Recently voted the "sexiest television star of all time" by TV Guide readers, Diana Rigg is best known as the brilliant and seductive British agent, Emma Peel on The Avengers. The Tony and Emmy award-winning actress is famous not only for her acting talent, but for her keen intelligence and strong opinions as well.
Diana Rigg biographer Kathleen Tracy reveals the fascinating professional and personal life of this rebellious, outspoken icon of feminism - from her childhood in India and early days with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London to her tenure on The Avengers, her role in the Bond film On Her Maiesty's Secret Service and her distinguished stage career.
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TO the British in the early twentieth century India was nothing short of the jewel in their crown, the most glorious and important colony of the empire.
When the British Crown took over direct control from the East India Company in 1857 it inherited over 750,000 square miles of territory. For whatever ills India suffered at the hands of colonialism, the enduring legacy of Britain was the railway system it built to connect the wide-ranging cities dotting the vast countryside. In its heyday the Indian rail network was the largest on Earth. Besides being a practical way to transport goods, the trains were also widely used by the British colonials.
Each railway system, such as the East India Railway Company or the Bengal Railway Company, was independently owned and operated. While the railways were a visual symbol of the British Raj, or rule, they were also vehicles of national unity. The trains helped distribute food in times of famine and opened up trade. More importantly, they were the greatest private employers in India, hiring both men and women of all castes. The rail companies also built hospitals and schools for employees and offered company housing. Working for the railway was considered the best job in government service. For the British railway managers life in India was positively royal. The East India Railway town in the Jamalpur district had swimming pools, tennis courts and also a Masonic Lodge; even the managers lived in palatial company houses.
By the early twentieth century the Indian rail system was thriving, but new tracks were continually being built and the need for British engineers remained high. In 1925 a tall, slender young man from Doncaster, Yorkshire, named Louis Rigg came to answer a job listing in the Times newspaper. Previously, Louis — who was called James by his friends and family — had won a scholarship to become an engineering apprentice and was anxious to find a job. Just twenty-two and coming from a lower middle-class family, Louis was willing to travel halfway around the world for a chance to work in exotic India for a good wage and steady employment.
Louis spent five years in India before returning to England. While relaxing at a local tennis club, Louis met a young woman named Beryl Helliwell; they fell in love and when it came time for Louis to return to India, Beryl accompanied him. They were married in Bombay Cathedral in 1932 and moved into a bungalow at Bikaner, located in the state of Rajasthan, situated on India's western border. Two years later Beryl gave birth to a son they named Hugh, who was born in a military hospital. Four years later she got pregnant again, but this time she traveled to Britain for the birth of their second baby, Diana. Diana Rigg would later comment that her mother had such a terrible experience at the military hospital during Hugh's birth that she insisted on returning to England to deliver her second child. Plus, England must have seemed a very appealing way to avoid the brutal Indian summer heat. On July 20, 1938 Diana Rigg was born in the South Yorkshire town of Doncaster. Just two months later Beryl returned to India to rejoin her husband and young son.
The colonial India of Diana's childhood provided for an exotic upbringing. Both Bikaner and Jodhpur, where her family moved in 1943, are filled with magnificent palaces and forts, remnants of earlier times when other states posed the threat of invasion. They are perched at the edge of the Thar Desert, also known as the Great Indian Desert, and during the summer temperatures regularly reach 115 degrees. Anyone with the means would head to the hills during the sweltering summers. Despite the heat, the landscape held a harsh beauty. There are no oases or artesian wells in the Great Indian Desert, so there are no native cacti decorating the landscape, which alternates between sand, scrubby hills and gravelly plains. But there is abundant reptilian wildlife, with dozens of thriving lizard and snake species, which the Riggs and others living in the region learned to avoid.
Tall and slender, Diana was a tomboy as a child and says, "For Hugh and I India was a wonderful adventure but with some frights for my mother. She shrieked if we went out without our topis, and there were snakes everywhere, particularly in the bathrooms. The gardener showed us a snake nest once and we saw the babies in their eggs."
Diana remembers living in a big house. "We had gardeners and what were called servants in those days. It was very British Raj. In terms of the Raj hierarchy, though, my father wasn't high up the ladder. But they used to go to astonishing banquets at the palace. I've still got the menu cards. My mother would describe some exquisite confection on her plate, made from spun sugar. I remember how she said, 'I simply had to tap it with my spoon for it to shatter, it was so delicate.'"
Diana and her brother lived near the railways; they grew up in the shadow of the majestic train stations where beggars and British aristocracy alike waited to board. Of course, the cabs used by the sahibs and memsahibs (as wealthy Europeans were called) were starkly different from those used by the poor. Rigg would later recall, "We went to the hills in the hot season much as the Royal Family travels to Balmoral — in our own carriage," referring to the plush private rail cars they rode in. Now that their engineer father had risen through the ranks to railway superintendent, they were afforded the comforts and advantages that came with the position. "I remember the smell of oil and metal. This was Dad's kingdom. He loved it so much."
