Dame Diana Rigg: The British acting icon's greatest roles

Tom Beasley
·Contributor
·7 mins read

Watch: Bond, Avengers and Game of Thrones star dies at aged 82

British acting legend Dame Diana Rigg has passed away at the age of 82, sparking tributes from across the film and TV industry.

The formidable star had a career on the big and small screens spanning from 1959 through to the as-yet-unreleased Edgar Wright horror movie Last Night in Soho, which will arrive in 2021. That’s more than 60 years of Rigg dominating screens with her unique gravitas and ability.

Over the course of her glittering career, she appeared in some of the most memorable franchises in film and television, working right up until her final months. Here’s the pick of Rigg’s most influential work over the years.

The Avengers (1965-1968)

Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee are Emma Peel and John Steed in 'The Avengers'. (Photo by ABC Weekend Television/Associated British Corporation/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee are Emma Peel and John Steed in 'The Avengers'. (Photo by ABC Weekend Television/Associated British Corporation/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Rigg joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in the late 1950s and made her TV debut in a 1959 adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her breakout role, however, was as Emma Peel in the beloved espionage series The Avengers. She joined the show in 1965, filling the shoes left empty by Honor Blackman, and promptly won fans with her character’s portrayal as a martial arts expert who was rarely bested in a fight.

She was initially unhappy with her treatment on the show, demanding an increase to her pay when she learned she was earning less than the cameraman — an increase she duly got. Just as Blackman had done, Rigg ultimately stepped aside in order to join the James Bond franchise.

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1968)

Helen Mirren and Diana Rigg in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. (Credit: Eagle)
Helen Mirren and Diana Rigg in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. (Credit: Eagle)

Having crafted a widely adored character on the small screen, Rigg made the jump to the cinema with the star-studded 1968 adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She portrayed Helena — one of the four young lovers in the story, sharing many scenes with Helen Mirren’s Hermia. Sadly, the film was not positively received by critics.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

Diana Rigg and George Lazenby on the set of 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service'. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Diana Rigg and George Lazenby on the set of 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service'. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

For many, Rigg’s best known role is as Tracy di Vicenzo in James Bond adventure On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Far more than a “Bond girl”, Tracy is the only woman who has ever been able to convince 007 to set aside his womanising ways and tie the knot. Brutally killed by Blofeld and henchwoman Irma Bunt just after their wedding, Rigg’s Tracy features in arguably the most devastating Bond finale of all time.

Read more: George Lazenby pays tribute to Sean Connery

Rubbished by many at the time — largely as a result of George Lazenby’s unconvincing turn as Bond — On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is increasingly being reappraised as one of the best 007 stories ever brought to the big screen. Rigg’s work has a lot to do with that.

The Great Muppet Caper (1981)

Lady Holiday, played by Diana Rigg, gives instructions to her secretary, Miss Piggy, in Jim Henson's 'The Great Muppet Caper'. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Lady Holiday, played by Diana Rigg, gives instructions to her secretary, Miss Piggy, in Jim Henson's 'The Great Muppet Caper'. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Human leads in Muppets movies are often the ideal vehicle for beloved actors to deliver some of their most interesting performances. Just as many hold up Michael Caine’s work in The Muppet Christmas Carol as some of his best, Diana Rigg is wonderful as Lady Holiday in 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper. She portrays a fashion designer who has been the victim of a jewel theft, which is investigated by a team of reporters, including “twins” Kermit and Fozzie Bear.

Evil Under the Sun (1982)

Diana Rigg in 'Evil Under the Sun'. (Credit: Universal/Associated Film Distribution)
Diana Rigg in 'Evil Under the Sun'. (Credit: Universal/Associated Film Distribution)

In Bond regular Guy Hamilton’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel, Rigg plays Arlena Stuart Marshall — mistress of a millionaire industrialist. Arlena makes a great deal of enemies in the early part of the movie and then turns up dead, presenting Hercule Poirot with his usual revolving door of potential suspects. Unfolding on an idyllic Adriatic island, it’s a big and glamorous whodunnit featuring some terrific costumes.

