Sunday, 1 November 2015

50 YEARS OF EMMA PEEL WITH DAME DIANA RIGG at the BFI, Sunday 25 October. Report.

Diana Rigg talking about The Avengers? It doesn't happen very much
these days.

Dame Diana Rigg on stage with Dick Fiddy in NFT 1.
(Image copyright: David Walliams)

For whatever reasons, the distinguished actress has for several years distanced herself from the 1960s fantasy series. Having her appear at the British Film Institute for an on-stage interview to celebrate 50 years of the iconic feminist Emma Peel, still her most famous role – whose significance, as host and interviewer Dick Fiddy noted, has blossomed far beyond its original context – is therefore quite something.  

Diana’s on-stage interview was bookended by the screening of two episodes, ‘The House That Jack Built’ and ‘Return of the Cybernauts’. Shooting The Avengers on black and white film somehow brought out the more disturbing elements of the bizarre ideas the stories offered, and there’s no better place to see that in ‘The House That Jack Built’. Emma experiences a real threat to her sanity when she’s imprisoned in an automated house, and her potential future can be seen in the figure of an escaped convict, driven mad by her prison’s workings.

By the time ‘Return of the Cybernauts’ came along, The Avengers was in full colour. Producer Brian Clemens felt that continuing to produce The Avengers in black and white was ‘like making The Wizard of Oz without colour,’ but with the change the series definitely lost something. ‘Return of the Cybernauts’ brought back the popular robots from the previous year, and while like most Avengers episodes it’s highly entertaining, it doesn’t have the disturbing edge that most of the black and white episodes did.

Back in the present, Dame Diana was greeted by enthusiastic applause and returned the crowd’s fervour warmly, by turns funny, charming and respectful of the opportunities that playing Emma Peel offered her. Whatever issues she’s previously had with the way The Avengers has continued to follow her around certainly weren’t in evidence.

At your service. (Image copyright: StudioCanal)
Sunday’s Diana was the one you can see in the episodes, obviously enjoying the light comedy and repartee in her partnership with the avuncular Patrtick Macnee, who played her debonair, crime busting partner John Steed (left). ‘He was incredibly kind and helped me through the audition,’ Diana remembered of her co-star. ‘I think he said a word in the producer’s ear: “This is the girl I want.” He was adorable. He loved his work. We were a lot in accord and always did the best we could. We were always finding dead bodies, and would re-write our dialogue for those scenes, which the producer was fine with. We were a real team… He was a dear, dear man and I mourn his passing.’

Apart from minor rewrites, the pair ‘played out’ what was in the script, which was written in the style of other will-they, won’t-they pairings like Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, which ‘kept people guessing’. Interestingly, Macnee and Diana ‘never really discussed’ any romantic involvement between their characters, which helped to make the duo stand out among traditional male/female roles in the 1960s.

Talk inevitably turned to the ground breaking fashions Diana wore, taking in the leather fighting suits, which she found ‘deeply uncomfortable,’ and the later full-colour cat suits, which she felt ‘showed the body altogether better.’ Away from The Avengers set, he main criteria for clothing wasn’t risqué trendiness, but ‘the most comfortable clothing possible.’

Having watched ‘The House That Jack Built’ – only the second time she’d seen it as ‘I don’t watch myself’ – Diana confessed that she ‘loved the black and white [episodes]. The lighting is so wonderful: more capable of making a woman look beautiful than colour.’ This artistry came from directors like Roy Ward Baker and Charles Crichton, moving into television because the ‘British film industry was dying’ who, had Diana known their pedigree, she would have made a more conscious effort to learn more from. 

Emma lives on. (Image copyright: Fineart America)
When Diana was working on the series it became an international success, which, at the time, she wasn’t aware of, as The Avengers’ team’s collective noses were ‘to the grindstone… it was a nice surprise.’ Quizzed about the series’ continued longevity, Diana first raised a laugh by saying she was ‘grateful,’ before going on to intelligently consider the reasons for The Avengers’ staying power: ‘it wasn’t because we were way ahead of our time, it was because of a happy accident: Honor [Blackman]’s character was given scripts for a man, they wrote in that style [and] Emma became this avant garde woman, and my God was I lucky to get the chance to play her.’ Concisely explaining the character’s importance, Diana concluded: ‘I truly think she was a very, very potent influence in women claiming their place in the world.’

After that, Fiddy opened up questions to the audience. This resulted in some amusing stories about Theatre of Blood and the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which Diana co-starred in, as well as the Doctor Who episode ‘The Crimson Horror’ in which she appeared with her daughter Rachel Stirling, also in the audience, which Diana admitted ‘it was hard to keep a straight face’ working on. Intriguingly, one question elicited the response that she didn’t think The Avengers had helped her film career at all, which might partly explain her ambivalent attitude to the series in the past.  

Diana herself brought proceedings to a close with a whispered ‘one last question’ and, following another rapturous round of applause, she was gone. At the screening of ‘Return of the Cybernauts’ which followed, Fiddy humorously confessed ‘it’s very odd interviewing you first crush,’ reinforcing the feeling that this afternoon had been something special.

After 50 years, Emma’s still needed. And, happily, probably always will be.

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