To boys of my generation, Diana Rigg was and always will be the leather-clad, karate-chopping Emma Peel from The Avengers. At boarding school my friends and I would gather on the nights it was shown in the house master’s study in our pyjamas and dressing gowns with cups of cocoa. To us, she wasn’t only the most beautiful woman on television, she was quite the most exciting thing we’d ever seen. Many years later, when I got to know her, I realised that in some ways they had been a disadvantage for her, these extraordinary looks. She was a wonderfully talented actress, fiercely bright and a powerful figure in person. But all her life, she had been so beautiful, so glamorous, that she hadn’t been taken as seriously as some others of her generation.
To me, she was the magical woman who I watched from a distance on television and on stage for many years before I got to know her personally. I can recall the first time I saw her from the front row in a play called Abelard and Heloise and became one of the first actresses to appear topless on the West End. Quite the moment.
Her beauty gave her a reputation, one which was only compounded when she became a Bond Girl, to George Lazenby’s James in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in which she became the only woman ever to marry 007 [the ceremony in You Only Live Twice was staged], but people forget she was an accomplished Shakespearean actress too.
I remember interviewing her once in 2001 and listing her classic roles: Shaw, Moliere, the Greeks, the Bard. “Yes,” she said, “still, we talk about The Avengers.”
She didn’t mind a bit. In fact I think she always seemed rather happy to have been known as this siren. And why ever not?
I once asked Michael Parkinson, who interviewed her a number of times, who the most glamorous lady he’d ever interviewed was. I thought, it’s going to be some Hollywood star. Without missing a beat he said “Diana Rigg”.
In person she was great fun, very feisty and quite formidable. Her presence was wonderful. She was a tall, powerful figure. When I interviewed her it was only the second time we’d met and we gossiped like old friends. Then 63, she was frustrated by getting older. “You can’t get on top of your lover in broad daylight. And some days you wake up feeling 104 and you have to treat yourself very, very nicely. I smoke, I love wine, I take the dog for long walks.”
I saw her quite a bit after that - whenever I did, she was playful and fun. She always seemed like a glamorous figure from another time, and I suppose she was in many ways. Her body of work defined a generation but she wasn’t defined by the work. She was her own woman. And goodness I feel lucky to have known her.