Obituary: Dame Diana Rigg, actress who lit up stage and screen in range of roles from Emma Peel to Medea

Dame Diana Rigg, actress. Born: 20 July, 1938 in Doncaster, Died: 10 September, 2020 in London, aged 82

Saturday, 12th September 2020, 7:30 am
Dame Diana Rigg has died at the age of 82 (Picture|: Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images)

Diana Rigg, a commanding actress whose career stretched from iconic 1960s spy series The Avengers to fantasy juggernaut Game of Thrones, has died at the age of 82.

Her agent, Simon Beresford, said she “spent her last months joyfully reflecting on her extraordinary life, full of love, laughter and a deep pride in her profession. I will miss her beyond words.”.

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Dame Diana Rigg shot to fame as Emma Peel in Sixties TV series The Avengers and then as a Bond girl.

Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in an episode of The Avengers from 1964 (Picture: Terry Disney/Express/Getty Images)

But she also notched up many Shakespearean roles and enjoyed a long career, appearing recently as powerful matriarch Olenna Tyrell in Game Of Thrones.

Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg was born in Doncaster on 20 July, 1938.

She trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1959.

The actress quickly made her mark there with important roles in productions of The Taming Of The Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth and King Lear.

After that, she was hugely successful in her role as Emma Peel, the secret service agent in The Avengers, co-starring bowler-hatted Patrick Macnee.

The pair were an impeccably dressed duo who fought villains and traded quips in a show whose mix of adventure and humour was enduringly influential.

But Dame Diana was unhappy about the intrusion into privacy that came with being on TV, and she was also critical of the way she was treated by TV bosses.

She also discovered that she was being paid less than a cameraman.

“It was very, very intrusive in those days, because I was instantly recognisable,” the actress later told Variety.

“I was grateful to be a success, but there was a price to pay.”

In 1969, she played Bond girl Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, opposite Bond actor George Lazenby, with whom she had a difficult relationship.

It was in the 1970s that she joined the National Theatre, where she played major roles in Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, The Misanthrope, Pygmalion, Antony And Cleopatra and Stephen Sondheim’s Follies.

In a nude scene she played in Abelard And Heloise, she was described by one critic as being “built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses”.

As a result, she produced a book of the worst-ever theatrical reviews, entitled No Turn Unstoned. It was a bestseller.

Dame Diana’s many film credits included The Hospital, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Little Night Music, Evil Under The Sun and A Good Man In Africa.

In 1994, she won a Tony Award for her Broadway performance in the title role of Medea.

And in 2008, as she approached 70, she was appearing in The Cherry Orchard at the Chichester Festival Theatre.

Her many TV credits included roles in Hedda Gabler, Witness For The Prosecution, Bleak House and Mother Love. It was for her superb portrayal in that BBC production of an obsessive mother who was prepared to do anything, even commit murder, to keep control of her son which won her the 1989 Bafta for best actress.

Dame Diana was married to the Israeli painter Menachem Gueffen from 1973 to 1976, and was later married to Archibald Stirling, a theatrical producer and former officer in the Scots Guards. She had a daughter by Stirling, the actress Rachael Stirling.

She also played the Duchess of Buccleuch in ITV royal drama Victoria, the young queen’s mistress of the robes, who is “renowned for speaking her mind”.

In 2015, Dame Diana told Radio Times: “A black Bond would be lovely. I wouldn’t like to see a female Bond, because we wouldn’t want to lose the Bond girls. But we could have a lesbian Bond, why not?”

In 2019, she revealed that she suffered a Me Too moment early in her career at the hands of a “powerful” film director.

Dame Diana said she welcomed the emergence of the Me Too movement as a means for women to speak out following her experience as a young actress. She also urged women put in a similar position by men to pour their “scorn” on would-be abusers.

Jonathan Kent, who directed Rigg in some of her great stage roles, said her “combination of force of personality, beauty, courage and sheer emotional power made her a great classical actress – one of an astonishing generation of British stage performers.”

She never retired. One of Rigg’s final television roles was in rural veterinary drama All Creatures Great and Small, which is currently running on British television.

Playwright Tom Stoppard said Rigg was “the most beautiful woman in the room, but she was what used to be called a trouper.”

“She went to work with her sleeves rolled up and a smile for everyone. Her talent was luminous.”

Rigg is survived by her daughter, son-in-law Guy Garvey – lead singer of the band Elbow – and a grandson.

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