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  • Jim Bessman

Dame Diana Rigg--An appreciation


ITV News tribute to Diana Rigg

Men of a certain age on both sides of the Atlantic paused yesterday when word spread that Dame Diana Rigg had died at 82, for in her two seasons as Mrs. Emma Peel opposite the late Patrick Macnee’s John Steed on the classic 1960s British television series The Avengers, she was one of their first true TV loves.

As the noted British media personality and current chancellor of the University of Chester Gyles Brandreth tweeted, Rigg was “funny, feisty, beautiful, intelligent and gifted.”

“A whole generation fell for her when we first saw her on screen in The Avengers,” Brandreth added. “It’s the end of an era--and a special life. A sad day.”

But as noted in a tweet from humanist leader Andrew Copson, who’d first seen the versatile Rigg in the 1986 TV adaptation of The Worst Witch and then on stage in the title role of the acclaimed translation of Jean Racine’s Phèdre by British poet laureate Ted Hughes (“The genius of her talent was she was equally enthralling in both”), she was “one of few actors of whom every generation has their own specific memory.”

Indeed, Rigg was at home in everything from Shakespeare (she performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company between 1959 and 1967 and appeared in TV adaptations of King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream) to The Great Muppet Caper (1981), and is no doubt best known to younger audiences for her role as Lady Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones.

Prominent Rigg fans cited these and other Rigg performances yesterday on social media and by email.

“I’d watch anything she was in, even if just for her--though every work was reliably classy,” noted rock music management/journalism legend Danny Fields, singling out King Lear and Theater of Blood—the 1973 horror film comedy in which she played daughter to Vincent Price.

The Guardian’s Martin Belam lauded Rigg for being “absolutely deliciously unhinged and evil” in the 2013 “The Crimson Horror” episode of Doctor Who—which he had coincidentally watched Wednesday night, and in which she appeared with her daughter Rachael Stirling.

Huw Turbervill, managing editor of England’s venerable The Cricketer, saluted her for “the most authentic Bond relationship, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. She helped induce a massively under-rated performance from George Lazenby--as close to the Ian Fleming books as the 007 films got. A terrific actress with memorable turns in Mother Love, Avengers, Doctor Who, etc. etc.”

There were several tweets from members of The Muppets.

“As fabulous as the fabulous Baseball Diamond, #DianaRigg stole the show as Lady Holiday in The Great Muppet Caper,” said Kermit the Frog. “@TheMuppets will never forget her brilliance, her wit, and her kindness to us all.”

Summing it up in a tweet, Rolling Stone TV critic Alan Sepinwall hailed Rigg as “an absolute legend, from her first big TV role to her last.”

Intro to The Avengers

Going back to that first big TV role—Mrs. Peel in 51 episodes of The Avengers from 1965-1968—music producer/tour manager Simon Tassano noted on Facebook the significance of The Avengers to his youth in England: “Surrealism for this then young mind. And Emma Peel--just wow! She took no male bullshit. She was as tough as nails. She seemed to be a real role model for young girls--but had such a soft spot for Steed.”

In a tweet, Manchester Evening News’ Beth Abbit said that Rigg has been “a hero of mine since the age of 10 when Channel 4 repeated episodes of The Avengers and I first saw Mrs. Peel karate-chopping baddies like a boss.” Also by tweet, comedian Elayne Boosler noted that while young people might only know Rigg from Game of Thrones, “for young girls like me in the ’60s she was a revelation. All the other TV women then were wives & mothers but she was the 1st hot dangerous ass-kicking take-no-prisoners super spy/detective we’d ever seen. RIP trailblazer.”

In a Facebook message, New York bluegrass musician Elena Skye agreed that Rigg was “one of the coolest women on TV when I was a kid.”

“I adored her in The Avengers,” said Skye. “Compared to so many of the bland, well-behaved women I saw on TV like Mrs. Cleaver in Leave it To Beaver and Helen Crump as Andy’s girlfriend on The Andy Griffith show, she was sexy, mysterious and a little dangerous. In her tight jumpsuits, flat go-go style boots--Who needs heels when you’re chasing criminals?--and driving her Lotus Elan, it just didn’t get any hipper!”

Continuing, Skye recalled reading that the character’s name—Emma Peel—“came from the writers, who marked her character as a woman who would appeal to men, or in other words, would have ‘M. Appeal.’ But of course she had great appeal to us women, too! Thank goodness there were a few strong, intelligent women characters on TV like Emma Peel, with that humorous twinkle in her eye. She made the idea of growing up as a woman seem fun, exciting, and full of potential!”

Calling her “an icon of theater, film, and television,” Riggs’ agent Simon Beresford noted in a statement that she was also the recipient of BAFTA, Emmy, Tony and Evening Standard Awards for her work on stage and screen.

“Dame Diana was a much loved and admired member of her profession, a force of nature who loved her work and her fellow actors. She will be greatly missed.”

Also in a statement, Rigg’s daughter said that she died of cancer diagnosed in March, and “spent her last months joyfully reflecting on her extraordinary life, full of love, laughter and a deep pride in her profession.”

Concluded Rachael Stirling, “I will miss her beyond words.”

Diana Rigg reminisces about The Avengers

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