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Diana Rigg: Remembering Emma Peel, Tracy Bond, And Olenna Tyrell
When it comes to British sex symbols of the late '60s, few could compete with Diana Rigg as Emma Peel on The Avengers and Tracy Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Emma Peel was a karate-chopping secret agent who wore extremely fashionable jumpsuits, and Tracy Bond -- well, she's the only woman who ever managed to ensnare James Bond in wedded bliss. Rigg died on September 10, 2020, having recently completed a famous run on Game Of Thrones as Olenna Tyrell, the tough-as-nails matriarch of House Tyrell.
Rigg was born in England and spent her early years in India. She began acting while in school and won many of the lead roles in her school’s plays. She did several theater roles and broke into television in the mid-sixties. She has had success in television, movies, and theater. Her first starring role on television was playing Emma Peel on the British Series The Avengers, from 1966-68. During her time on The Avengers, she was also performing on stage with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Though she was a successful movie star, she was quite dedicated to the theater and starred in plays on Broadway and in England. She won a Tony Award for her role in Medea. In the '70s, Rigg starred in her own sitcom on television titled Diana. She hosted Mystery! On PBS from 1989 through 2004.
A Sixties Symbol Of A Strong Woman
During the Sixties, most female characters on television were homemakers or victims. When Diana Rigg got the role of Emma Peel in The Avengers she broke the mold. The character of Emma Peel was a secret agent who used karate to overpower the bad guys. Diana Rigg is very proud of her portrayal of an independent woman just as smart and strong as any man.
The Avengers actually began as a series in 1961, starring Ian Hendry and Patrick Macnee. Hendry left, and Macnee continued as John Steed, joined by a succession of female assistants. In seasons 2 and 3, the assistant was Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman. Seasons 4-6 featured Emma Peel (Rigg), and in the first episode of season 7, Peel left and was replaced by Tara King (Linda Thorson).
Emma Peel's Appeal
Diana Rigg told a CBS interviewer why Emma Peel was embraced by viewers:
Because she was ahead of her time. Because she was highly intelligent, capable, witty, sexy, independent.
But she admitted she wasn't wild about the "sex symbol" status that came with the role:
I was uncomfortable with being a sex symbol. That I was, because how is a sex symbol supposed to behave? I haven't got a clue!
In the UK, the Rigg-era Avengers was massively popular -- a brightly-colored escapist kick akin to (and contemporaneous with) Adam West's Batman series. The Avengers spawned books, comic books, and toys, and Mrs. Peel's wardrobe made Rigg a fashion icon. From a magazine feature on Diana Rigg and her distinct TV duds:
Here's that Avenger girl, Diana Rigg, in the grooviest jumpsuit on your TV screen. Called the "Emmapeeler" -- after the character she plays -- it comes in eight colors and is made of a stretch fabric called Crimplene. T.B. Jones Ltd. of London is the maufacturer.
It Was The '60s, London Was Swinging, And Rigg Had A Blast
London in the 1960s has a magical legacy -- "Swinging" London, as it was called. Rigg wholeheartedly agrees, describing the scene to The Daily Beast as "FUN with a capital F-U-N:"
There were quite a few wild times. I remember Paul McCartney arriving on my doorstep quite out of the blue. He had their latest record, Sgt. Pepper’s. He just arrived, said he wanted to meet me, and gave me this record and it was absolutely charming… and that was it!
James Bond Married Her, But It Didn't Last
Rigg loved being a Bond Girl in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). She starred with George Lazenby in his only appearance as 007. Her character, Tracy Draco, was the only Bond girl to ever marry James Bond -- but her character was killed off at the end of the movie. Rigg fondly recalls the lavishness of starring in a Bond movie. “It was so profligate — money was no object,” she told People. “There was a 10-second bit where I looked at my watch. And they sent for a watchmaker to arrive with a case full of watches. I just chose one, and they gave it to me. I also had a huge beautiful fox fur coat that I wore in the film, and they gave it to me! I loved it.”
Was Tracy The Best Bond Girl Ever?
Author John Cork, who has written several books about James Bond movies, had this to say about Rigg's performance in a discussion on the 45th anniversary of On Her Majesty's Secret Service:
Diana Rigg is beyond a doubt the greatest thing in the film. She owns the screen. The character of Tracy is, internally, the most complex Bond woman. Sure, Vesper [Lynd] is tormented, but more because of external factors. Tracy is a troubled mess who doesn’t know if life is worth living, and it is the loss of her life that becomes one of the most powerful moments in any Bond film. Bond saves her as a stranger, and loses her as the love of his life. I get great joy from the action and many other things about OHMSS, but it is Tracy’s story and Rigg’s performance that makes the film one I can watch over and over.
Diana Rigg's Career Has Had Several Phases
Diana Rigg's career was split between the stage and the screen. She joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1959 and made her Broadway debut in 1970 in Abelard and Heloïse. She received particular attention for a string of performances in the 1990s: Medea (for which she won a Tony Award), Mother Courage, and Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
In her Bond-girl heyday, she made several films alongside some of the most respected actors of the era: The Assassination Bureau (1969), Julius Caesar (1970), The Hospital (1971), and Theatre of Blood (1973). In 1973, she starred in her own sitcom, Diana, on NBC, but the show was canceled after just 15 episodes. From the mid-'70s onward, she more frequently worked in television than film, appearing in BBC productions of classics by Shakespeare and Dickens. She won an Emmy award for her portrayal of Mrs. Danvers in the 1997 miniseries Rebecca.
The Muppet Movie?
Rigg played Lady Holiday in The Great Muppet Caper (1981). While this role may seem a departure from the types of roles she usually plays, she accepted this particular role for her daughter. Her daughter Rachel Stirling loved the Muppets. Rigg was able to get her daughter and her friends on the set to meet Miss Piggy and friends. Rigg has said it was such a fun movie to make.
A Near Death Experience
Diana Rigg was a heavy smoker, smoking up to twenty cigarettes per day. In 2017, she suffered a cardiac ablation and underwent surgery to repair her heart. Rigg stated that her heart stopped beating during the operation. She thinks that God said, “Send the old bag back down again, I’m not having her yet.” Rigg is a devout Christian and going through the experience changed her life, causing her to quit smoking and improve her health.
She Is A Dame!
In 1988 Queen Elizabeth II appointed her Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In June of 1994, she was appointed Dame Commander. She received this honor for her services to drama.
She Played The 'Queen Of Thorns' On 'Game Of Thrones'
When Diana Rigg received the script for Game Of Thrones she had never even heard of it. When she realized the part was for another strong female character she jumped at the chance. The show also introduced Diana Rigg to a whole new generation. Her character was killed off in the penultimate season but Diana Rigg was still going strong. At the age of 80, she appeared as the Duchess of Buccleuch on the PBS series Victoria. Diana Rigg was be the first to point out what a wonderful life and career she had.
In 2020, Rigg died at the age of 82. Her daughter, the actress Rachel Stirling, told the press that the cause of death was cancer.
Tags: Bond Girls | Diana Rigg | James Bond | Then And Now
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