When people talk about how far women have come as action heroes, they often cite the likes of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor or even Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. But one of the first to make a screen impression was Diana Rigg.
News comes today that the Yorkshire-born star of stage and screen has passed away at the age of 82. She was born in 1938 and lived in Doncaster with her family. After moving to India with her family as an infant, she returned able to speak fluent Hindi and attended boarding school in Pudsey. She eventually pursued her love of acting and won a place at the prestigious RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) where she studied between 1955-1957. She worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company between 1959 and 1967 and made her Broadway debut in 1971. Despite considerable screen success, she frequently returned to ‘tread the boards’ in significant roles over the next forty years. In 2018 she appeared as Mrs. Higgins in a version of My Fair Lady with Lauren Ambrose as Eliza Dolittle.
In the role of Emma Peel she teamed-up with Patrick Macnee’s John Steed in the cult UK series The Avengers. After the series early mix of two male leads, the winning formula of Patrick Macnee and a female counterpart became the famous dynamic. Rigg starred as Emma Peel for 51 episodes between 1965-68 after Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale departed. Perhaps even more so than the sultry Blackman who left to play Pussy Galore in Goldfinger) she became an iconic sex-symbol and screen star, inspiring a generation, though she often shrugged off such a description. (Rigg famously held out for a pay-rise in her second year in the role, demanding some parity with her co-star which was unprecedented at the time.). She too would go on to appear in the 007 franchise.: in the sixth screen outing for James Bond (1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) she starred opposite George Lazenby. As the character of Tracy Bond she was the only one of the character’s love interests to actually marry the secret agent (though, sadly, it doesn’t last long).
Her film appearances included were certainly not limited to: The Assassination Bureau (1969), Julius Caesar (1970), The Hospital (1971), Theatre of Blood (1973), In This House of Brede (1975), A Little Night Music (1977), a television adaptation of The Marquise (1980), the Yorkshire Television production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1981), The Great Muppet Caper (1981). She received great acclaim for her performance as Arlena Marshall in the film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, the following year. In 1997 she won an emmy playing Mrs. Danvers in a television version of Rebecca and never short of work, she was still willing to poke fun at herself and appeared as herself in a 2006 episode of Ricky Gervais’ Extras alongside Daniel Radcliffe.
She was made a CBE in 1988 and a Dame in 1994 for services to drama. Later in life she continued to make an impression and gained a whole new raft of fans for her role as the sarcastic, ambitious and politically astute Lady Olenna Tyrell, aka the ‘Queen of Thorns’, in Game of Thronesin 2013 and was invited back for more episodes later. She also appeared on-screen with daughter Rachael Stirling in the Doctor Who episode The Crimson Horror – their parts written especially for them by Mark Gatiss. Her most recent television role was as Mrs. Pumphery in a new version of All Creatures Great and Small and two projects Last Night in Soho and Black Narcissus are currently in post-production.
“Diana Rigg died peacefully early this morning. She was at home with her family who have asked for privacy at this difficult time. 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,” her agent Simon Beresford said in a statement.