Cult Movie: The late great Diana Rigg was always as intelligent and self-confident as she was beautiful and stylish

Ralph McLean

Diana Rigg

DAME Diana Rigg, who passed away aged 82 last week, may have thought of herself primarily as a stage performer but she had an impressive knack for nailing TV roles that resonated deeply with the viewing public. Whether she was gracing the lightest comedy or the darkest drama she was always as intelligent and self-confident as she was beautiful and stylish.

Looking back on her small screen work, two credits stand out. In Game Of Thrones, her deliciously devilish turn as the cunning Lady Ollenna Tyrell allowed her to deliver, with obvious delight, the most cutting lines in the entire series.

Her ultimate cult credit, though, remains a show that's equally fantastical if decidedly more groovy. As secret agent Emma Peel in The Avengers, Diana Rigg changed the face of the television spy drama forever. Across two full series from 1965 to 1967, she and her equally stylish crime fighting partner John Steed – played with consummate charm and elegance by Patrick Macnee – tackled all manner of megalomaniac scientists and mad diabolical masterminds hell bent on world domination.

A self-aware, almost comic book spoof of spy conventions the series came to define the swinging 60s for millions of fans back then and it continues to boast a fervent fan base today.

Rigg's performance as Mrs Emma Peel was a trailblazing one for its time, offering a feminist role model for viewers in an era when the man usually got the job of solving the crime and the woman had little more to do than stand around looking good.

As quick with her fists as she was with her wits, Rigg inverted that cliché and continually bailed Steed out in episode after episode. Her predecessor on the series, Honor Blackman, may have inked the blueprint for independent, no nonsense agents with a penchant for all-in-one leather jumpsuits and cutting retorts, but it was Emma Peel who took it to its highest level.

From the crisp black and white first series she graced to the almost psychedelic excesses of the colour season, Rigg rarely put a foot wrong. The show may be over 50 years old, but take even a cursory glance at the episodes currently running in the afternoons on ITV4 and it's impossible not to be reeled into that mad fantasy world.

The chemistry between Rigg and MacNee is genuine. The sparks fly every time they appear on screen together and the smart, almost post modern, dialogue they exchange while seeing off the most outlandish of villains in 60 brisk minutes remains hugely entertaining even today. It's fresh, escapist fun that Rigg delivers with a kind of cool bemusement from the off.

She may have earned her acting stripes at both Rada and the Royal Shakespeare Company before television fame came calling in the eye-catching catsuits of Emma Peel, but Dame Diana gave her all during that short period of time in the small screen spotlight, inverting gender roles and creating a TV heroine like no other in the process.

For that alone we should all be grateful.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access