Avenger Emma Peel's thoroughly modern femininity came about by chance, says the actor who played her. On the eve of a tour of this country Diana Rigg talks to PETER CALDER.
Emma Peel was actually a bloke. Or so says the woman who gave life to the better-looking one of the Avengers.
Dame Diana Rigg, as she has been these eight years, is now the sexagenarian doyenne of the English acting establishment and she's heading down this way. But she's anxious to set the record straight: Emma Peel was, well, was meant to be a man.
This comes as a shock to one who can remember, as though it were yesterday (and who's to say it wasn't?) fevered fantasies of unzipping THAT one-piece leather suit, who thrills at the thought of that insouciant blend of danger and demureness, the dimples that deepened when she smiled.
Her co-star was called Mr Steed (the show was littered with knowing innuendo - Mrs Peel, indeed! - which seems arch and camp now but was a giddy delight at the time).
So it's exciting finally to speak to her, no matter that she refers to herself, royally, as "one" and says, unlike Mrs Peel, that she spends much of her time "pottering around".
"I wonder if we can talk about The Avengers for a minute," I say, "although I suppose you're sick to death of the subject ... "
"Not at all," she coos.
" ... because I remember that I was 14 and I was soooo [a sense of mounting panic that I've leaned too long on the vowel] in love with you."
Quite a long silence, in fact. A silence that fills the phone line between here and London to overflowing before my notes swim back into focus and I find another question to blurt.
The only reason Rigg is subjecting herself to this fawning, stammering reminiscence is that she is leading a quartet of legendary British thespians here next month to reincarnate English kings and queens on stages in Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland.
Rigg will be joined on stage by two knights, Sirs Derek Jacobi and Donald Sinden, as well as Ian Richardson, who as the reptilian Francis Urquhart in The House of Cards so famously "couldn't possibly comment".
The work is a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Hollow Crown which draws on writers as diverse as Austen and Shakespeare (not to mention the monarchs' own words) to illuminate the faces of royalty, from William the Conqueror to Queen Victoria.
Rigg's first visit to these shores, at the head of such a company, is a reminder of her illustrious pedigree. What many Avengers fans never realised was that she came to the series off the back of a five-year contract at the RSC which had included playing Cordelia to Paul Scofield's Lear.
When the contract was running out she, along with most of London's young actresses, went to an audition for the television role which would change her life.
"I didn't actually know the programme," she says, dropping her voice as if afraid we'll be overheard, "because I didn't have a television. I just thought it would be a bit of a hoot.
"The studio was overrun with incredibly ambitious young women jostling to get the part and I never expected to get it."
She fancied her chances so little, in fact, that she turned up late for the call-backs, the auditioning-process equivalent of a second ballot.
"I'd gone off to have lunch with a friend who lived nearby and we had a few glasses of wine and they were a bit cross with me."
The rest is history, sort of, although it's a history that remembers only Mrs Peel and not her less-celebrated progenitors. She was not John Steed's first companion in crime-fighting; indeed, she didn't even show up until series four, the last in black and white, by which time the show was well-established in the schedules.
The second and third series had been the domain of Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman, who went off to be the Bond girl Pussy Galore in Goldfinger). And John Steed's partner in the original was played by Ian Hendry.
So the Avengers, as conceived, were two men. And Rigg says that explains a lot about Mrs Peel. Seen by late-century cultural theorists as a transgressive, proto-feminist figure, she was just a woman reading a man's lines.
"They just changed the person and kept the same lines. So they happened on something quite by chance. And they realised they had a very successful formula."
"Very successful" rather understates it. The Avengers took America by storm, an unusual achievement in an era when British television didn't usually survive the Atlantic crossing. It became the template for a dozen guy-gal crimefighter shows, from Hart to Hart to Moonlighting. And whatever the reason for Mrs Peel's thoroughly modern femininity, it created a cultural revolution.
In a piece on the website salon.com, Robin Dougherty remarks that at the time Emma Peel was dispatching villains "Samantha's husband, Darrin, on Bewitched, was forbidding her to employ her witchly powers, reducing her to vacuuming.
"Not only had Rigg's character broken all the rules that said good girls don't hit their attackers, she also exercised a bold new sexual and social freedom, living alone and quite independently."
What's most extraordinary about Rigg, of course, is that Emma Peel did not become a golden shackle to her professional development. And the theatrical dame certainly doesn't try to distance herself from it.
"No, not at all," she says. "It's nothing to be ashamed of. There are things one has done in the past that one would rather weren't resurrected. But The Avengers has kept its style.
"There are times when one thinks: 'I've been around for 40 years and some people think The Avengers is the sum of what one's done.' And the fact of the matter is it happened 30 years ago. But I can't complain because it certainly put me on the map."
After The Avengers, Rigg fought to avoid typecasting, turning down many roles as a gun-toting crime fighter.
"There were some offers," she says, "but not many. There has always been a certain reticence in Hollywood to employ people who have been television stars, perhaps because they come with so much baggage."
She had her own American comedy show, a Mary Tyler Moore Show clone called Diana, in which she played an English divorcee dress designer in New York, but it flopped after a season.
So she went back where she came from, the stage, where she devoured roles like Lady Macbeth (opposite Anthony Hopkins and Heloise to Keith Michell's Abelard, (in this last, appearing nude, which sent the London tabloids into a frenzy).
She's also been busy on the small screen, memorably as a suffocatingly controlling parent in Mother Love in the early-90s.
It's something of a truism that positive roles for women over 40 are scarce but Rigg has repeatedly jumped at playing women who are obsessive or unpleasant - the housekeeper Mrs Danvers in Rebecca won her an Emmy, and she was a deliciously demented Lady Dedlock in a BBC version of Dickens' Bleak House.
"They're all old bags but it's just what I keep getting offered. The offers have kept rolling in and I believe in working.
"Anyway, I'd always rather play a baddie than a goodie. They're just juicier, better roles and stronger women for the most part."
If Rigg's career, particularly in later years, is not proof enough of her absence of vanity, her first venture into publishing was.
She invited acting colleagues to submit the most excoriating review they'd ever sustained and compiled excerpts into a slim volume called No Turn Unstoned.
The result - which includes a few potshots at her good self - raised money for charities including an actors' retirement home. Better still, says the editor, it was fun.
"It was marvellously cathartic," she says. "From it I developed a sort of lecture I give when I'm asked to talk to drama students, in which I point out that it doesn't matter how great and grand you are, everybody's had bad notices. It gives them courage to let them know that it's part of the process."
Such blitheness sounds odd to us, living in a city where the main theatre and the main arts magazine are in a Mexican standoff about whether a critic may come or will go.
But Rigg is unequivocal, and what she enjoys most is that the words of critics can "resurrect the glorious performances of the past. I suppose the critic will always be the spectre on a first night. But it's a natural part of the theatre. A bad review just needn't be the end of the world."
* The Hollow Crown plays the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, April 16-18; Town Hall, Christchurch, April 20; and Civic Theatre, Auckland, April 23-27.