RIP Diana Rigg: From Mrs. Peel to Olenna, It Was a Full Life

David Hinckley
Sep 10, 2020 · 4 min read

Ask any pop culture fan under 50 about The Avengers and you’ll get a rhapsody on Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, The Hulk and the whole rambunctious team from the Marvel universe.

Ask someone over 60, particularly if that someone is a guy, and you’ll get a loving rhapsody about Diana Rigg in a catsuit.

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Diana Rigg. Emma Peel. Leather catsuit.

Dame Diana Rigg, who died of cancer Thursday at the age of 82, played Mrs. Emma Peel in an earlier, unrelated Avengers — a British crime/detective TV series that became a cult fave in the mid-1960s.

Rigg, who auditioned for the part on a whim, quickly became an international sex symbol at a time when all things British were considered the ultimate in fashion and seduction.

She hated that part. She didn’t like being objectified, treated as a piece of delectable meat and, not to put too fine a point on it, drooled over.

She left The Avengers in part because she wanted to escape that, though it could be argued that the specific role for which she left, Tracy di Vicenzo in the 1969 James Bond flick On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, didn’t exactly relocate her to a cloister.

Still, if Rigg didn’t claim a full “serious actress” victory by playing a Bond girl, she did eventually win the war.

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Olenna in “Game of Thrones.”

A half century later she became Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones, where her character entered on the fringes and worked her way into the center of the story.

Olenna was to Games of Thrones what Maggie Smith was to Downton Abbey, the dowager from whose tongue there was no escape.

“I wonder if you’re the worst person I ever met,” she remarked to Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). “At a certain age, it’s hard to recall. But the truly vile do stand out through the years.”

As this suggests, Olenna did not get along well with Cersei. Nor, unlike Maggie Smith’s Violet, did she content herself with verbal barbs. Consistent with the more action-oriented world in Game of Thrones, Olenna poisoned Cersei’s awful son Joffrey.

As that might further suggest, Olenna was not a particularly endearing character, even in a world where that designation was relative.

Rigg said in numerous interviews that she loved playing Olenna for precisely that reason: characters who are bad often are more interesting.

Perhaps ironically, Emma Peel could be seen as arguing against that assertion, because Emma had a skillset that rivaled that of any superhero out of Marvel. She was a martial arts fighter capable of rescuing her male partner John Steed (Patrick Macnee). She was a skilled fencer, a brilliant scientist and a shrewd businesswoman.

For fun, she drove a Lotus Elan at high speeds — the sort of pastime usually reserved for male characters.

Unfortunately, the entertainment biz wasn’t as enlightened off-camera as the writers were when creating Mrs. Peel.

Rigg discovered about halfway through her 51-episode run on The Avengers that she was not only making far less money than Macnee, but less than the show’s cameraman — who was quite good, but somewhat less of a viewer magnet.

Rigg put her feet down, got her salary tripled and won a few concessions on character and costume. It was still frustrating, she would later say, and it was equally frustrating that she got no support from anyone else in the business, male or female. She felt she was unfairly portrayed as an ungrateful diva. Her final line on the show was to tell her replacement character that Steed liked his tea stirred “anti-clockwise.”

As years passed, Rigg largely won the world over. Like most British performers, she started on the stage, and she worked her way back there. By the mid-‘90s she was on Broadway, winning a Tony for her lead role in Medea.

Her final theatrical role, for which she scored another Tony nomination, was Mrs. Higgins in the 2018 Broadway revival of My Fair Lady. She had played Eliza Doolittle in the same show 37 years earlier.

Along the way she appeared in a number of TV movies, some more demanding than others, and fans will get a last glimpse of her work when they see her as Mrs. Pumphrey in PBS’s revival of All Creatures Great and Small.

In the end, she will be remembered by all fans old and young, because those too young to remember the miniskirts, the leather catsuit, the incisive sleuthing skills and the lightning countermoves of Emma Peel will remember Olenna saying, “I hear you knocked my grandson into the dirt like the silly little boy that he is.”

Thanks, Grandma. We needed that.

The Culture Corner

All things pop culture.

David Hinckley

Written by

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

The Culture Corner

All things pop culture.

David Hinckley

Written by

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

The Culture Corner

All things pop culture.

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