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(1938– ). British actress.

Acted in: The Avengers (tv series) (1964-1968); A Midsummer Night's Dream (Peter Hall 1968); On Her Majesty's Secret Service (Peter Hunt 1969); Theatre of Blood (Douglas Hickox 1973); Oresteia (tv miniseries) (1979); The Great Muppet Caper (Jim HENSON 1981).

Acted in tv movies: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Hall 1959); The Worst Witch (Robert Young 1986); Snow White (Michael Berz 1987); The Haunting of Helen Walker (Tom McLoughlin 1995); Samson and Delilah (Nicolas ROEG 1996); In the Beginning (Kevin CONNOR 2000).

Here is a question for an idle cocktail-party conversation: suppose you were casting a science fiction film, and you could go back in time to choose any science fiction film actress in her prime as your heroine; who would you choose? Some might simply want a beautiful woman, and there are plenty of those available, ranging from Fay WRAY to Traci Lords; others who want a woman with more refinement or intelligence might consider Joan COLLINS or Lee MERIWETHER; while those who like their heroines tough and ballsy might argue for Beverly GARLAND or Sigourney WEAVER. Personally, I would choose all of the above traits, set my time machine for the 1960s, and recruit Diana Rigg. (And it would seem I am not alone in my admiration for this performer, since she has now been voted the sexiest television star of all time.)

In the episodes of The Avengers featuring Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel, Patrick MACNEE's able associate, she was consistently a wonder to behold. She was aware of and secretly amused by her sex appeal, which she could turn on and off in an instant as needed. Always intelligent and alert to her surroundings, she could perfectly adapt to any situation, whether it was carrying on clever repartée with members of the Royal Family at a reception, extracting information from a drunken lout in a seedy bar, or surreptitiously trying to steal important documents from a scientist's laboratory. And she could defend herself against any adversary—from common muggers to malevolent robots—with a few well-placed karate chops. While some may lament how that once-serious spy drama gradually descended into science-fictional silliness (as is especially evident in the episodes specifically aimed at American audiences), MacNee and Rigg always managed to maintain their aplomb and treated each new menace with exactly the seriousness it deserved, so that even scenarios seemingly stolen from rejected Doctor Who episodes made for watchable entertainment. Of course, much of the program's appeal derived equally from Macnee's performance as the suave and unflappable John Steed, but he was never better than when paired with Rigg; it is hard to remember or care about the women who preceded and followed her in various incarnations of the series. As for Uma Thurman's embarrassingly disastrous take on Emma Peel for the film version of The Avengers (1998), any additional criticism from this corner would be superfluous; clearly, doing Diana Rigg is harder than it looks.

As is often the case when a performer abandons a perfect role, though, Rigg's career after she left The Avengers seems disorganized and unsatisfying. To prove her credentials as a Serious Actress, she appeared in film versions of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Julius Caesar (1970)—rather a waste of her talents, really, but these are the sorts of things that British performers regularly feel compelled to do. Seeking to avoid replicating the Peel character as the Bond girl in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, she was a bit too demure in the part, as if bizarrely channeling Tara King, and it was her misfortune to join the franchise at precisely the moment when the lifeless George Lazenby replaced Sir Sean CONNERY, dooming the project to failure. She was better employed in Theatre of Blood, helping her father Vincent PRICE murder his critics with crisp efficiency, and in The Great Muppet Caper, she dealt with absurd hand puppets demonstrating the same charm and competence she had shown in response to the robots and mad scientists that infected The Avengers.

When she entered her forties, Hollywood stereotyping drove her away from playing heroines, so she took up hissing villainy with characteristic energy, portraying Clytemnestra, the Mother from Hell, in a television production of the Oresteia, and twice essaying the classic role of the witched witch (in The Worst Witch and Snow White). She crossed paths with Price again when she replaced him as the host of Mystery, the American series that repackaged episodes from British television, introducing the usually routine adventures with typical panache while she otherwise busied herself in forgettable costume dramas and biblical epics; still, she stood out in a supporting role in The Haunting of Helen Walker, a new version of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw. Knighted for her achievements in 1994, Rigg in her sixties, having battled mad scientists, played Shakespeare, and apprenticed under Vincent Price, no doubt remains ready for a few more tough assignments.

There is one remaining question: if Rigg was indeed the perfect science fiction film heroine, why did she appear in so few science fiction films? Part of the answer may lie in Rigg's own career choices, as she often seemed more interested in living down her role as Mrs. Peel than in building upon it. But a sadder explanation would be the persistent sexism of a genre that, with a few spectacular exceptions (like Weaver in the Alien films), continues assigning men to do all the work and keeping its women helpless or unassertive. (Imagine, for example, how much better Logan's Run [1976] would have been if Rigg had been cast in Michael YORK's part.) It is significant that the producers of the Bond films allowed her to tone down her character, and that American television, challenged to devise an appropriate vehicle for her talents, implausibly chose a Mary Tyler Moore-ish sitcom, Diana (1973-1974), where she floundered for one unsuccessful season. There is, then, one part that Diana Rigg does not play well: the domesticated animal.

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