06 September 1998: The Sunday Telegraph Magazine

Swinging Sixty

Emma Peel is now eligible for a pension, Except she isn't Mrs Peel anymore - she's Dame Diana Rigg, the stage's most daring, intelligent and inspiring actress. And she still thinks that life is a gas. Nigel Farndale has lunch with her.

By Nigel Farndale

There are many things you shouldn't say to a grande dame of the theatre who first tasted fame as a youthful sex symbol on television, only to have her career pootle along for years before taking off again dramatically when she approached her sixties. That she is having a late flourish, is one of them.

'Late. Flourish." Dame Diana Rigg rolls the words out with the sort of emphasis that could curl the toes on a prosthetic leg.

Her dark eyes widen. A forkful of lightly cooked salmon teriyaki hovers a few inches from her lips. "Second flowering, maybe."

It is early evening. We are sitting in a corner of an empty restaurant in Holland Park, west London, walking distance from her home. Dame Diana has rushed here straight from a final costume fitting for Phedre, Ted Hughes's new adaptation of Racine's tragedy, which opened this week at the Albery Theatre. To select from the menu, she has rummaged around in her Sainsbury's carrier bag for a pair of spectacles, held them unfolded to the bridge of her nose and tilted her head back. She has raised her glass of white wine to her lips several times and, in between urgent puffs of Marlboro Light, she has talked of the traditional conflict of interest between actor and designer: the one needs the corset to be as forgiving as possible to facilitate breath control; the other wants it to be tight as hell to show off the line of the dress.

In other respects Dame Diana is a costume designer's mannequin of choice: tall, broadshouldered and straight-spined. Mention of this still-lissom Doric beauty is what has led me on to the dread subject of late flourishing/second flowering. It is Monday. Her 60th birthday was on Friday. The celebrations with "chums" carried on over the weekend and, she says, she "feels terrific about the whole thing. It's a gaaas." She explodes her consonants and stretches her vowels elastically but not camply; her voice is far too deep and smoky and unhurried for that. "I've really got to sort out my pension and my bus pass," she adds with a look that shows she is being serious. "But how do I feel about turning 60? Well, I love the seasons and so the prospect of only having 15 springs left and 15 autumns - that is, if I have the average lifespan - gives me pause for thought. But it doesn't depress me. No point in beating your breast and crying, 'I'm old, I'm old.' I don't think I can complain too much. Really."

Although she looks her age in a way that, say, Julie Christie, her fellow Sixties sex symbol, does not, her strong features - retrousse nose and high cheekbones, downturned eyes and mouth - are still handsome. Dressed casually in jeans and blazer, her thick bob of mousy brown hair unfussed over, and with barely a suggestion of make-up, she seems comfortable with herself. Too dignified and matter-of-fact to be vain. Definitely not the cosmetic surgery type.

Since leaving RADA 40 years ago, Diana Rigg has rarely been out of work. But, after the heady stardom she found in the Sixties playing Emma Peel, the thigh-booted, drop-kicking, flirtatious Avenger, her successes in film, television and theatre were always pretty unsensational. A Bond girl starring opposite George Lazenby here, Mother Love for the BBC there, the odd Tom Stoppard play receiving favourable notices. And when, in 1973, she starred in her own US comedy series Diana, only to have the series dropped after a few episodes, she even tested with her toe the icy waters of failure.

Then in the early Nineties her second husband, the Scottish landowner Archie Stirling, left her for Vanessa Redgrave's daughter Joely Richardson. Coincidental though the timing may be, she suddenly hit her stride, playing three award-winning leads in succession: Medea (1992-94), Mother Courage (1995) and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1996). Today, Dame Diana seems to be regarded by audience and critics alike as the most daring, intelligent and inspired tragedienne on the London (and New York) stage. There is, they will say, healthy competition from Fiona Shaw, Juliet Stevenson, Dame Judi Dench, the grand but uneven Vanessa Redgrave and the often self-parodying Dame Maggie Smith. But when it comes to rolling up the sleeves and getting the hands in among the messy stuff of great tragedy, Dame Diana stands alone. Besides, her classical rivals never had pasts as softly pornographic pin-ups to play down.

Such acclaim must make the pill of growing older easier to swallow. Yet. Still. It must be depressing having your youthful gorgeousness preserved on celluloid to remind you, and all the world, how impossibly feline and sexually captivating you looked in a black leather suit. "Let's face it. I looked better 40 years ago than I do now," Dame Diana shrugs, tapping an unlit cigarette against the table. "But I don't find it a matter of anguish. Actually, when I see pictures of myself then I always regard her as another person. People still send me Avengers photos to sign and I now refuse. I feel such a phoney. That is not me."

