Avengers star Dame Diana Rigg dies aged 82 after brave cancer battle

DAME Diana Rigg, who broke the mould playing kick-ass heroine Emma Peel in Sixties telly hit The Avengers, has died of cancer at the age of 82.

One of Britain’s greatest actresses, and most celebrated beauties, she was one of the first female stars to appear naked on stage and played the only woman to marry James Bond.

In recent years she won over a new generation of fans as the Queen of Thorns, the waspish Olenna Tyrell, in Game Of Thrones and as Doctor Who villain Winifred Gillyflower.

Always defying convention, she battled the gender gap on The Avengers by promising to quit unless her meagre pay packet was trebled — while insisting she was no feminist.

At the same time, though, this former public-school girl was at the vanguard of Sixties sexual freedom.

She believed couples could only keep their love lives sizzling by going off with other partners — only to lose her second husband when that theory was put to the test.

Diana’s auburn bob haircut, slender 5ft 8in frame, skilled delivery and quick wit captivated men worldwide.

Legendary actor Sir Laurence Olivier once called her “a brilliantly skilled and delicious actress”, and American star Douglas Fairbanks Jnr said “anyone who doesn’t find her devastatingly attractive must be an Outer Mongolian monk”.

Her willingness to break new ground made her stand out. In The Avengers, Diana wore punk-style metal spikes around her neck and filmed a saucy whipping scene – which was cut by censors.

She once said: “I’ve been called unconventional. Conformists are ­critical of nonconformists. I just go my own way, quietly holding on to my independence.”

Her distinguished career was as varied as it was long — including guest-starring on The Morecambe & Wise show, alongside Daniel Radcliffe in Extras and in ITV’s Victoria. Before that she featured in productions of Shakespeare plays alongside legends such as Sir John Gielgud.

Last night stars paid tribute. George Lazenby revealed he wept for his 007 co-star and added: “She raised my acting game. Her depth of experience really helped me.”

Game Of Thrones co-star John Bradley, who played Samwell Tarly, said: “Diana was just wonderful. But you all knew that already. Everybody did. Very sad news.”

Playwright Sir Tom Stoppard said: “For half her life Diana was the most beautiful woman in the room. She went to work with her sleeves rolled up and a smile for everyone. Her talent was luminous.”

The League Of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss, who appeared alongside her at the Old Vic in All About My Mother, tweeted: “It was my great joy and privilege to have known Diana Rigg. Flinty, fearless, fabulous. There will never be another. RIP”.

Actress Mia Farrow wrote: “Oh no! She was magnificent!! Gratitude to the great Diana Rigg for so many fearless, fascinating performances.”

Broadcaster Gyles Brandreth said: “Funny, feisty, beautiful, intelligent & gifted. The end of an era — and a special life.”

Born in Doncaster, South Yorks, Diana was taken to India when she was just two months old after her engineer father Louis got a job there.

She lived in Rajasthan until she was seven. Her parents stayed in Asia while she was sent to Fulneck all-girls boarding school in Pudsey, West Yorks.

Diana did not see her mum Beryl for a year and a half, which was tough at such a young age.

The actress said: “I loved her very much but she was quite a stranger to me when she returned.

“My father was even more of a stranger because I didn’t see him for two years. I think it probably did leave its mark.”

From the age of 11, Diana dreamed of being an actress and joined top British drama school Rada against her parents’ wishes. There, she enjoyed the chance to meet men and party.

She recalled: “I was quite larky there and I was nearly chucked out. Not for being naughty but for being rather tired in class because of all the activities during the night before.”

Her performances with the Royal Shakespeare Company grabbed the attention of TV producers seeking a replacement for Honor Blackman on The Avengers.

It was Diana who made the part of Patrick Macnee’s secret-agent sidekick famous when the BBC show was sold to an American company in 1965.

The programme’s success meant she was able to demand her weekly £150 wage was trebled to £450.

After quitting the show, she took the role of a countess who wins the heart of ladies’ man 007 in 1969 Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

She was cast to offer some gravitas alongside model George Lazenby, who had taken over from Sean Connery as Bond despite having no acting experience.

Afterwards she returned to the stage, including a controversial performance as a naked nun in a version of Abelard And Heloise, for which she was nominated for a Tony Award.

She later recalled: “I was one of the first actresses to appear nude in a love scene on the stage.

“The director told me the nudity was absolutely necessary, which was absolute rubbish. It wasn’t ­necessary at all.

“It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever done.

“I agreed to it because I was stupid.

“But I don’t regret it. It’s too small a thing to dwell upon.”

Both off screen and off stage, Diana always displayed a very determined independence.

She lived with film director Philip Saville, who made TV’s The Life And Loves Of A She-Devil, for eight years, insisting she had no desire to get married.

When Diana finally tied the knot in 1973 it was with Israeli artist Menachem Gueffen — and it proved to be a “ghastly” mistake, lasting less than a year.

In a 1974 interview she commented that it was difficult to stay faithful because after going through the “sexual permutations” with a man, “what both partners need is an exploratory trip elsewhere, with someone new.”

She felt a relationship could get a fresh spark from seeing someone else. That theory was tested beyond its limits by her second husband, wealthy Scottish land owner Archie Stirling.

Stirling, whose uncle Colonel David Stirling formed the SAS, strayed with actress Joely Richardson, then 25 — and 23 years his junior.

In 1990 the couple ended their eight-year marriage, divorcing on the grounds of his “unreasonable behaviour”.

Having had her only child, daughter Rachael Stirling — now an actress herself and married to Elbow frontman Guy Garvey — with Archie, Diana slowed her acting career to focus on being a mum.

But a return to the stage and screen in the 1990s brought her a string of triumphs.

Diana won a Best Actress Tony Award in 1994 for the play Medea, a Best Actress Bafta for the BBC series Mother Love in 1990 and an Outstanding Supporting Actress Emmy for the TV show Rebecca in 1997.

In 1994 she was made a Dame by the Queen for her services to drama. Working right up to the end of her life, she won plaudits for her spiky performance on the Channel 5 remake of All Creatures Great And Small.

Having started smoking at the age of 18, Diana was still getting through 20 cigarettes a day in 2009. Then, less than three years ago, she quit for good after learning she needed heart surgery.

She said: “My heart stopped ticking during the procedure, so I was up there and the good Lord must have said, ‘Send the old bag down again, I’m not having her yet’.”

This March, Diana was diagnosed with cancer and the devout Christian died peacefully in her sleep.

Her daughter Rachael, 43, said: “She spent her last months joyfully reflecting on her extraordinary life, full of love, laughter and a deep pride in her profession.”

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