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STAR TURNS: The Avengers star who never judged

English actress Diana Rigg. - Credit: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It was at the Chichester Festival Theatre just over a year ago that I last saw Dame Diana Rigg. Not on stage, but sitting directly in front of me as her daughter Rachael Stirling starred in a revival of Sir David Hare’s play Plenty. She glowed with maternal pride.

The fine actress’s death earlier this month at the age of 82 came as a shock as she’d always been so full of life. She’d been diagnosed with cancer in March, but she’d been on stage herself barely two years ago in My Fair Lady on Broadway. She’d acted more recently in Game of Thrones. That television series brought her awards and great reviews, but, never remotely vain, she never troubled to watch it.

I first met her in the late 1990s at a posh hotel in Holland Park in west London when she’d begun by telling me she’d resolved to only ever to talk to male interviewers. “Women journalists are always the same,” she lamented. “They come along, establish a sense of sisterhood, make me feel I can trust them, and then, every time, they betray it. Never again.”

Rigg never really liked journalists of either sex and resented their obsession with her private life. There was an unworldliness to her – even an innocence – that meant she could never quite understand why she made such great copy. In the 1960s, she lived for eight years with the director Philip Saville, and made it clear she had no interest in marrying her older and already-spoken-for lover. Respectability, she said, bored her rigid.

She went on to marry Menachem Gueffen, an Israeli painter, in 1973, and, after their divorce in 1976, began a relationship with Archie Stirling, a theatrical producer and former officer in the Scots Guards, and provided him with a daughter, Rachael. They married five years after the birth. She divorced Stirling in 1990 after his affair with the actress Joely Richardson.

In some snobby quarters Rigg was regarded as not being in quite the same class as fellow dames such as Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, but her acting pedigree was every bit as impressive. She’d played a wide range of roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company with distinction in the 1960s – but, fairly or unfairly, came to be defined for her performance as Emma Peel in The Avengers. A lot of folk couldn’t quite accept that an actress could at one and the same time be serious, highly regarded in her profession, but also unbelievably sexy, make popular films and television shows and enjoy the company of a succession of men who happened to interest her.

There was also of course the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which she said she “had a ball” making. So far from feuding with its star George Lazenby – as the tabloids made out – she insisted she was actually quite “motherly” with him as she could see how he couldn’t quite handle the position he’d found himself in. Lazenby confirmed this in an interview after Rigg’s death: she gave him practical advice and tried to help.

In her work, as with her private life, the one guiding principle Rigg had was always to ask herself whether it would be any fun or not. That led to her accepting a part in the camp 1973 horror film Theatre of Blood, when she was Vincent Price’s leading lady. “The moment they told me it was about an actor killing off theatre critics, I was there,” she laughed. “I could just tell what fun it’d be to work with Vincent and I wasn’t disappointed.”

Rigg could sense that the actor was bored and played Cupid between him and Coral Browne, another of the stars in the film. “I had them both round to dinner and the rapport was immediate. They were two of the brightest and funniest people in the world. It seemed to me inevitable they’d hit it off.”

Rigg’s instinct proved to be quite right and the pair ended up marrying the following year. “I had no idea that Vincent was married at the time I introduced him to Coral, but I’ve no regrets. It all worked out very well.” 
All Rigg wanted was to be happy, and she wanted the people around her to be happy, too. “I leave judgment to others,” she said. “I’m too busy living my life to be bothered.”