In the Sixties she would be mobbed by British crowds; in Germany police even resorted to batons to hold back the fans. On one occasion she had to hide in the lavatory when spotted and mobbed at the Motor Show. On another, a German boy turned up at Dover with no money - just a suitcase full of Diana Rigg photos - and asked the police if they would take him to see her. The police rang her up asking what they should do. She gave them a short answer.

Slavering fan mail was another problem. She would get her mother, Beryl, to field the letters. The replies were usually along the lines of. "Those aren't very nice thoughts. And besides, my daughter is too old for you. I suggest you take a run around the block."

When I tell Dame Diana that I'm really very, very sorry now for having sent her all those letters, she laughs the laugh of one who has heard it all before and says, "Sweet." In fact, the year she first played the role of Mrs Peel was the year I was born: 1964. But she is still an icon from my childhood, such was the echoing ubiquity of her image. It resonates still, it seems, among the fetishists of the world, the name Diana Rigg having entered their language as a form of shorthand for bondage. I mention to her that as part of my research I had keyed her name into the Internet and found, as well as a few websites dedicated to her, a number of porn sites which had nothing to do with her at all apart from that her name appeared at the top of the page. "How daaare they!" she says. "Outrageous. It's got to be the boot and leather fetishists. M&S." She laughs and corrects herself. "Sorry, I mean S&M, don't I?"

When we spoke Dame Diana had not yet seen The Avengers film, starring Ralph Fiennes as the bowler-hatted Steed and Uma Thurman as Mrs Peel, but she says she will go and see it. "Especially as I can now get in at half-price as an Old Age Pensioner. How apt!"

Emma Peel did her nothing but good, she believes, and she has no regrets about playing the role - except perhaps financial ones. The Avengers became the second biggest cultural export after the Beatles and to this day the series is still regularly repeated in America, France and Germany. "Would that one had some residuals from all that," Dame Diana sighs. "One would be quite rich. As it was I was on 110 a week - 10 less than the cameraman."

She says she had been pretty innocent when she took on the role, having had a sheltered upbringing. When she arrived at RADA she was sexually naive and had never even heard of homosexuality. "My jaw dropped," she recalls. "I wasn't exactly hip in the Sixties. I was too busy working, 14 hours a day. You had to drop out and wear beads and floaty things to be hip." In retrospect she wishes she had allowed herself to enjoy the experience of fame more than she did. "I should have handled it better. Had more fun. Not naughty fun. But just, you know. I sometimes think when I look back on those days: why didn't I have more confidence? Why didn't I know I was pretty good-looking? It is probably to do with my Yorkshire upbringing. Always thinking that people might be saying, 'Who does she think she is?"' Although she was born in Doncaster and educated from the age of ten at Fulneck Girls' school in Pudsey, near Leeds, there was a hiatus in her Yorkshire upbringing when, as a baby, she went with her family - father, mother and elder brother - to live in India. Her father, Louis, came from "a lower-middle-class" background and won a scholarship to become an engineering apprentice. One day he saw an advertisement in the Times to build railways for the Maharajas, answered it and was offered the job. Like Felicity Kendall and Joanna Lumley, who were also brought up in India in the last days of the Raj, Dame Diana has fond recollections of her ayah, or Indian nanny, who taught her to speak Hindi. Other memories are blurred. But she recalls that her father was a very good shot (game) and that he was an avid rod - a hobby which she herself took up 20 years ago and which she still loves, describing herself as being "quite good at seeking out the gentleman's fish, the one that isn't actually sitting up and begging to be caught".

Yorkshire, she believes, played a much greater part in shaping her character than India did. She still takes the Yorkshire view that you can't appreciate the sweet things in life until you've tasted the bitter. It was a tradition in her household that you always had to have a slice of bread and butter without jam before you could one with.

Her Yorkshire roots prepared her for the frugal lifestyle she was forced to adopt when, after leaving RADA, she joined the RSC on a five-year contract at Stratford. She lived off woodpigeon, because it was cheap, and - "Heaven!" - faggots. Hers were mostly understudy parts and spear-carrying roles - "because I was an Arnazon" - for which she was paid 8 a week, 4.10.0d of which went on rent. But they did mean she got to share the same stage as Dame Edith Evans, Paul Robeson and Laurence Olivier. She would flatten herself against a wall whenever Olivier walked past but, unlike her friend Mavis, she never really had a crush on the great man.

