This year is the 50th anniversary of Diana Rigg's first appearance as Emma Peel in the British TV show The Avengers.
Fifteen years ago I wrote an article for the now defunct Classic Television about this culutral phenomena.
I have reproduced the text here as it appeared in the November/December 2000 issue.
by Ellen Cheshire
Black Leather … Kinky Boots … Racy car … Long Legs …
the epitome of Sixties chic
What is it about Diana Rigg that has ensured a long and healthy career? Now 62, she continues to create enthralling roles for the mature actress she has become at an age so notoriously difficult for women. As Emma Peel in The Avengers, she up-staged her co-star, Patrick MacNee as John Steed, though he never seemed to mind. She was most definitely the trouser wearer of the pair, and happily flung the baddies over her shoulder leaving the trusty Steed twirling his umbrella and tapping his bowler. Emma Peel could fight back, her character and therefore her mass appeal focused on sex and her ability to give as good as she got.
In a 1966 episode of The Avengers, ‘What the Butler Saw’, Emma Peel carries out “Operation Fascination” with the aim of seducing the helpless lothario Georgy Porgy (Dennis Quilley). The poor chap didn’t have a chance when confronted with her dazzling smile and come-hither look. The viewing public were also hypnotised by Emma Peel week after week, and continue to be seduced for some time. Even now they are captivated by charismatic presence thirty-odd years later. With her success in The Avengers, Diana Rigg as Emma Peel became an icon of the TV Screen and has remained one ever since. However, the borderline between Emma Peel and Diana Rigg is often blurred.
Born in 1938, Diana spent her first two years in Doncaster before moving to India, when her father, a railroad construction engineer, began working out there. She returned to Yorkshire when she was nine and attended Fulneck Girls School in Pudsey. From there she was accepted to the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Diana spent a difficult three years there, her rebelliousness causing her near expulsion on more than one occasion, before working at the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was a need to earn more than the ‘near pittance’ that they paid that she turned to television to enhance her income. Her appearance in the 1965 TV dramatisation of The Hothouse, was to catch the eye of the Avenger’s casting director, and she was consequently asked to audition for Steed’s new partner.
For the next two years, Rigg chased villains and escaped from railroad tracks, dressed up in full dominatrix outfits or posed in skimpy bikinis, was held prisoner in a giant bird-cage and ‘kicked a lot of ass’ to become an international icon of the swinging sixties.
It has been thirty-three years since Diana Rigg packed away her ‘kinky boots’ and leather cat suit, and yet when you hear her name - with or without the Dame - the image conjured is of that ensconced in skin-tight black leather gear and boots.
In another Avengers episode, ‘Epic’ (1967), silent film director ZZ von Schnerk kidnaps Emma in order to make a ‘snuff’ movie with Emma as its star. Tied to a railway track he describes her as a “woman of courage, beauty and of action - a woman who could become desperate yet remain strong, become confused yet remain intelligent, who could fight back yet remain feminine.”
The combination of sexiness and aloofness, femininity and destructive power is a hard one to beat, and through her guise as Emma Peel it has brought Diana Rigg a loyal following.
Emma Peel, in contrast to the other Avengers ‘girls’: Honor Blackman, Linda Thorson and Joanna Lumley, has remained a powerful image, whilst they were all but forgotten, until the 1990s repeats on the Bravo channel and their subsequent release on video.
Diana was 28 in 1965 when she auditioned (along with hundreds of other girls) for the part of Steed’s new partner; stepping into the kinky boots vacated by Honor Blackman, who had been successfully playing alongside Steed, as the ice-blonde Cathy Gale. It was Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman) and not Emma Peel that first donned the famous black leather cat suit and paraded it on national television. Tired of producing guns and knives from her handbag, and fighting in tight fitting tweed suits, hand to hand combat was called for and a new outfit was created. Her outfit caused such a stir that to cash in on their success Honor Blackman and Patrick MacNee released a single aptly titled Kinky Boots.
Honor Blackman left the series to play to ultimate Bond Girl, Pussy Galore in Goldfinger (a move that Diana Rigg would later make when she appeared as Bond Girl, Teresa, the Contessa di Vicenzo in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). Co-incidentally Joanna Lumley, who was later to play Purdey in the ill fated The New Avengers, also appeared in this film. (Therefore, making the much under estimated Linda Thorson the only Avenger ‘girl’ not to have made it into a Bond film.)
