Goodbye, Mrs Peel — A (Very Personal) Reminiscence About Diana Rigg

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Photo by Isi Parente on Unsplash

Who was the first media character you wanted to be? (Not hang out with, or be in the place of).

For me, it was the kickass, catsuit wearing figure of Mrs Emma Peel. Although The Avengers ran before I was born, my dad was and is a fan of “Spy fi” on TV, and introduced me to the show as soon as he thought I was old enough to appreciate it.

I don’t honestly remember how old that was.

But I do remember Emma Peel and what she came to mean to me. Some people might laugh: I thought the woman who wore a catsuit and who’s name was a pun on “Man Appeal” was some kind of role model?

Who Was Emma Peel?

The Avengers was a British spy fi show that was created in 1961, and ran for 8 seasons. Initially, it starred Ian Hendry as Dr. David Keel and Patrick Macnee as his sidekick, John Steed.

Then Hendry quit. Macnee was promoted to lead and, after several false starts got his second partner, Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman. She was a judo-loving anthropologist, and she was like no other female character before…simply because Steed was the face, the social skill character. Gale was the fighter. And in her first episodes, some of her lines were written for a male character.

Gale should have been remembered, but she quit in 1965. The decision was made to replace Cathy Gale with a similar character with more “Man Appeal,” and the working name of the character telephone gamed into Emma Peel. Elizabeth Shepherd was hired to play the role.

And fired after one and a half episodes. After this they did a much more careful search.

20 auditions later, an almost complete unknown was chosen to replace her.

That woman was Diana Rigg. The incredible chemistry between Rigg and Macnee took things to a new level, and the show shifted from a straight espionage show to faintly campy and true Spy-Fi.

Despite the fact that she was only on the show for two years, it’s Emma Peel who’s remembered, who shows up in cosplay at cons, not Cathy Gale. After she left, she was replaced by…the producer’s girlfriend.

So, a show that ran for 9 years is mostly remembered for two, and it’s remembered for that one character. To the point where, while I’m sure I watched a ton of Cathy Gale episodes, I suspect I remember her as some version of Emma Peel.

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Photo by antonio molinari on Unsplash

Diana Rigg

At the time of the Avengers, Diana Rigg was a stage actor with only some minor screen roles. Her training was as a Shakespearean actor and she was, in fact, in the Royal Shakespeare Company for years before making the switch to television.

Since then?

She’s been, well, everywhere. She was the one Bond Girl James truly loved in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

She hosted the British mystery anthology series Masterpiece Mystery for…ever. Years. That’s probably how many people know her.

Her acting career demonstrated range…comedies, Shakespeare, and some excellent performances as villains. She sneaked into a Doctor Who episode. Oh, wait, no. They wrote an entire Doctor Who episode just for her and her daughter. Not many actors have gotten that honor.

I suspect, though, that to most people reading this she is Olenna Tyrell, a role she was in many ways born to play, although few people believe she was ever an action star!

And she won a BAFTA award for Best Actress, has been nominated for nine Emmys, and won a number of other awards. Oh, and she never abandoned the stage and won a Tony award for her role in Medea.

She was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1994, the second highest honor in the OBE.

Diana Rigg passed away on September 10, 2020.

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Photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

Diana Rigg’s Departure from The Avengers

As large as her tenure looms in my memory, Diana Rigg only played Emma Peel for two seasons. She disliked being treated as a sex symbol and was being paid considerably less than her co lead — less, in fact, than the highest paid cameraman. And while she got on very well with Macnee, she had no other fans on set.

Her departure was understandable, but there’s something I wish I had had the chance to tell her.

I have an Emma Peel cosplay. It’s not a fantastic one because I’m neither a fantastic craftswoman nor that rich. But it’s recognizable when I go to smaller cons (at large ones I am inevitably mistaken for Black Widow despite the completely different hair).

And here’s the thing.

The people who recognize Mrs Peel, the people who come over to ask for a photograph with me. The people who are absolutely thrilled to see her being cosplayed?

They aren’t old guys.

They’re always, 100% of the time, women. Usually, but not always, women who were little girls when the show was on. Others, like me, are younger women who presumably watched it in re-runs, perhaps, like me, introduced to the show by parents.

The people who remember Emma Peel, the people who value the character for her equality with her partner, her brilliance in a fight, her intelligence?

Little. Girls.

Emma Peel was designed to have Man Appeal, and likely she did to at least some men.

But somehow, and I entirely blame Diana Rigg’s talent as an actor and Shakespearean training, what she actually had was something else. Something far more important.

Girl Power.

For me…and for the women who come up to me at conventions because they want to pretend they’re getting to hang out with Mrs Peel…her impact is larger than life, larger than two seasons.

And I wish I could tell Diana Rigg that.

I hope somebody did.

Written by

Freelance writer, freelance editor, novelist and short story writer. Jack of many trades.

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