Friday, July 23, 2010

Friday Dance Party: "Mrs. Peel, We're Needed."

All hail Diana Rigg! She burst onto the international scene when she took over the female lead in the 60s British television series The Avengers, a show I remember quite fondly from my youth. It took the espionage genre popular during the Cold War, added a bit of SciFi and a lot of stylish humor, and created a hybrid all its own.

Rigg was not very happy doing the show, discovering after her first year that she was being paid less than the cameraman, but she stuck with the program for three seasons. Though the series had a life before and after her appearances, her years as the athletic, sensuous Mrs. Emma Peel are commonly considered the highlight of the series' run. She never quite escaped that early fame; only a few years ago, she poked a bit of fun at herself during a cameo appearance on Ricky Gervais's series Extras, when guest star Daniel Radcliffe asked if the now middle-aged Dame Diana still had that cat suit.

During the time The Avengers was broadcast on American television, I had no idea Rigg already had substantial classical theatre cred. In her early career, she was memorably paired with a very young Helen Mirren and a topless Judi Dench in the RSC's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and her extensive Shakespearean resume includes playing Regan to Laurence Olivier's King Lear, which would turn out to be his final Shakespearean role. Her stage work has included Stoppard, Coward, Brecht, Albee, Williams, and Euripides.

Diana won the Tony in 1995 for her Medea, and the Emmy in 1997 as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. She was damed in 1994. Bond buffs think her work in 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service far outshines that of George Lazenby, who was playing 007 at the time, but my favorite film role of Diana's must be 1973's Theatre of Blood, a darkly comic, tongue-in-cheek movie which mixes theatrical grand guignol with Shakespeare (and gives Vincent Price one of his juiciest roles to boot).

(That's Diana in disguise, helping Vinnie whip up a meat pie with a particularly vengeful ingredient)

Rigg must have felt a particular satisfaction in appearing in Theatre of Blood, which concerns an actor taking gruesome but appropriate vengeance on the critics who savaged his work. Diana herself had been deeply humiliated by critic John Simon in 1971, when he described her nudity in Abelard and Heloise as being "built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses." She included that hideous stinger in her best-selling book No Turn Unstoned, a compilation of the worst reviews ever published about herself and her peers. (The book is painful and hilarious and a must-read for any actor.)

This week's Dance Party star does not consider herself much of a musical theatre performer, but her resume proves otherwise. There are people who still recall her guest appearance on the Christmas episode of the British variety show Morecambe and Wise in 1975, where she displayed hammy music hall skills.

Over the years, she has sung several of Stephen Sondheim's most memorable character songs. She was the only actor to emerge unscathed from the disastrous attempt to film A Little Night Music in 1977, in which she stole her scenes as Countess Charlotte, and warbled "Every Day a Little Death" opposite Lesley-Anne Down.

The London stage premiere of Follies, in which she played cynical socialite Phyllis, allowed her to belt "Could I Leave You?". It was in this production that she introduced a new Sondheim song written specifically for her. The recording of that number, "Ah, but Underneath," is the soundtrack for today's Dance Party clip, a montage of our star's film and television career. I'm not really sure why I became such an early fan of Rigg's back in the day, perhaps it was her easy repartee with the ultra-suave Patrick Macnee in The Avengers (I doubt it was that cat suit), but no matter. And I don't care what snarky John Simon thinks: Dame Diana has plenty of flying buttresses for me:

Dame Diana Rigg turned 72 years old this week.

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