Scratch an Avenger and underneath you’ll find one of Shakespeare’s most romantic heroines
To interview Diana Rigg! To see the ravishing, metamorphosed, Avenging Emma Peel exchange leather gear for Elizabethan hose and rehearse Viola in Twelfth Night at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon! What a swinging commission! I hitched my skirt up an extra abandoned inch in deference to the Peel wardrobe and leapt on to the train for leafy Warwickshire.
She met me at the Stage Door, a slopped-over cup of coffee carried from the Green Room in her hand, and an unexpected look of perturbation on her enchanting face. Black and white television does her no justice. A tawny girl, autumnal and slender as a copper beech. Loose, shoulder-length, deep rose madder hair, face stippled with freckles as close as fish-cake crumbs, russet belted snakeskin handbag and patent buckled shoes with mud on the heels. (She had moved into her new rented cottage during the previous 24 hours. Hence the perturbation – and the mud.)
“I’m flustered,” she said. “Removing is such a job. There’s a wonderful field with trees and woods.” She demonstrated a slope with those long wristy hands. “And owls hooting. I hardly slept.”
Shades of Steed! Emma in a tizz over to-whit-to-whoo. You must be joking.
”There’s a fabulous old gardener who must be over eighty and never stops working. Does everything. Empties the Elsan. Must keep up his strength on steaks and blackcurrant juice and things in case he collapses. And then what would happen to my plumbing arrangements?” I didn’t dare hazard a guess. In any case we were creeping round backstage by this time as there was a matinee in progress. I was in heaven. Stage-struck as a loon, to sit in on a big rehearsal with lots of my most admired actors (David Warner, Ian Holm – what a feast!), and plumes and masks and cross-garters, and hear the music of the spheres. You can see I was positively beside myself.
People and things
There were two people in the vast bare rehearsal room with its huge raked platform. One was the producer Clifford Williams, the other Alan Howard, who plays Orsino, in denimed battle dress. Admittedly there was also a cannon, a Moulton bicycle leaning against it, a grey throne, a trestle-table with goblets of papier mache, two suits of armour, custom-built for Gog and Magog, some dusty wax fruit and a coat-hanger, left-over props from some other play, but that was all.
“We’ll run through all your scenes for lines,” said Mr. Williams. So Diana and Alan perched on the front of the platform and just began to speak. Very quietly. What a frost, I thought.
”’If music be the food of love, play on.
Give me excess of it…’” Alan began.
It was a revelation. Any word that was tricky to understand, any tongue-twisting phrase, any feeling that either character might conceivably have throughout the entire play, was taken out of its context, debated, tried in three ways, till the meaning was crystal clear to all three.
”What is the Shakespearean importance of liver?” asked Diana. “It keeps cropping up.”
”Passion in the bowels,” suggested the producer.
”Liver is lust and balls,” amended Mr. Howard.
Diana drew breath, wrinkled her brow, twiddled her stranded hair, leaned forward eagerly…
”’Build me a willow cabin at your gate,’” she whispered.
Three hours have passed, and we are sitting on the steps, lighting cigarettes and talking.
”It’s the leisure I find the most rewarding, coming back to Stratford again after the TV studio. Leisure with intent. There, everything is so immediate. You are thrown in daily at the deep end. Here you have time to think and develop and be. In the old days leading actors were not expected to expose themselves like this. But with this ensemble playing it’s unselfconscious and it helps everyone.
"The thing I like best about Viola is that she is not a romantic victim. She is aware of the irony of her situation, and has an incredible quality of detachment that is rare in Shakespearian heroines. She is utterly practical and straightforward. But when she sees the way Orsino imposes such superficial values on things and self-indulges his grief and passion, because she loves him it makes her question her own values.
”I am much more sure now of what I want as an actress than I was before The Avengers. I want to be thought intelligent enough to question and be questioned on motives and feelings in the parts I play. Not just be offered something because they know I am efficient enough to be able to make a good job of it.”
Diana has been at Stratford before. Ante and post Peel, in fact. She signed a five-year contract with the company in 1959 and collected first-class notices in both classical and modern productions. Here Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Adriana in Comedy of Errors showed her as a nattily delightful comedienne, and her resolute Amazonian Cordelia in Paul Schofield’s Lear was originally conceived and anything but frail. The latter two plays were highly praised in America and many other European capitals.
