Whether playing a nun, a Bond girl, or the iconic Emma Peel, she was unforgettable.
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iana Rigg, one of the most versatile actresses of the last half-century, died last week at age 82.
Her career led her to such strong female roles as Medea, Mother Courage, a Benedictine nun, and Lady Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones. She was the only Bond girl to actually tie down and marry the roving James Bond in Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
But she will be most remembered for playing the brainy, badass spy Emma Peel in the 1960s British TV series The Avengers.
The show was an early example of spy-fi, a genre that combined espionage plots with science-fiction elements. It followed the adventures of John Steed, a bowler-hatted Edwardian-dressed special agent played by Patrick Macnee, and a glamorous self-defense expert played first by Honor Blackman, and then from 1965 to 1967 by Rigg.
Steed was the ultimate Etonian. She was Cool Britannia. They had incredible on-screen chemistry. ”He was an old fogy who delighted in Emma’s newness, her nowness and her intelligence, while clearly enjoying her repartee and beauty,” Toby Miller, a New York University film professor who once taught a class on The Avengers, told the New York Times.
The Avengers never took itself very seriously, and it had charming banter that reminded one of a movie starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. The realistic dialogue was only enhanced by the fact that Macnee and Rigg made up some of their own lines right on the set.
The character’s name of Emma Peel was a play on the words “man appeal,” and she certainly had it. Author George R. R. Martin, who wrote the bestselling books that the TV series Game of Thrones is based on, was thrilled when she joined the cast of the HBO show. “She was the hottest woman on television ever,” he told The Guardian. “I was madly in love with her in The Avengers, along with virtually all the boys of my generation.”
But Peel also was a role model for adults. With her stylish wardrobe, emancipated outlook, and wry humor, she represented the modern Britain of the 1960s.
The show’s writers knew she was a different kind of female character.
In a 1967 episode, a villainous character playing a crazed German movie director patterned after Otto Preminger, said to his adversary: “You are a woman of courage, beauty, and action. A woman who could become desperate, yet remain strong, become confused yet remain intelligent, who could fight back, yet remain feminine.”
Feminine, yes, but also mysterious and independent. The show deliberately kept the relationship between Emma Peel and John Steed ambiguous. They always referred to each other simply as “Steed” and “Mrs. Peel.” “I don’t think they did have an affair,” Rigg once said. She called it “one of those glorious deeply intimate flirtations that spin off into infinity.”
While Rigg’s character certainly was touted as an advance for feminism, she herself was ambivalent about her cultural significance.
She certainly stood up for her rights. When Rigg learned that her salary (the equivalent of less than $100,000 a year today) was a third less than what the cameraman was being paid, she vehemently protested. “I kicked up a fuss and I became incredibly unpopular as a result because the English press absolutely latched on to it and I was made out to be mercenary and a jumped-up actress who should be grateful for her opportunity,” she told The Telegraph. But she held her ground and saw her pay doubled.
But Rigg distanced herself from 1960s style feminism: “I find the whole feminist thing very boring. They are so much on the defensive that they dare not love a man because they feel assaulted by being dependent.”
A consummate professional, Rigg knew the public wasn’t particularly interested in the political views of actors, so she largely kept her own to herself. One of the few times she broke cover was in 2015, when she told the Daily Mail, “I’d shove most politicians into a cauldron and boil them up.”
Both Diana Rigg and Emma Peel would know how to handle a cauldron if faced with one. In one Avengers episode, Peel finds herself back in 16th-century England in a dream sequence. A tyrant sticks her in a stockade, threatens her with hot irons, and calls her ”a heretic, a bawd, a witch — designed to drive a man to lust.’’
Mrs. Peel wasn’t fazed by any of this. She looked up, teasingly tossed her hair, and shot back: ”You should see me in 400 years.”
I believe that The Avengers is one of those shows that — like Star Trek — has not only achieved cult status but will actually be studied by archivists many years from now. Not just because of its cultural significance but for the magnificent performance of Diana Rigg, a titan of the acting profession.