She smiles and mouths the word "no" when I ask if junior actors in her company now flatten themselves against the scenery when she walks past. The stage is much more democratic these days, she says. But do the young actors look to her for reassurance that everything is going to be all right when the curtain goes up? "No. They are all too busy wrestling with their own demons," she says. "Besides, I still suffer from appalling nerves, I always arrive too early and before I go on I just sit in my dressing-room and listen over the Tannoy to the crowds arriving. Murmur, murmur. I have to tell myself, 'How daaare you be nervous? Just get on with it and stop making a fuss.' I suspect it is the Yorkshire voice again."

In Phedre, Diana Rigg plays the queen who falls in love with her stepson, only to find that her husband still lives. Jealousy induces her to send him to death, conscience to admit her guilt before dying herself. She played the role 23 years ago at the National Theatre (in Phaedra Britannica, an adaptation by Tony Harrison). But she always felt she hadn't done it as well as she could. "Now that I'm older I think I have a better understanding of the tragedy," she says. "Then, I had a fear of revealing myself. My emotions. I felt somehow that I ought to be a bit ashamed of them. Rage, jealousy, guilt. You can only play the role if you give full vent to them. Also I have a stepson, so yes I can relate to that, too... But not. If you see what I mean."

Phedre welcomes her own death and, to help her understand this cast of mind, the actress has been thinking about how she feels about dying. "On the one hand Phedre knows her death is predestined by the gods. On the other she is fighting it. She thinks she can prevent it. I believe you have to take hold of death. But, then, I've never had to face it so how dare 1 say that?"

Dame Diana is a churchgoer, but says she has had a lot of religious friends who were terrified at the point of their death. "Come the time, how can you possibly know how strong your belief will be?" When she was 33, her father died of cancer. "I loved him. Very deeply. Though I probably never really let him know... My mother died in a heart operation nine years later, I went to bed for three days and just stared at the ceiling. Feeling grief and guilt. Had I done enough? Should I have allowed the operation to go ahead? And all that baggage, all that adolescent rebellion to feel guilty about."

At 17 she was engaged briefly. Her first marriage was in 1973 to Menahem Gueffen, an Israeli painter; her first divorce was three years later. She married again in 1982 and, at the age of 39, had a daughter, Rachel, who is now at university. "Rachel is probably a better daughter to me than I was to my mother," she says. "I have always tried to be open with her. But I think I made mistakes. You do. But you just have to trust your instincts. I stopped my career because I couldn't bear not to be there. I don't think my profession made any difference with her, though. My divorce? I'm not sure."

She says that because of her religious convictions she believes a long marriage is one of the greatest things you can achieve in life. "It's a rock against things that are so transitory. I admire people who can do it. Survive the pain and betrayal there probably are in all marriages. But it must be worth it. I'm pretty old-fashioned about it. Pretty Yorkshire... I've stayed on good terms with my former husband. I'm slightly aghast that you see before you a twice-divorced woman. I'm shocked. It's not how I saw myself, how I imagined things would work out, not what I believe in."

When I ask if, in the absence of a husband, she takes comfort in the company of others - meaning friends and family - she gets the wrong end of the stick.

"Do I take lovers?"

"No, no, no." I say too quickly. "Not what I meant. But since it's been raised?"

"I refuse to answer that question," she says with a short laugh. "It's very simple. If you are not married but you are lucky enough, as in my case, to have a child, a career, and a life outside your career then you can be happy. I see myself as being as happy - truly happy - as any one can be. Given those circumstances." She adds that although she is self-reliant she does have shoulders to cry on and that she cries easily. She gives me an example of a documentary she saw about the D-Day landings and how she was "awash, awash".

I tell her about a time a couple of years ago when I visited a British war grave in Normandy and read a letter wrapped in cellophane which had recently been left, on the gravestone of a 19-year-old. It was written in an old person's spidery hand and contained news of what had been happening to the 19-year-old's family: "Your sister Pauline passed on last spring. Your brother Derek is now living in Lancashire with his family. I have a new dog..." And so on. It was signed simply, "Love Dad".

Dame Diana's eyes well up with tears.

In the corner table of the Holland Park restaurant three hours have passed. Diana Rigg has chain-smoked, laughed throatily, wiped away tears, smiled gappy-toothed smiles, and polished off all the chocolates on the plate of petits fours. When I tell her that, contrary to her reputation, she's not intimidating at all, she takes a thoughtful last drag on the Marlboro Light she is smoking. "Maybe I am," she says, stubbing the cigarette out. "Perhaps this is all a front. I wonder."

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