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Diana Rigg: from sexy super-spy to Queen of Thorns

  • Published at 09:34 pm September 10th, 2020
Diana Rigg
Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in The Avengers

'She was the hottest woman on television ever,' said Game of Thrones  writer George R R Martin

Whether as the leather catsuited spy in the 1960s series The Avengers or the headscarved Lady Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones decades later, British actror Diana Rigg thrilled generations of television viewers.

Classically trained Rigg began her career in the Royal Shakespeare Company and later appeared in a wide range of television dramas, although it was her role in The Avengers that made her a worldwide sensation.

Playing Emma Peel, the sexy and intelligent sidekick of suave secret agent John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee, in the British cult series made her an instant pin-up.

"She was the hottest woman on television ever," George R R Martin, author of the best-selling Game of Thrones books said in The Guardian newspaper in 2013 when the HBO television series of the same name landed Rigg for its cast.

"I was madly in love with her in 'The Avengers', along with virtually all the boys of my generation," he said.

But the auburn-haired, snub-nosed and outspoken Rigg said later she did not enjoy her time as a glamour girl. And she walked out of The Avengers in 1967, after two seasons, because she was paid less than a cameraman.

"I found it such an intrusion, to be a sex symbol," she told a British university audience in 2016.

She was soon afterwards cast on the big screen to play the first and only woman ever to marry James Bond, Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, in On Her Majesty's Secret Service in 1969.

'Slumming it' on TV

Born on July 20, 1938 in Doncaster, northern England, Rigg spent the first eight years of her life in the Indian city of Jodhpur where her father worked as a railway engineer.

Upon returning to England, she decided she wanted to become an actress.

At 17, she gained admission to the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London, making her debut performance in The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

At 20 she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Renowned theatre director Peter Brooks, in whose production of "King Lear" she triumphed as Cordelia, was quoted by The Guardian as saying at the time: "If she doesn't waste herself on silly stuff, she could be quite good."

It came as a shock to her RSC colleagues when she left to join the cast of The Avengers in 1965.

"I was considered to be slumming it, to be doing television," she said in 2016.

New young fans

Alongside her small screen success, Rigg continued a successful stage career from London to New York, collecting prestigious awards along the way.

In 1972 she joined London's just-opened National Theatre under the direction of acting legend Laurence Olivier.

Unusually for the time, she played a scene completely in the nude in Abelard and Heloise in 1970. 

She was Lady Macbeth in 1972-1973 and then Celimene in The Misanthrope in Washington and New York in 1973-1975.

In 1994 she won the theatre industry's top award, a Tony, for best actress in a play for the title role in Greek tragedy Medea, which she performed in London and New York.

She continued to woo television audiences in her later years. 

In 1997 Rigg won an Emmy Award for playing the spooky housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, in the adaptation of "Rebecca".

And in 2013, at the age of 79, she became a hit with a new young audience when she was chosen to be the conniving Lady Olenna Tyrell, or the Queen of Thorns, in the HBO fantasy smash Game of Thrones.

"I'm thrilled young people identify with this naughty old bag I was playing," she told CBS in 2018.

She was married and divorced twice, to Israeli artist Menachem Gueffen and to theatre producer and millionnaire Archie Stirling, with whom she had a daughter.

Made a dame in 1994 for her services to drama, she was named professor of theatre studies at Oxford University in 1998.

She was most recently seen on British television screens in All Creatures Great and Small, a series about the life of a vet.

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