To secure a good seat, I got to the Library of Congress a full hour before Diana Rigg was scheduled to speak there in November 1991.
There was no way I was going to miss the British actress who had earned rave reviews on stage in “Follies” and “Medea,” was best known in the U.S. as secret agent Emma Peel on “The Avengers,” and was then developing a fresh following as the hostess of Public Broadcasting’s “Mystery!”
To my surprise, not only was every seat taken in the library auditorium, but ther were people lining up in the hallways.
“What a crowd!” I exclaimed, to which a man standing nearby remonstrated: “What an actress!”
The entire world appeared to be saying just that on Thursday morning upon learning of the death of Dame Diana Rigg — she was knighted by the Queen in 1994 — at age 82.
At least two generations of fans, here and across the pond, had warm reminiscences of the lady with auburn hair, a very proper British accent and a sense of style that seemed to be her constant companion.
In her 70s, Dame Diana said she was retiring, and looking forward to her twilight years in the south of France with her daily routine of a bottle of red wine and pack of cigarettes. She never meant it, of course, and guest starred during the 50th anniversary of the storied British science fiction series “Doctor Who.”
To today’s television viewers, she was perhaps best known as Olenna Tyrell, Queen of Thorns, on the fanatically followed HBO fantasy series “Game of Thrones.”
And yes, she was also a ‘Bond Girl,’ actually the only one to marry superspy James Bond. (As Tracy di Vicenzo in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” she wed Bond, portrayed for the first and only time by George Lazenby, but was killed by archvillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld).
“One of the great Dames of all time,” is how veteran Hollywood casting director Lisa Beach described her to Newsmax, “She enthralled generations, literally, with her depth, elegance, and extraordinary talent. I had the honor of watching her for more than 50 years in a host of varied roles that never failed to capture a character perfectly.”
Thanks to DVDs and reruns on cable channels, fans will be able to revisit her work as Mrs. Peel (she was almost never called “Emma”) in two seasons (and 51 episodes) of “The Avengers,” a U.K. cult classic.
With black leather suits and a mastery of judo, Mrs. Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman) helped suave partner John Steed (Patrick Macnee) overcome Russian spies and diabolical masterminds in the second and third seasons of “The Avengers (1962-63).
When Blackman opted against a third season, the producers tapped actress Elizabeth Shepherd as newly minted Avenger Mrs. Peel. And then, after two episodes (which were never shown), auditions for another Mrs. Peel were held.
Twenty-something Diana Rigg had worked primarily on stage, had never watched “The Avengers.” But she got the part and the rest is television history.
Emma Peel (taken from the term “Man-appeal”) was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist who took over his company after his death. She was also the widow of an explorer and, with her financial security and social position assured, she undertook a career of "avenging" with the Savile Row-dressed, Eton-educated Steed.
After one season in leather, she switched to her signature skin-tight outfits known as “emmapeelers” and dispatched foes with karate.
They took on Russian agents in Britain and, in “The Correct Way to Kill,” Steed and Mrs. Peel actually teamed up with undercover agents to defeat a “third force” pitting West against East. Other arch-foes included a mad scientist with his own private army of killer robots known as “Cybernauts” and a wealthy department store owner with a bomb planted at the bottom of his business in “Death at Bargain Prices.”
In “Dial a Deadly Number,” Steed and Mrs. Peel uncovered a broker in downtown London who killed business rivals with (pre-cellphone) beepers that caused fatal heart attacks. (This episode was highly controversial for a scene in which beeper inventor Fitch holds Mrs. Peel at gunpoint, unzipped her leather suit, and touched her breast).
Even more controversial was “A Touch of Brimstone,” in which sinister aristocrat John Cleverly Cartney held a meeting of his “Hellfire Club” and introduced “the Queen of Sin” — Mrs. Peel, drugged, holding a snake, and dressed as a dominatrix in black corset, laced boots, spiked collar, and chain.
Mrs. Peel, who once characterized herself as “completely emancipated,” overcame Cartney in a violent ending, and would go on to save Steed’s life as many times as he saved hers. In the process, they helped save the reputation of Britain’s aristocratic “Oxbridge” (graduates of Oxford and Cambridge) class, which had been so embarrassed by three of their own. They were Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess, who turned out to be Soviet spies.
“The Avengers” could outwit any enemy agent, and do so in style.
“Dame Diana Rigg was a cultural icon who spanned many decades,” recalled British politician and Brexit father Nigel Farage, “And she did so with real class.”
<p><b>John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports</b>, <a href="https://www.newsmax.com/insiders/john-gizzi/id-212/">Go Here Now.</a></p>
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