Summers were spent in Nainital, an area in the Himalayan foothills also called the Lake District. "Mother allowed us to run wild," Diana told the London Daily Telegraph in a 2002 interview. "We disappeared every day, though we came back for lunch. I remember sucking the toffee my mother used to make, reading Jim Corbett's Maneaters of Kumaon with the rain thundering on the roof. And I remember my father reading Kipling to me." Diana recalls her father reading to her Kipling's Just So Stories and Tolkien's The Hobbit. "India gave me a glorious start to life. It gave me an independence of spirit. Our parents lived very social lives and took us on lovely family outings."
The rest of the year was spent in Bikaner. Their house was a bungalow, which is actually derived from the Hindi word bangle, roughly translated as "house in the Bengali style": a one-story home with a low, pitched roof. We've come to think of bungalows as being small and cozy, but the family home in India was spacious and came complete with a fireplace. Although the temperatures soared in summer, the winter evenings were cool. Outside, there was a large front lawn, where Hugh could play cricket with local boys or he and Diana could spend the afternoon riding ponies.
Like many other British families in India, the Riggs had several servants and Diana was cared for by a nanny, called an ayah, who taught her Hindi. "The ayah would say, 'aap bahut hi badmash ladki hain' — you're a very bad girl — and my mother told me I talked like an Indian," Diana recalled to Trevor Fishlock during a trip back to India in 2002. "My mother tried to keep things English and gave us the nearest thing to English food, a lot of it from tins and disgusting; although her sardine kedgeree was delicious." Remembering the nanny and the servants, Rigg recalls wistfully, "They all spoiled me."
Although Louis had been born without means, his job at the railway had brought him financial success and prestige. As a result, Louis and Beryl found themselves moving in ever higher social circles among the British in India. "It was a social leap for both of them," Diana told Fishlock. "Mother had to learn quickly to run a house with servants and adjust to the social conventions of the Raj, which were strict and without mercy or pity. But they lived happy lives of privilege. Dad was an excellent shot and a brilliant golfer, tennis and squash player. These qualities made him welcome. And he was also a witty, handsome man with great social ease." Rigg also recalls that her dad liked to fish, a hobby she would take up years later as an adult, noting she is "quite good at seeking out the gentleman's fish, the one that isn't actually sitting up and begging to be caught."
Louis not only managed to fit in with the expatriate aristocrats, but he was also respected by the Indians who worked with him because he was seen as someone who did not lord his position over them. One of Hugh Rigg's most vivid memories of his dad was seeing him come home after work, plop down in his favorite chair and relax with a whisky and soda brought to him by one of the servants.
Despite her fond memories of her parents, Rigg admitted in a Oui interview that she often felt separate from them. "My parents were rather Edwardian. I didn't see a great deal of them. Ayah, my Indian nanny, was around. I saw more of my mother during the hot season when we went out into the hills, but I spent a lot of time on my own reading." Her father was equally elusive, although he did take the time to teach her how to fry fish.
But Diana's feelings of isolation were about to be dramatically compounded. In 1945, when Diana was eight, Louis and Beryl sent her back to England to attend school. Not only had World War II ended, but the days of the British Raj were quickly drawing to a close. In a little over two years, on August 15, 1947, India would gain independence and the colonial way of life would be forever extinguished.
Even though she was returning to her native land, Diana felt like a refugee and had to adjust to jarring culture shock. Compared to the vibrant pageantry that marked British India, where she ran free and had the attention of the servants and her nanny, being sent off to a British boarding school was akin to a jail sentence. She was miserably unhappy. "My parents didn't mean to be cruel," she said in a Sunday Times interview. "It was a matter of convenience for my parents; they thought they were doing the right thing. Your parents are three weeks away by boat and you can't telephone them. The school didn't mean to be cruel but it was. I felt like a fish out of water. I knew nobody. I started from scratch." Moreover, the weather was dank and cold; she developed an earache and caught lice. "With an experience like that your life changes," Rigg added. "There is a sense of rejection and you have to take care of yourself. You are never reliant on your parents again."
To comfort herself, she began tapping into her imagination. "You have an inner life very quickly that sustains you," she explained in a TV Times interview. "And children are very adaptable. You know, I wasn't actively unhappy but I became very self-sufficient. I would remember images of glamour from the only film I'd seen — The Red Shoes — and use them to imagine myself as a different person. I used my imagination to transport me from the distress of my environment." Diana would often seek out solitude by climbing to the top of a tree in the school grounds, "high, high up." She explained, "I sensed a communion up there." During holidays, she would stay with her grandmother in Doncaster "who was quite cross at having two children to look after," all the while feeling abandoned by her parents. "My parents made mistakes which people simply wouldn't do now," she said.
