Diana Rigg has not been to see her most effective screen performance to date, the role of the ex-nurse who falls in love with George C. Scott in ‘The Hospital’. What’s more, she didn’t see herself in the film of ‘Julius Caesar’. Nor in ‘The Assassination Bureau’.
”I saw the Bond picture,” she says referring to ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, “but it’s torture really to watch yourself on the screen. It drives me potty – knowing that I can’t improve anything.”
At the same time, I thought to myself, it must take a good deal of determination to overcome the curiosity of seeing how the movies turned out. And determination, or at any rate a strong measure of confidence, seems to radiate from Diana Rigg.
Her face was serene as we talked, devoid of make-up and lit by the blaze of countless electric bulbs that surrounded three mirrors in her dressing-room at the Old Vic, where she would later shed her practical trouser suit for feathery fripperies and cover her own hair with a massively curly blonde wig for her witty characterization in the National Theatre production of ‘Jumpers’.
”United Artists in London were kind enough to offer to screen ‘The Hospital’ and invite the cast of this play. I said I’d be the girl who sold the fruit parfait, but I wouldn’t look at the film. On the stage you have the advantage of feeling you can do better another night. Also you are not able to watch yourself, and that’s another advantage. When I did ‘The Avengers’ for television, I think I looked at the first episode and the last. And, while we were filming the series, I used to go into the rushes from time to time – but not very often.
”You see, when it’s on film, you’ve done it. And you did the best you could at the time. Some actors and actresses can see their films and learn from them, and I suppose I should try to do that as well, but the sheer fact of seeing the mistake upsets me to such a degree that I don’t think I’d learn anything.”
What made her think, I wondered, that she had made any mistakes in ‘The Hospital’?
”I suspect I did,” she said firmly. “I don’t think that I’ve ever worked fully on a film – as distinct from a television series where you become accustomed to a format. But in films for the cinema, I’ve got by.”
Born in Yorkshire, she has benefited from “an ordinary happy family childhood.” Her father was in the Indian government service and therefore she lived in Jodhpur when she was very young, but came to England for schooling, and moved on ultimately to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. More overtly versatile than most English-language players, she has ranged from Shakespeare on the stage to the leather-clad Emma Peel on the box.
For a while she did both at once, commuting between Elstree and Stratford-upon-Avon – dashing from the modern kicks of ‘The Avengers’ to the venerable humour and pathos of Viola in ‘Twelfth Night’.
”I didn’t find that either performance suffered. The contrast between the two of them worked marvellously. The tough part was the business of getting into a car at Stratford at half past ten at night after the play, and traveling to London and being on the set early in the morning. Then I used to leave the studio between 3.30 and 4 in the afternoon, and I’d be at Stratford by six o’clock or so, and onstage at half past seven.”
The car journey did give her time to clear her mind, which apparently comes easily to her. She is a good switcher-off. “In fact I switch off entirely, which is why I like to be in the theatre early if possible, to allow myself some time in which to switch on again,” she said.
This is an ability that other performers, and people in any kind of demanding work, would envy. To her it comes naturally. “I haven’t cultivated it. It’s my kind of sanity. Other people have their own therapy – to get in and out of the madness of this profession. It is really a bit bonkers, this profession.”
In the United States, where she played in ‘Abelard and Heloise’ on the stage and then went on to the New York location filming of ‘The Hospital’, her choice of a place to live was Greenwich Village. “I didn’t want to be among the chic East-Siders in some sterilised apartment block with a doorman who is supposed to guard you. It’s true that there is a lot of violence in the Village. People are always talking about the muggings – the attacks by young men who have run out of money, and who need more money to buy drugs. The first couple of days I was there, I saw some who were further gone than that. They were just quivering heaps on the pavement, suffering withdrawal symptoms because they couldn’t get drugs. But I thought that to be in the thick of it was better than the East Side life. I wasn’t frightened. I used to walk across the Village at night and nothing happened to me.”
It is always possible that the potential muggers had seen her on television, applying judo to husky men in ‘The Avengers’. “I have no physical prowess really, though. I did all that with stunt men who just launched themselves through the air. But I have a theory about emanation. Animals can sense if you are frightened of them, and they react accordingly; and likewise I think that the criminal’s mind is such that he can actually sense a victim when he sees one coming toward him. Sometimes, of course, he makes a mistake and somebody fights back. And I could be proved wrong – next time I’m in New York I could be mugged. But I felt that if I could be positively invulnerable within myself that it wouldn’t happen to me.”
All this outward show of confidence, however, is to some extent contradicted by the sensitivity Diana Rigg can display in much of her acting. Beyond the assurance of the girl she plays in ‘The Hospital’, there is the insecurity of knowing that her father in the film is a problem case, and the passion of the sudden impulsive relationship with the doctor, played by Scott. Therefore, the coin has two sides.
”In many respects, English actors and actresses are not as clever with the emotions as the Americans are. We’re good with words: the use of them, and the colouring of them. It was the writer Paddy Chayefsky who wanted me to be in ‘The Hospital’ because his screenplay for it has a lot of words for this girl to speak. The words are primary, the emotion comes second in this role. That first confrontation with George is a mammoth scene. It goes on for a long time, and we rehearsed it for a couple of days beforehand. I seem to remember I liked doing that scene. But I’m not going to see it.”