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Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in ‘The Avengers.’
From the moment I heard last fall that Diana Rigg was coming to Broadway I could think of little else.
And it wasn’t because of the show, “Love Letters,” with its engaging plot about two childhood friends who correspond faithfully over decades yet never manage to end up together. Or the roster of female stars who would be taking turns on stage—Candice Bergen, Mia Farrow, Carol Burnett, Anjelica Huston and “Dame Diana” as she is now known.
To me, she was and always will be Emma Peel, the brainy, fiercely courageous, impossibly sexy, black-leather clad British secret agent she portrayed in the popular 1960s TV show, “The Avengers,” who captivated and haunted me from the time I first watched her as a little girl in Brooklyn and could never outgrow or forget or leave behind.
How I lived for those words each week. They were a staple of the show, that moment when her partner, the dapper John Steed, would turn to her for help in solving a chilling crime, or to confront a sinister set of bad guys. She would appear, ever so elegant in her Mod outfits—form-fitting hip-huggers, white boots, topped with a jaunty beret or Carnaby hat, the newsboy cap that was all the rage.
Most often, she wore her hair loose—it was thick and lustrous, a deep shade of auburn, and she was constantly brushing it off her face, one of her many gestures I sought to emulate.
Mine was no garden-variety girlhood crush. It was a full-fledged obsession. Emma Peel took over my childhood, though hers was a world that couldn’t have been more different from my own. I lived in Bensonhurst, a working-class neighborhood of Jews and Italian Catholics. My family was Orthodox and life was dominated by religion: observing the Sabbath, following dietary laws, attending synagogue.
Then Mrs. Peel burst into my staid little universe in her black leather jumpsuit. I was only eight years old when I first saw her wearing it and it stirred up a longing that continues to this day for the outfit and the woman and all she represented: Bravery in the face of evil, indomitable will, and the greatest style I have seen in anyone real or imaginary.
Then there was her mind. “She knows about ciphers, centrifuges and cybernetics,” one evildoer remarks when asked to assess her brainpower. She could discuss nuclear physics and botany, bridge and psychoanalysis, and appreciate a fine wine.
And she was never scared. In the fight scenes that dominated the show, she showed off dazzling judo and karate moves, fending off multiple attackers. I developed a rich fantasy life in which I, too, beat up bad guys, though my knowledge of martial arts came from library books.
When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I replied: “I want to be an Avenger.”
Diana Rigg left the series, and I stopped watching “The Avengers.” But I continued to think about Emma Peel and worked hard at school: How else was I going to master ciphers, centrifuges and cybernetics?
Then, at 16, I almost lost her, and myself. I was in a ward at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. As I lay in my hospital bed, all the fight in me seemed gone. I wondered where she was: “Mrs. Peel, you’re needed.” But she seemed so far away. I couldn’t understand it—I had planned a future as an Avenger; cancer wasn’t supposed to be part of my destiny.
I recovered. But it was a flawed recovery—I emerged with a trait that was never part of Mrs. Peel’s DNA: Abject Fear.
Ms. Rigg as Lady Olenna Tyrell in ‘Game of Thrones’
It made sense somehow to become a journalist. I would take down bad guys not with karate chops but with my stories.
Once, I found myself in Paraguay on the strangest assignment I have ever received. My boss, the columnist Jack Anderson, had sent me, urging me “to penetrate Nazi circles in South America.” Seriously.
I was supposed to hunt for Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz doctor who had sent thousands to the gas chambers. Dr. Mengele—the world’s most wanted Nazi war criminal—had eluded capture since the war. I didn’t have the foggiest idea how to be a Nazi hunter. Alone in my hotel room, I conjured up Emma Peel.
“This is what she would have done,” I told myself, delighted, and feeling very much like an Avenger.
I would summon her during low moments too. One night, in those shadowy pre-VHS, pre-DVD days, I had dinner with a friend. “What do you want?” he kept asking, “What would make you happy?” I said I wished I could lock myself in a room and do nothing but watch episodes of “The Avengers.” In the depths of a depression, I wanted only to see Emma Peel again.
Somewhere along the line she had stopped being merely a childhood idol and role model. She had become a life force. Perhaps she always was. Through the years, when I found myself going over to the dark side, she would appear, reassuring and rational. I now needed her more to fight demons within me than evildoers outside. Unfortunately, there was no judo move or karate chop that could defeat them.
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When news broke she would be in New York, I realized it was a chance to finally come to grips with this obsession. Diana Rigg had gone on to enjoy a distinguished career in London theater. She also had various stints on television and picked up awards along the way. Occasionally she came to New York—to star in a production of Abelard and Heloise in the ’70s, and Medea in the ’90s.
And I didn’t watch her in “Game of Thrones,” the HBO show that was giving her mass appeal all over again.
An editor offered me an assignment that felt more thrilling—and possibly more terrifying—than that time I was asked to penetrate Nazi circles: I was to go and interview Emma Peel-Diana Rigg. There were dangers lurking, he warned. I could come away disillusioned. I could find that I didn’t even like her. A therapist made it worse. You realize that she is an actress, he said. I looked at him bewildered.
My Journal credentials became my cover. I was offered a full hour with “Dame Diana” by the play’s publicists. In person.
I had a million questions left over from my childhood. How had she looked so convincing in these fight scenes? Was she in fact a master in judo and karate? Had she missed being Emma Peel? I devoted weekends to watching “The Avengers.” I trolled the Internet and picked up disturbing facts. According to online lore, her name—which I’d found so melodious, so soulful—was concocted by the show’s producers, who wanted a character with “male appeal” – hence, M. Appeal or “Emma Peel.”
And what about her female appeal, I wondered. What about her appeal to little girls?
