Judi Dench got one. Maggie Smith got one. Helen Mirren got one. Now it’s Diana Rigg’s turn to have a DVD set devoted to her work for the BBC, a five-disc box called, yes, Diana Rigg at the BBC.
Like the rest of her career – a witty secret-agent series ( The Avengers), success with Shakespeare and Tom Stoppard onstage, a failed U.S. sitcom ( Diana), a terrific horror comedy opposite Vincent Price ( Theatre of Blood), a stint introducing Mystery! and a role as the only Bond girl to marry James Bond ( On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) – her BBC work is all over the map.
She gets serious opposite Anthony Hopkins in Henrik Ibsen’s Little Eyolf (1982). She plays a put-upon, lovelorn woman hoping for rural peace in Unexplained Laughter (1989). She takes a supporting role as a Nazi-sympathizing Bavarian baroness in 1958 in the black comedy-drama Genghis Cohn (1993, based on a Romain Gary novel), trying to seduce Robert Lindsay as a former SS officer haunted by the ghost of a Polish comedian he ordered shot (Anthony Sher).
She stars in five episodes of the Mrs. Bradley Mysteries (1998-2000), as a wealthy amateur sleuth in the 1920s whose uninhibited ways and cozy relationship with her chauffeur (Neil Dudgeon) scandalize those whose mysteries she is kind enough to solve. If the scripts aren’t up to those of, say, David Suchet’s outings as Hercule Poirot, they do give Rigg the chance to deliver caustic asides to the camera and to savour Adela Bradley’s better lines. “I’m really reluctant to do this, George,” she says while removing a stocking so it can be used as a fan belt. “The feminine virtue of self-sacrifice is entirely foreign to my nature.”
But the real treat of this five-disc set is the 1977 series Three Piece Suite. Each of the six half-hour episodes is broken into three sketches written by established writers. All of them star Rigg in a whirl of accents and characters: brassy young American actress, suburban housewife fearing she has committed adultery, long-suffering wife of a ranting husband.
The nature of the sketches must have seemed old-fashioned even then, in the wake of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. They are playlets rather than skits, wry character studies rather than joke machines. In a recent 20-minute interview included here, Rigg calls the series “a mixed bag. And as I recollect, it didn’t go down with the critics all that well, although I adored doing it.”
The joy is in seeing Rigg tackle so many roles with such élan, whether in solo spots or playing opposite such actors as Bob Hoskins and, as that ranting husband, John Cleese. Highlights include a parody of Noel Coward’s Private Lives with Rigg as Elizabeth Taylor (with whom she would soon co-star in the misbegotten film version of A Little Night Music) and Tony Britton as Richard Burton.
At the end of the series, she recites the entire closing credits. She really has done everything.