With the introduction of Emma Peel, The Avengers changed its style. The series was now filmed (on film) on location, offering viewers around the world (especially in America) the opportunity to see the ‘perfect English gent’ and his attractive sidekick in an idealised vision of England. There were no extras, no black people, no policeman, no blood and no women killed. OK, some of these ‘rules’ were broken from time to time – but only rarely.
This combination of fantasy in a ‘real’ setting allowed the creative team to get away with their bizarre concepts with which The Avengers has become truly synonymous. The plots moved away from the realism of the spy/espionage plots of the Cathy Gale era to one populated with mad scientists, man-eating vegetation and killer robots. This shift allowed for a change in narrative style and also opened up a world of opportunities to play with costume and masquerade.
In contrast to Steed’s slightly fuddy-duddy old-world appearance, Peel epitomised ‘cool’, she became an icon of the era; her sporty tight-fitting outfits, boots, her hair bouncing around on her shoulders and her sports car enduring images of what the Sixties should have been.
Although Emma Peel was described as a role model for the burgeoning feminist movement of the Sixties, scriptwriters never allowed her to become a fully emancipated woman. Emma still needed to be rescued by her knight in shining armour. She had to use her femininity and sexuality to seduce the baddies and poor fools into giving away secrets. She is shown living the life of a single girl, a successful secret service agent, and yet she only remains one for as long as her husband is thought missing. Once he has been found and returns home, her two year tenure as crime-busting secret agent comes to end.
The mantel was passed to the very young, twenty year old Canadian Linda Thorson. Linda has been attacked by Avengers fans as contributing to the series’ downfall and its ultimate death, the series finally came to an end in 1969. Her character, as the dewy eyed novice hanging onto Steed’s every word was a far cry from Emma’s and Steed’s playful badinage. Yet this can hardly be blamed on Linda, who had to undergo a series of humiliating transformations as they experimented with her look. She often looked more like an over-accessorised cat-walk model than a fighting force.
When Diana Rigg left The Avengers in 1967, she entered into the world of ‘once-in-a-lifetime characters’, and had to navigate the difficult terrain of ‘where does an actress go when she has conquered the world both on and off screen’.
After a few years as a jobbing actress, she starred in her own TV series, Diana, in 1973 on NBC
in the US. Similar to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the series depicted Diana Rigg as a struggling single TV Journalist in Minneapolis. The series flopped, along with any sustainable career in the States. Her list of film credits is unremarkable – Evil Under the Sun, Theatre of Blood, The Assignation Bureau, A Little Night Music, The Great Muppet Caper, and unlike Honor Blackman’s success in Goldfinger, Rigg’s Bond On Her Majesty’s Service looks like the poor relation.
It is Diana’s TV roles and her stage work in both London and New York that have continued to ensure an international presence. It was only after her groundbreaking performance of Medea in 1994 that the parts came flooding in. During the last six years Rigg has barely been off our television screens, appearing in a number of high-quality one-off dramas and series. Most notably, her role as the suffocating mother, Helena in Mother Love and the sinister Mrs Danvers in the recent TV adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, for which she deservedly won an Emmy.
Off-screen she has had an equally impressive decade; she became Commander of the British Empire in 1987 and a dame in 1994. She was voted Sexiest TV star of All Time in a recent American TV Guide Poll and Playboy readers voted her one of the sexiest women of the 20th Century.
With the now constant re-emergence of The Avengers we are simultaneously shown two Diana Riggs: the youthful vibrant 28 year old karate chopping Emma Peel, and a second, the more mature actress, usually seen playing eccentric character roles. But both Diana’s hold audiences transfixed, the youthful ghost so tied in with the vision on the Swinging Sixties haunting the 21st Century Diana.
Over the last thirty-three years she has played an amazing array of strong female characters, but they have nearly always fallen into the supporting actress category. In the last couple of years Diana Rigg has once starred in her own major TV series, BBC TV’s Mrs Bradley Mysteries of which further episodes are promised.
Diana Rigg has been able to bridge the gap between pop culture and high art – she is welcomed and accepted both as vixen and sex kitten on the TV screen, and notable player of classical theatre. Long may she do so.
A bottle for bubbly for Dame Diana Rigg.
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