I also learned she’d hated that wonderful black leather outfit. Huh?
As the day of the interview drew near, I planned a visit to my hairdresser to replicate her old ’do. I had decided to channel the Emma Peel look. I imagined at last confiding how all I had achieved had come from watching her in “The Avengers.”
Last week, I learned it was not to be. The show was closing before Dame Diana’s turn; she wasn’t coming.
A part of me was reeling. But the Emma Peel that still lurks inside took it more coolly. Yes, my love would remain undeclared. But I also wouldn’t have to pose those obligatory reporter questions about, say, “Game of Thrones,” or listen to possibly banal answers.
Mostly I wouldn’t see her grown older, looking so different from the lovely young woman etched in my brain.
Loved The Avengers and Diana Rigg. I\'m sure my obsession with The Avengers and Man From U.N.C.L.E. Influenced my choosing a career in law enforcement.
I think that anyone who doesn\'t know how to use the most basic punctuation is an idiot.
What was that memorable quote from one of those episodes?....when captured in a mid-centuries setting, thrown into a dungeon and told by crooks that she\'s terrible she responds ...\'if you think I\'m wicked now you should see me in the 60\'s.\' The whole show was such an entertainment.
In the sixties my sister in law had a Doberman she named Emma Peel. The ultimate compliment.
I lived across the street from her in the late 1970s.....Pembroke Rd. She sure was and is a classy lady.
And.....On Her Majesty\'s Secret Service. She was never more radiant or beautiful than in that movie.
I loved The Avengers. Chock full of typically English whimsy and high British repartee. Too bad Lucette didn\'t meet Mrs Peel. I know how spine tingling coming face to face with your fantasy could be. My company did business with a distributor in Montreal for years. There, a female sales person would call me frequently for assistance. Suzette had the most charming voice and wonderful French accent. For years we joked and harmlessly flirted as coworkers of the day once could. Over time I came to imagine she resembled in manner and dress a perfect 1960\'s French maid of just about my age. Over many years my fantasy grew in every detail right down to the feather duster, until to NJ she came for training. No human who has ever walked the earth could have measured up to what I had conjured she might look like. My "Jersey Kermit the frog" voice shielded me from any reciprocal fantasizing on her part. When we finally met... well, I\'ll just keep that Suzette\'s and my little secret.
I too was fascinated by Mrs. Peel when I was a young girl wrestling with the media norms of helpless, obedient and ignorant women. Glad to hear from a kindred spirit.
For me, the best part of \'The Avengers\' was the dynamic duo chemistry between Patrick MacNee\'s John Steed and Emma Peel. The series\' producers were cognizant about the broadcast moral proprieties\' of the time to make sure viewers knew Peel\'s adventurer husband was presumed dead to make her a Mrs., but was smartly sneaky enough to include quick bits of verbal and physical interplay between the two periodically to imply the POSSIBILITY of a more than professional relationship outside of the crime fighting tasks.
By the by, Dame Rigg\'s actress daughter, Rachael Stirling, has the same assertive self-possession in publicity interviews along with mom\'s sharply angular beauty. The fruit don\'t fall too far.........
Thank you, Ms. Lagnado. Your article brought back such wonderful memories I have of watching The Avengers with Diana Rigg. I once saw "John Steed" (Patrick Macnee) in "Sleuth" on Broadway (and I got his autograph) but I never got to see Diana Rigg.
I have long thought that Diana Rigg should be receive credit for empowering women. She was and continues to be a roll model.
As Mrs Peel, a woman that lived alone and was whole and complete in her life . . . And as Diana Rigg as well.
Running into glamorous celebrities after they\'ve aged can be a shock as it drives home, in a way looking in the mirror often doesn\'t, that one has also run down quite a bit.
I\'m another smitten fan, though from a slightly different vantage point.
However: "How had she looked so convincing in these fight scenes?"
Ahem, even as a kid I knew about and could easily detect stunt doubles...
Yes, there was something *more* there, in that fantasy. Part of it had to be the show, but Diana Rigg was the center and the heart. Thanks for the essay.
I would like to confront the reality of the older Dame Diana if I had the chance. I wasn\'t so smitten as you but I did watch and like the show. Loved your story though!
Yes, Dianna Rigg represents the archetype of timeless, alluring beauty. Such rare recessive beauty is especially apparent in New America, a now largely nondescript mongrelized (country). Fortunately, genetics, cloning techniques may be able to preserve the beautiful people, to save them from assimilation, extinction. The unrelenting pressure on & threat to the recessive gene pool is a serious issue. Fortunately, worldwide assortative mating continues to exist among the educated, the socially responsible class..
Man, I don\'t know what it is about Dianna Rigg, but she\'s one of those rare women who can forever draw you in and never let you go.
Dianna Rigg and Barbara Feldon. Now that would have been the ultimate Spy Girl fantasy.
Me too. Another kid who fell in love with Emma/Diana in the 60\'s. Thanks for a wonderful article.
Great article. I loved Emma Peel as a kid, and grew to see Diana Rigg as a great actress.
Well done--If only John Steed could have been so well emulated.
Charming remembrance. This piece demonstrates great courage. And it\'s far better than an interview with an actress--no matter how eloquent or insightful she might have been.
Channeling William F. Buckley, are we? Put down the shot glass and sleep it off.
@Paula Dowling OMG I agree with Ms. Dowling on something else. She was and is a great actress.
@Robert Oldham Many years ago I got onto a Century City elevator and there he was: Patrick Macnee.
My eyes went wide and I froze. He smiled and nodded, ever the gentleman.
@William Ledsham @Paula Dowling I guess its just Churchill and Rigg.
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