But as she adjusted, Rigg began to make friends and soon found herself enjoying her new surroundings at Great Missenden School in Buckhinghamshire. She employed her imagination to captivate the others and became known as a good storyteller, using her adventures in India as the basis for many of her tales. It was then that her resistance to authority began to express itself, and Diana told Cosmopolitan in 1976 that she found kindred spirits among the other girls. "The first school I went to was absolutely fascinating. I'm still friendly with a lot of the girls who were there. That school, I suspect, sowed the seeds of what we all were to become later on. It was a bit like Mary McCarthy's The Group. We were incredibly rebellious. But it's understandable because it was a boarding school and most of our parents were abroad. We hadn't seen them for stretches of two or three years, so we became very independent, rather like the savage boy-band in Lord of the Flies. We didn't exactly kill each other but we had that capacity, we had that freedom." Which is what made it such a jolt when Diana's parents returned to England from India for good.
"It was tough when my parents came back from abroad and I was pulled into a family unit which, during two very formative years of my life, I had done without," Rigg admits. "I found that extremely difficult." The family problems were compounded by Louis's inability to find a job and the distance Diana felt from her mother. Rigg immersed herself in literature as a means to escape. "I listened to the wonderful plays on the wireless and my imagination was lit by poetry and words. It was the start of a journey that involved feeding my mind."
Diana lost more emotional equilibrium a year later when she was moved to a school closer to Leeds, where her family settled after Louis was hired as works manager of an engineering firm. She explains, "I changed schools and found myself in this very rigid, very Quaker establishment. So I was quite a loner."
Fulneck Girls' School, named after a German town, is located in the former mill town of Pudsey, Yorkshire, where a group of Moravian religious refugees from Germany settled in 1742. The Moravian Church, officially named Unity of the Brethren, is an ancient protestant Episcopal church founded in 1457 in Moravia by the followers of religious reformer John Hus. Hus was a priest who preached that the Bible should be the final authority in Christianity, taking precedence over any man or clergy, including the pope. Predictably, this didn't sit well at the Vatican, so Hus was excommunicated and condemned as a heretic at the Council of Constance for his uncompromising belief. He refused to recant and was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415, on his forty-sixth birthday. His followers were also persecuted. Literally feeling the heat, they migrated west and through their missionaries set up various settlements in Europe, including the one in Yorkshire.
Considering the Moravian background, it's not surprising that the students attending Fulneck Girls' School were not exactly bathed in personal freedom. In a word, Rigg found the school loathsome. "It was very rigid, very strict, very cruel. I was quite unhappy," she recalled on several occasions. "We wore a school uniform, thick brown stockings in winter, gymslips, blouses and ties. Classes were incredibly boring. I took to dreaming."
Even so, Rigg wouldn't describe herself as being withdrawn. "No, I don't think so," she said in a TV Times interview. "I had the ability to withdraw and I still have it. But above all I always had a strong sense of personal identity."
Rigg told Cosmopolitan that students were intellectually stifled. "You were not allowed to question anything at all. Ugliness, physical ugliness, was what seemed most acceptable. We wore hideous uniforms and weren't allowed to wear our hair in any attractive fashion. It was either in plaits or stuffed into your collar. You were made to kneel on the floor and your gymslip had to be three inches above your knees when you're kneeling. Every aspect of life there was so measurable. They took to punishing me. I was always working off punishments for not doing what I was supposed to. I was tall and redheaded. Tall redheads always get caught." Why Rigg's parents subjected their daughter to such an environment has never been publicly addressed. But if they were trying to squelch a streak of independence they didn't understand and that was alien to their sensibilities, the preemptive strike was doomed to fail.
Despite all the unhappiness she experienced at Fulneck, or perhaps precisely because of it, Diana discovered a simmering passion and talent, thanks in part to her elocution teacher Sylvia Greenwood, who was impressed with Rigg's voice and budding dramatic flair. "It's always down to a teacher, isn't it?" she observed. "She had white hair, even at forty, wonderful skin, big blue eyes. She was plump and passionate about Shakespeare and she was determined I was going to be an actress." Rigg told FInterview magazine in 1973 that the teacher undeniably changed her life. "I was a big, lumpy girl. Sylvia Greenwood realized I loved literature, and words, and saw that I could speak and — well, act! Not just encouraged me, she cheered me on, brought me out. I began to live. I used to go home every night and lock myself in my bedroom and spout verse. So I began to think, 'This is what I want. This is being alive.' And I soon concluded that this could only be made available by going on the stage."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Diana Rigg"
Copyright © 2003 Kathleen Tracy.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
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