Her comedy technique has been likened to Kay Kendall and Carole Lombard – statuesque, sophisticated and daffy all in one. “I’m not sufficiently individual to reach their standard,” she said without rancour. “My performances are based on observation. I haven’t the inborn individual flair to be a great comedienne.” Her favourite actresses are Dorothy Tutin, Vanessa Redgrave and Irene Worth.
The company send her up about The Avengers. “They cut out pictures of me from the papers and put annotated copies on the notice-board. The town people are sweet. They treat me rather like ‘local girl makes good’.” And I think she is level-headed enough and nice enough to appreciate the compliment.
Born in Doncaster on July 20th, 1938, she spent her early life in Jodhpur in Rajputana where her father was in Government Service. Her parents now live in Leeds. She was sent home to boarding-school at Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, and liked it.
”I just happened to be a person who was adapted to being sent away,” she recalled. “It can teach reliance and self-sufficiency to some children. Others just emerge as products of the system. An awful lot don’t develop under the highly competitive conditions which must exist at boarding school. I always wanted to act. Goldilocks was my first part. At ten.” She laughed. She has a rather unexpected rollicking laugh.
Two years at RADA, and the usual difficulties of getting started in the theatre weren’t helped by her height. (“At seventeen I used to walk with my knees bent.”) But four months’ modelling gave her the invaluable training of wearing clothes insolently well. Repertory in Yorkshire was followed by her Stratford contract.
Diana has a great zest for life and the stamina to go with it. She is also straightforward, coolly intelligent, and easy to talk to. She loved The Avengers – a 14-month marathon of work with only a two-week break – and has managed to live with its publicity.
”I miss my privacy. I have to take the unbeaten instead of the beaten track now. Perhaps that’s why I find the country a pretty smashing place to live in. The thing I enjoyed most about Emma Peel was the sort of Schizophrenic quality it gave me. The character was based more or less on me, but with so many accessories and odd facets which weren’t. I admire Emma for her capacity for understanding the technical side of life. Her extreme efficiency and her infallibility. I can mend a fuse, and I cook a splendid pigeon pie, but that’s about as far as it goes. In certain respects I like order but I can’t always achieve it. I am very aware of the practical side of life, but am impractical in dealing with it. I procrastinate. Like letter-writing, for instance.”
“I don’t approve of violence. But I do approve of self-defence. The main problems with the fights were when they were actors, not stuntmen. It’s much easier to hit a man when you know he is being paid to be hit. And knows how to move. The whole mental approach is different if it’s someone who doesn’t know how to duck and you are likely to hurt him.” (I had met an actor whose face she had scratched and drawn blood. She was so distressed she raced off the set, cut all her beautiful nails down to the quick and returned to continue the scene.)
She admits to neither extreme boldness nor fearfulness. “A combination of the two, like most people. I’m not physically frightened, nor am I easily dominated. I recognize a superior when I meet one.”
“I loved the clothes, especially the trouser suits. But I would like to create my own personal look, not just be a designer’s person.”
Her conversation only seizes up when asked about myths, motor cars or men. Especially men.
”I should contest the point that I am a myth,” she countered when I asked her what it was like to be one, and her brown button eyes weren’t smiling at all. “I enjoy the success, certainly. But it’s the practical results that appeal to me. I’m extravagant with money. And being known does facilitate cashing cheques and getting tables in restaurants. Though I was nearly turned out of one in New York on my first night there for being improperly dressed in a trouser suit.”
As for being a driver? “I’m speedy but good,” she said factually. She runs a Mini.
And men? “Oh, dear. I hate talking about men,” she pleaded, and it was the first time I felt she had said it all before. “And I have no immediate prospects of marriage. Anyone who uses the word immediate in connection with marriage ought to have her head examined. It should never be dashed into.”
”How about the attitudes of your leading men to love?” I asked her.
”Orsino is inexperienced and utterly committed to love. John Steed is experienced and has never been committed to anything in his life,” she said without pausing.
If she can sort out chaps like that so intelligently, I should think she could dash into marriage any time with perfect confidence.