Diana Rigg starred in Hammer's original Theatre of Blood movie in the Seventies. Now her daughter, Rachael Stirling, is reprising the role on stage at the Lyttelton
Diana Rigg and daughter Rachael Stirling. Photograph: Jane Bown
High on cheese and high on camp; irreverent, and irrelevant, and faintly ridiculous. Pretty much everything these two are not, which is why it's rather interesting to hear both the mother, Diana Rigg, and the daughter, Rachael Stirling, who calls her mother (thankfully) not 'Dame' but 'Ma' or, occasionally, 'Mama', enthusing so much about a film and a play entitled Theatre of Blood
First aired as a Vincent Price/Hammer cheesefest in 1973, this story of an addled old actor laying waste to theatre critics in the Shakespearean style of death which most befits their end has long been a favourite in the lexicon of actors, for obvious reasons. Finally, after a lengthy wrangle over copyright, it has now metamorphosed into the play which it always should have been: a (reportedly) black and sumptuous and rewarding exploration into the world of theatre and those who inhabit it.
Which is, of course, why these two love it. Mother and daughter, thesps to the bone, wrangle kindly with each other for almost an hour over the problems with the current state of British theatre and, at the end, I am absolutely no closer to understanding what the first of the damned problems are, let alone the solution.
'It's time for a change,' says Dame Diana Rigg. 'At the time this film came out, it was all about the change in theatre, from the actor-managed troupe to the professional, the corporate. So we've now had that, for a quarter century or so, and so now it's time for theatre to move on.'
Excellent, grand, interesting, I think. And your suggestion would be? How, dear Dame Diana, should it move on? 'Well, you know. It should just... move on.'
It is to her great credit that Dame Diana's clever 27-year-old daughter Rachael decides to butt in here, as elsewhere, with her insights. 'We've always known it's been about bums on seats, but recently the whole thing has gone a little bit odd. Celebrity counts for everything. When you have the marketing becoming more important than the acting, I think you should begin to worry.'
Her mother agrees. 'I don't want to name names, but I was at a recent play, that's what I like to do with my time, I like to watch plays, and there was a soap actress who was simply... ill-equipped... to handle the role.'
This pair are undoubtedly delightful, but it is hard to grasp the nub of any argument. Rachael Stirling is obviously as much a professional as her mother: she loves the theatre, the very idea of it, and will go to many lengths to make it work. When I ask, towards the end of our joint time together, what she has in store for the next year or so, she rolls her eyes and says, simply: 'I can't think of anything, anything at all, until press night next Thursday.'
But, as I say, it's hard not to like the pair - the Dame, with her flowing robes and chocolate vowels; the Daughter, with her all-black earnestness and fast brain - but it is all terribly, terribly actorly and there isn't much obvious joy.
Rachael Stirling, whose father, Archie, left her mother for another actress, Joely Richardson, didn't necessarily intend to go into theatre. She studied at Edinburgh University - 'I wanted to learn about things other than theatre, in case it all went wrong' - but did find herself drawn to the National Youth Theatre, and fairly successfully so. There followed a smattering of rewarding television roles, most notably in Tipping the Velvet, and now she is about to open in the first stage presentation of a story in which her mother starred, back in those hammy old days, and this, in essence, is my problem.
Dear Dame Diana is a very good, natural actress and still manages to pick up awards every year or so without really trying, and her daughter is terribly bright and personable, but, but... we're talking, seriously, about Theatre of Blood, and I'm sorry but it was completely and utterly shit. Everything Hammer produced, ever, was unwatchable dreck: you would have to have been on an extremely serious dosage to get through the first six minutes of any of their films without wanting to start gnawing off your own feet.
This kind of talk goes down better with Rachael than her mother, who is by now stroking her coat and looking a little bored. Rachael talks of her main dream, which is 'longevity' in acting. 'How do I make sure I'm still going to be working in 30, 40 years, and doing good things?' she ponders. Would she, I wonder, take a horrendously downmarket Hollywood blockbuster to pay the bills? 'Fuck, yes. Of course I'd take one. And I wouldn't then have to worry about money for a while, or rep.' Gloriously honest she is, and so I take the rare opportunity to ask her mother, while she's there, what kind of advice she would offer. What's the secret to a successfully long life in acting? 'No idea,' she says, helpfully. 'Can't think of anything to say at all.'
The main theme of Theatre of Blood is, of course, critics: who they are, what drives them and whether they should be allowed. Both mother and daughter find themselves in soft equanimity. 'Of course they should be around,' says Rachael. 'I actually find myself loving them sometimes, even when they are nasty, even to someone I know, because I do, actually, love a good wordsmith.'
Diana Rigg compiled and edited a book, many years ago - it was called No Turn Left Unstoned, she mentions with a smile and it is now, apparently, out of print - about bad reviews and finds herself still gently fascinated by them. 'We need critics to tell us what we still have to learn.'
Her daughter is extremely protective, and obviously fond, of her mother - there is hand-holding, and shared coffees, and easy charm between the two.
There is pride, too: when Diana explains that she 'shares her time' between her house south of Bordeaux and London, her daughter is quick to jump in and insist '...and she's fluent in French, took herself off to the Lycée...'.
But it has been growing clear, over the hour, that the new generation has the edge. Diana Rigg, courteous and revered, acted rather well in some fairly bad television series and ill-directed British films.
Her daughter, given her mother's insights (and looks), has had the chance to choose better, cleverer roles and is part of a new, stoic, instinctive breed of British actress.
The old British theatre, with its egos and thoughtlessness and easy jettisoning of those once loved, its tours and barbs and priapism and casual hatred, and its mawkishness - it is now, finally, dead, and replaced by cool ambition and analytic superiority. It would be hard to think of a better vehicle through which to encounter this change than a visit to Theatre of Blood, and hard to think of a better couple to meet to see this change in the flesh.
Theatre of Blood opens at the Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1 on Thursday.