Remembering Dame Diana Rigg

Diana Rigg in "Victoria" (Photo: Image courtesy of ©ITVStudios2017 for MASTERPIECE))
Diana Rigg in "Victoria" (Photo: Image courtesy of ©ITVStudios2017 for MASTERPIECE))

Legendary actress of stage, film, and television, Dame Diana Rigg, passed away this week at home while surrounded by her family at the age of 82. Ms. Rigg’s only child. and a fine actress in her own right, Rachael Stirling revealed that her mother was diagnosed with cancer back in March, and had “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.”

Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg was born in South Yorkshire near the town of Doncaster in 1938. When she was a toddler, her family moved to India with her father’s job as a railway executive for the Maharaja of Bikaner. Upon the Riggs’ return to the U.K., Diana attended a Moravian Church boarding school in Yorkshire.

She began formal training for her life-long vocation in 1955 at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art alongside other acting legends such as Glenda Jackson and Albert Finney. Her theater career continued throughout her life, beginning with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1959. Rigg moved onto productions with the National Theatre and on Broadway in the U.S. where she won a Tony Award for Leading Actress in a play in 1994’s production of Medea. (She appeared on Broadway as recently as 2018 as Mrs. Higgins in a revival of My Fair Lady.)

Dame Diana became an international sensation when she was introduced as the confident, seductive, and deadly Mrs. Emma Peel in the quirky 1960’s spy series The Avengers. An iconic character for the feminist movement at the time, Rigg fought a personal battle during her tenure on the show, demanding her pay be raised when she discovered she was earning less than the cameramen.

Following her sometimes difficult to navigate run-in with sudden Avengers’ fame, Ms. Rigg took on a variety of roles. She was a Bond girl (and the only one to get 007 to the altar), gave American TV a go with the self-titled CBS sitcom Diana, starred opposite Vincent Price in a campy horror flick Theater of Blood, and in 1982 showed up in a couple of Agatha Christie adaptations – a TV movie version of Witness for the Prosecution and the big-screen release of the Poirot mystery, Evil Under the Sun.

The actress was recognized with a BAFTA for her performance as an eccentric and obsessive mama in the 1989 BBC thriller miniseries Mother Love. It was during this period she also received two royal honors; a CBE in 1988 and  Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1994. 

PBS viewers may also recall that Diana Rigg was the host of Masterpiece Mystery from 1989 to 2004. Before the episode began each week, she would provide us with a little background on the story or refresh our memories concerning the previous week’s diabolical deeds.

In 2018 Telly Visions featured Ms. Rigg in our British Actresses You Should Know series. In it, we highlighted her more mature roles from the past two decades which include royal period dramas like The Last King: Charles II and Victoria, literary classics such as Rebecca, and her beloved stint on the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones as strong-willed matriarch Olenna Tyrell. She worked professionally with her daughter Rachael in the Doctor Who episode "The Crimson Horror" and the sitcom Detectorists. In both, they played mother and daughter.

One series that was left out in that piece was a charming little 1920’s era mystery program called The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries. In it, inimitable Dame Diana starred as “the infamous, intuitive crime-solver Mrs. Adela Bradley” who solved murders with her wits and style. If you’ve never seen this collection, you can check it out on BritBox, though it’s not clear to me how many of the five episodes are available.

Dame Diana had said in interviews she had no plans to retire and she never did. You can look forward to upcoming appearances in the remake of All Creatures Great and Small, BBC drama Black Narcissus later this year, and her final role in Edgar Wright’s film Last Night in Soho in 2021.

Dame Diana was a once in a lifetime talent with an unforgettable spirit. Please share your memories about her in the comments section below.