Mother Love (1989)

David McCallum and Diana Rigg at a photocall for the BBC TV series 'Mother Love'. 17th October 1989. (Photo by Julian Brown/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)
David McCallum and Diana Rigg at a photocall for the BBC TV series 'Mother Love'. 17th October 1989. (Photo by Julian Brown/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Rigg won her only BAFTA for playing the lead role in this BBC miniseries, which aired in 1989. She’s the obsessive mother of Kit (James Wilby), who is exceedingly angry with his concert musician father (David McCallum). The dysfunctional family setup gives way to secrets emerging from the past and, eventually, darkness and violence. Surprisingly, given its award-winning credentials, the series is pretty difficult to find nowadays.

Rebecca (1997)

Diana Rigg, Emilia Fox and Charles Dance in the 1997 miniseries adaptation of 'Rebecca'. (Credit: ITV/PBS)
Diana Rigg, Emilia Fox and Charles Dance in the 1997 miniseries adaptation of 'Rebecca'. (Credit: ITV/PBS)

Alfred Hitchcock’s take won the Oscar for Best Picture and Ben Wheatley is having a go for Netflix this year, but Diana Rigg also spent some time in the world of Daphne du Maurier’s classic, gothic tale. She won an Emmy for playing the supporting role of Mrs Danvers, alongside Charles Dance as Maxim de Winter and Emilia Fox as his second wife. It aired in the UK on ITV and via the PBS network in the United States.

Read more: Lily James and Armie Hammer star in Rebecca trailer

Doctor Who (2013)

Diana Rigg with Jenna Coleman and Matt Smith in 'Doctor Who' episode 'The Crimson Horror'. (Credit: BBC)
Diana Rigg with Jenna Coleman and Matt Smith in 'Doctor Who' episode 'The Crimson Horror'. (Credit: BBC)

The Crimson Horror, from the seventh series of Doctor Who, was written specifically for Rigg, who wanted the chance to perform alongside her daughter, Rachael Stirling. Rigg plays Mrs Gillyflower, who runs the utopian community of Sweetville and is harbouring a dark secret linked to the fact bodies are being dumped in canals with bright red skin.

Read more: BBC insists future of Doctor Who is safe

Writer Mark Gatiss said that he aimed to pen a uniquely Northern episode of Doctor Who with the legendary actor in mind and claims this was the first time Rigg was able to use her own Doncaster accent while acting.

Game of Thrones (2013-2017)

Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell in 'Game of Thrones'. (Credit: HBO)
Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell in 'Game of Thrones'. (Credit: HBO)

There’s little doubt that the role most intimately connected with Rigg for modern audiences is her simply delicious turn as Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones. The devious matriarch joined the show in season three as her granddaughter, Margaery, was betrothed to King Joffrey. By the beginning of the fourth season, she was proving adept with poison and masterminding the evil ruler’s death — although she wouldn’t reveal this secret to the Lannister clan until her sensational exit in seventh season.

Read more: Lena Headey was “gutted” by Cersei’s death

Olenna proved to be one of the highlights of Thrones during some of its strongest seasons and clearly had a terrific time with such a meaty role. In 2013, she said she “couldn’t ask for better lines” than she was served by the scripts. Amen to that.

Last Night in Soho (2021)

Teaser poster for 'Last Night in Soho'. (Credit: Focus Features/Universal)
Teaser poster for 'Last Night in Soho'. (Credit: Focus Features/Universal)

Rigg’s final performance was in Edgar Wright’s psychological horror Last Night in Soho. The film finished shooting last summer — but for some additional filming in August this year — and had been due to arrive this autumn, only to be shunted into 2021 in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Rigg is playing the character of Miss Collins, which is all we know about her at this point.

Wright was among those who paid tribute to Rigg on Twitter today, describing her as “blazingly talented, fiery and funny”. It will be interesting to see which side of her acting mastery she showcases in this particular outing, which will serve as her big screen swansong.