The everlasting appeal of Mrs Peel

The everlasting appeal of Mrs Peel

I was saddened to learn of the death of actress Dame Diana Rigg at 82, best known by people of my vintage for her role as Emma Peel, the dynamic comrade of dapper secret agent John Steed in the idiosyncratic BBC series The Avengers. Rigg only appeared in two seasons, 1965-67, but she certainly made her mark, displaying a winning combination of charm, fashion, sophistication and martial arts. She was particularly proficient at karate chops.

The Avengers was a witty and stylish production and Mrs Peel was the perfect working companion for the suave Steed who skilfully used his umbrella as a weapon, supported by his steel-plated bowler hat and a few choice quips. The feisty Mrs Peel often appeared in a cat-suit which she later admitted she hated.

It was the "swinging sixties" in London and The Avengers quickly became embraced by it, enjoying a large cult following. Some schools even reported "brolly duels" in the playground. The series was definitely ahead of its time and dabbled with sci-fi, although it relied on traditional British eccentricity for its appeal.

Admittedly the only dialogue I can remember is early in each episode when Steed would get onto the phone and announce: "Mrs Peel … we're needed". Then I could settle down to an entertaining hour of brollies, bowler hats and Mrs Peel in all her glory. A perfect evening.

Introducing Emma

Rigg went on to enjoy a hugely successful career especially in the theatre and even appeared in the Game of Thrones, but I will always remember her as Mrs Peel. Her Avengers name evolved after scriptwriters said they wanted a woman with "man appeal" which in their notes quickly became "M appeal" … and naturally, Emma Peel.

For anyone who never saw Rigg in her Avengers role there is a lively musical video tribute on YouTube called Short Skirt/Long Jacket, which will give you an idea of her attributes.

The odd couple

Rigg was a serious performer and learned her acting skills, first at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and then the Royal Shakespeare Company. This helps explain her extraordinary versatility. Just imagine, while she was filming The Avengers, twice a week she would dash back to Stratford to perform on stage in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

She was a firm believer in dramatic training and unconvinced by those who became instant stars. In her Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, it must have been strange for her that the leading man, George Lazenby, had no acting experience at all, apart from a Fry's Chocolate Cream TV advertisement. But somehow it worked. Playing the splendidly-named Contessa Teresa "Tracy" di Vicenco she becomes the only woman to marry Bond. Alas she later dies in his arms.

Lazenby paid a heartfelt tribute to Rigg last week and claimed reports of any differences they had on set was tabloid tittle-tattle. "We were very good friends on set," he said. "Diana undoubtedly raised my acting game". He added rather poignantly, "As my new bride Tracy Bond (in OHMSS) I wept for her loss. Now upon hearing of Dame Diana's death, I weep again."

Actress or actor?

In recent years there has been a growing trend for females to be referred to as "actors" rather than actresses. It comes down to a matter of personal choice. When asked her views in an interview a couple of years ago, Rigg commented: "I love the English language and I love it to be precise and I am an actress."

Whoopi Goldberg sees it differently: "An actress can only play a woman. I'm an actor -- I can play anything." Only a couple of weeks ago Cate Blanchett said she preferred to be called an actor and not an actress. She explained she comes from a generation where the word actress was often used as a derogatory term. It could mean the end of those awful "as the actress said to the bishop" jokes.

A question of style

A decade ago The Guardian newspaper introduced a style guide recommending the use of "actor" for both males and females. It went on to explain that "actress comes under the same category as authoress, comedienne, manageress, "lady doctor", male nurse and similar obsolete terms that date from a time when professions were largely the preserve of one sex (usually men)".

That makes sense, although it is not quite so simple when put into practice. According to Guardian columnist Stephen Pritchard, the newspaper had to issue a clarification when an article about Italian film director Carlo Ponti was edited to read that in his early career he was "already a man with a good eye for pretty actors…"

Perhaps it's safest to stick to "thespian".

Buttresses and dredgers

In her later years Rigg published a book No Turn Unstoned, a light-hearted compilation of the nastiest theatrical reviews received by … thespians, some of them quite vicious.

It includes several critiques of her own performances. In a review commenting on her nude scene in the play Abelard and Heloise, Paul Simon of The New York Times wrote: "Diana Rigg is built like a brick basilica with insufficient flying buttresses."

In the same book the talented Glenda Jackson bravely submitted a sneaky comment on her appearance by the late broadcaster Jack Di Manio who observed: "She has the face to launch a thousand dredgers."

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Roger Crutchley

Bangkok Post columnist

A long time popular Bangkok Post columnist. In 1994 he won the Ayumongkol Literary Award. For many years he was Sports Editor at the Bangkok Post.

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