could be described as a monster is rejected. "I don't think you could approach a part like this and say she's a monster. I identify with her profound love of her child, and that has to come over. You can't imagine the horror of losing a child," she says.

You don't have to be a mother to play a mother on stage or screen although every actor will bring "their things" to a part, she believes. "It's our business to understand the human condition. Paranoia, madness, you name it, we have to portray it. But you don't necessarily have to have suffered it in order to portray it."

What she won't suffer is having quotes, allegedly made in interviews, thrown back at her for comment. "It makes me tetchy," she says, smiling nicely but obviously meaning it.

Before the interview, there were doubts she'd want to talk about The Avengers, the 60s TV series in which her character Emma Peel was one of a tough new breed of liberated women giving as good as they got. Rigg herself mentions the series first, mentioning that some of her French neighbours know her from the show.

But no, she says, she won't get tetchy if asked questions about The Avengers. She will tolerate them, answer them even, while explaining that she's not a great one for revisiting anything she's done in the past.

She was "perfectly happy" making the series, although reiterates a grumble made in the past that she was paid less than a cameraman on the series.

"I was very happy with Pat (Patrick Macnee, who played bowler hatted John Steed), whom I adored and am still in touch with. I was perfectly happy with the work," she says. "They pushed us very hard. We worked very long hours, but were supposed to look glamorous and throw people over your head. I left because I wanted to move on. I was young and developing and had other things I wanted to do."

She debunks the idea that she knowingly helped bring a new, tougher kind of female to TV audiences in the appealing shape of Emma Peel. "It's not until many, many years later that I realised she was nothing to do with me, but the scriptwriters, who didn't know they were blazing a trail. They wrote the series for two men, and one of them dropped out and Honor Blackman took over. It was completely accidental that she had all these male attributes."

While the producers didn't pay her very much, they did allow her and Macnee to rewrite lines with which they weren't happy. "They let us get on with it because we had a very good screen relationship. They realised they were on to a good thing," she says.

As for the Steed and Mrs Peel did they, didn't they? debate, Rigg comes down on the side of those who feel the relationship never developed beyond being just good friends. She doesn't think they ever had an affair. "It was one of those great mutual respect things, and the question was always hovering in the air."

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