From the leather-clad Emma Peel in The Avengers to a formidable matriarch in Game of Thrones, Dame Diana Rigg’s illustrious career spanned just over 60 years.
Dame Diana, who has died at the age of 82, started out in the theatre, after studying at RADA. She made her professional debut at the Theatre Royal, York, in 1957 and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1959.
“In my first season at Stratford, I had a scene with Laurence Olivier in Coriolanus,” she recalled.”Olivier was stabbed on a clifftop and fell over backwards. There were gasps from the audience. It was a great dramatic moment.”
In 1965 she joined Patrick Macnee in the Avengers, as Emma Peel, a character famed for her eye-catching outfits, especially the figure-hugging black leather catsuits. She went on to play Countess Teresa di Vicenzo in the 1969 Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, opposite George Lazenby.
“It was one of the most popular Bond movies, but he misbehaved on and off the set, he had his chance and he blew it,” she recalled.
Highlights of her career include winning a BAFTA award for the BBC series Mother Love and being made a Dame of the British Empire in 1994.
She found fame with a new generation of fans for her role in the TV adaptation of George R R Martin’s fantasy novel, A Song of Ice and Fire, playing Olenna Tyrell, whose sharp tongue earned her the nickname “Queen of Thorns”.
“I love playing bad women. They’re so much better to play than the goody two shoes!” Dame Diana said of the role. “Game of Thrones has a lot of British actors in it, and we’re so grateful for the opportunity!” she joked. “We don’t ask for a huge Winnebago, we don’t need a personal assistant, we just get on with it!
“I did one scene in Game of Thrones which took 28 takes! It’s not just down to the director, all the producers have a say. I told them it works on the law of diminishing returns: I give my best in the first few takes. One, two and three are good, four five and six are OK, but seven, eight and nine… not so great…”
Aside from her huge successes, she also looked back with amusement on the occasional failures that happened along the way, such as the short-lived musical Colette in 1982.
“I love the failures – they’re so delicious!” she smiled. “The disasters are wonderful, they make you laugh so much.”
One of her few regrets was appearing naked in Abelard and Heloise for her Broadway debut, which led one unchivalrous reviewer to describe her as “built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses“.
Undeterred, Dame Diana made the most of theatre’s most memorable disasters by compiling a collection entitled No Turn Unstoned: Worst Ever Theatrical Reviews, unearthing barbed comments dating as far back as ancient Greece.
“The theatre has a fascinating history, it all started with Thespis – in Greek theatre, he was the first to step out of the chorus and play a part – and now actors are known as Thespians,” she explained.
“Greek tragedies, like Medea and Phedre, have plots about dysfunctional families, and huge speeches, which make them really difficult to do, but it’s a great opportunity because you stretch yourself physically, emotionally and intellectually.”
Dame Diana won a Variety Icon award at the Canneseries last year for her outstanding achievement in film, TV and theatre.
She can be seen in one of her final roles in the forthcoming BBC drama The Black Narcissus, a re-make of the 1939 novel by Rumer Godden.
Quotations above are taken from A Conversation with Dame Diana Rigg, hosted by writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson at St James Theatre, London.
By Angela Lord