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OP-ED: A damsel never in distress

  • Published at 10:15 pm September 27th, 2020
Diana Rigg
Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in The Avengers

Diana Rigg challenged the notion that women could only be defined by their looks

When someone talks about The Avengers, I do not think of the superhero-filled celluloid schlock which has become something of a rage among modern-day film lovers. 

Call me old-fashioned, demoded, or whatever you will, but The Avengers was and will always be the suave, fabulously outlandish 60s British TV series which aired during the height of Cold War paranoia, starring Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg, known in the series as Mrs Emma Peel (or “‘M’ Appeal,” ie, men appeal.) 

The Avengers needed some female oomph to attract a wider viewership and, thus, the name Emma Peel was born. 

Dame Diana Rigg died on September 10 last due to cancer which had been diagnosed just six months earlier. To be precise, as the world went into the Coronavirus lockdown, the clock of life for Diana Rigg also became locked within a specified timeframe. 

But it would be wrong to say that Diana Rigg slipped into eternity after a period of oblivion. In fact, in the latter years of her life, she regained fame in Game of Thrones

However, that is not the image I have of her; I see her as this fabulous actress who was a trailblazer in creating the feisty, sassy female protagonist equal to her male partner in all aspects. 

Diana Rigg was not just an icon of a fascinating age but also an enduring image of how women in the 60s were asserting their place in society. 

Female empowerment with avant garde thrill

Any 60s cult TV fanatic would say without hesitation that The Avengers added a heavy dose of eccentric charm to after-dinner home entertainment. 

However, to understand the series and the plucky role of Diana Rigg as the undaunted Emma Peel, one needs to grasp the social dynamics of the time which were heavily impregnated by Cold War suspicions and constant threats of Armageddon. 

The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 brought the world on the brink of a nuclear showdown though, in the end, common sense triumphed over bellicose impulses. 

While both the US and the USSR took a step back, the world had already experienced the anxiety of coming close to possible extinction. 

The feeling of being on the edge of a precipice influenced the zeitgeist of the time, giving acceptability to everything that challenged convention or bland conservative ideas. The Avengers came to the small screen just after the Cuban Missile Crisis and it thrived in its power to be outre to the last degree. 

With nukes hanging over the world, discarding restrictions plus taboos became de rigueur.  

Diana Rigg playing the part of Emma Peel was a metaphorical bombshell dropped on a social creed which, until that time, had very insular notions about feminine roles in films. 

Rigg electrified black and white entertainment on TV with her wit, action sequences, leather jumpsuits, and one unmistakable message: Women of substance are not to be trifled with. 

Just like the uncompromising character of Emma Peel who refused to be subdued by villains, in real life, Diana became vocal about the low wages she received for her part, which, as she mentioned in several interviews, was lower than that of the camera person. 

Diana exposed the hypocrisy of the period: While women power was being portrayed on celluloid, the actual pay for a female actor was derisory. 

The 60s rebellious theme, a maverick outlook plus a penchant for the bizarre were the hallmarks of The Avengers with Diana Rigg triggering salacious controversy in the episode “A Touch of Brimstone,” where she audaciously dressed in a low-cut black dress, sported a studded collar, and held a live snake in her hands, surrounded by virile members of the resurrected 18th century Hellfire Club. 

The sadomasochistic overtone was too much but that was the 60s -- a time when challenging convention was the norm. 

The woman who caged 007 

Diana Rigg is also known for her role as Countess Tracy di Vicenzo in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS), in which James Bond, the philandering superspy, falls in love and gets married. 

Sadly, Tracy is killed in the end but OHMSS is now deemed a classic movie in its own right -- not because it’s a 007 flick but because of its emotional poignancy. 

Rigg came under global spotlight for her role in the James Bond movie but unlike many other Bond girls who just bask in the fame of 007, Diana, during an interview, stated unequivocally that the template of the Bond girl, in which the female lead is actually a tool used shrewdly to accentuate Bond’s masculine magnetism, has become outdated. 

In that interview, Rigg’s disdain for such a stereotyped presentation was evident -- irrefutable proof that she was indeed a renegade of the period who refused to be pressed into a defined role. 

Later on, Rigg shone on stage, especially in King Lear and Macbeth but also in Theatre of Blood, a smashing film with legendary horror actor Vincent Price, who played the role of a vengeful Shakespearean actor ignored by supercilious theatre critics. 

One of my favourites is The Assassination Bureau where she paired with Oliver Reed in another very quirky plot. 

In the mid- 70s, The Avengers was shown in Bangladesh, and in a newly independent country, Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel inspired many women to shed years of restrictions to sit behind the steering wheel, learn to drive, and go to the dojo to learn martial arts.

With her death, I can clearly see the impact she had on women in helping them to believe that they can be glamorous and just as capable as men. 

Diana Rigg challenged and shattered the concept that women were just about looks.

The episode, A Touch of Brimstone, has three sublime English actors: Peter Wyngarde, Diana Rigg, and Patrick Macnee. All three are now deceased. 

I wonder if God has now opened up a Hellfire Club in heaven!

Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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