If You Remind Her, Diana Rigg Might Recall Starring in TV's Bleak House—but Her Mind's on Her Happy Home

updated 01/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Although it's teatime in London, Diana Rigg cradles a bottle of champagne. "Would it be sinful to breach it at this hour?" she asks. As usual with Rigg, the question is rhetorical. Without a pause she proceeds to pop the cork and pour two glasses. Settling into an armchair in the sitting room of her Kensington town house, she expertly manages a glass in one hand, a cigarette in the other. The tableau is quintessential Rigg: white cashmere sweater, black slacks, black boots, the familiar face framed by smoke in the late afternoon light.

Long one of Britain's best actresses, Rigg, 47, has done most of her work of late on her own turf. In fact she has so relished the roles of wife and mother that even she cannot readily recount her recent professional outings. "What have I been doing?" she asks in that distinctively dramatic voice that could make a grocery list sound like something by George Bernard Shaw. When Rigg speaks, no consonant is left unturned. She indulges in italics, flourishes, elongations that threaten to transform any polysyllabic word into a monologue. "What did I do? Fas-cin-a-ting, isn't it? I did the TV version of, uh, what was, oh! Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution. That's what I did," she says, snapping her fingers with delight. "I did Ibsen's Little Eyolf onstage. I did Antony and Cleopatra onstage, which I finished in July. I did Bleak House onstage." No, in fact, she did Bleak House for television in a much-praised eight-art adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel that currently is showing on PBS' Masterpiece Theatre. Catching her error a moment later, Rigg recovers. "I meant I did Heartbreak House onstage. I had a late night last night."

Rigg looks every inch the proper lady of the spacious Victorian house, yet she has fancied being unconventional ever since she was 17. Just graduated from a "very rigid" boarding school, she was accepted at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Rigg spent most of her two years there experimenting less with acting challenges than with "divers lovers. I'd never actually had fun before." Later, she forfeited a career with the Royal Shakespeare Company to create the role of the leather-clad, karate-chopping crime fighter Emma Peel in The Avengers. And even now this upper-class citizen has a cheap ceramic ashtray emblazoned "Sex is healthier" in her sitting room.

Yet Rigg often sounds like Dr. Spock these days. Since the birth of her daughter, Rachael, eight years ago, she has plotted her career around the child's schedule. "I'm not prepared to hazard the relationship I have with my daughter," she says. "I don't have scads of children. I only have one, and you can't afford to play around with that."

Indeed, one of Rigg's earliest memories of life in the theater is the toll it takes. "Many years ago, when I was extremely young, I was playing in a company, and the leading lady, whom I admired and still do, invited me back to her flat one night. It was full of artifacts and bits and pieces of her travels and tours and shows. And that was all! I remember thinking, I don't want to wake up like this. I don't. I'm not interested."

Nevertheless, when Rigg became a mother she didn't immediately take to it. "The world is divided up into women who love babies and women who love children," says Rigg. "Well, I love children. I think babies are, frankly, boring. And it's a conspiracy because you are not always told how boring it is. Pushing prams, sand pits, mess on the floor. My baby I adored, but I became en-chant-ed with her when she started to be her own person."

Ever the renegade, Rigg had chosen motherhood before marriage: The actress and her live-in lover, wealthy
Scots businessman Archie Stirling, had declined to wed. Rigg gave birth in a nursing home, where she checked in under her grandmother's maiden name to avoid a scandal in the press. Her fame had forced her to be evasive and she hated it. "I loathe sub-ter-fuge," she says. "And I don't like my child being part of that sub-ter-fuge. It would have been very easy to have gotten married then, but I don't think it would have been entirely right."

In her halcyon days after graduating from RADA, Rigg lived for eight years with TV director Philip Saville, who was married to someone else. In 1973 she met Israeli artist Menachem Gueffen, who made her his fourth wife. "We quarreled all the time," Gueffen later reported. "To her, not quarreling was not relating." The tumultuous marriage ended after a mere 11 months, though the divorce wasn't final until 1976. "My divorce was cataclysmic to me," says Rigg. "I despised myself for a very long time after it. I despised the feckless way I went into marriage. The day the piece of paper came in the mail to tell me I was no longer married, it was ghastly."

After Rigg met Stirling, who is three years her junior, she scorned ceremony but not romance. Stirling, the father of two sons, had also suffered a hapless first marriage. "Very curiously," says Rigg, "morality says you shouldn't live together outside the state of wedlock. And I say, until you are prepared to make the vows and stick by them, then that's the only thing to do. I do care about marriage passionately. When it comes to a vow, I'm very proper." Not even bearing a child changed her perspective. Rachael was 4 years old when Rigg and Stirling finally married in a New York civil ceremony in 1982. What surprised her about marriage to Archie, she says, "is how exciting it was, how romantic it was, how it deepened everything." When she is offered a role now, Rigg and Stirling "make a decision together."

Of course, Rigg admits that age has limited her choices: "Suffice it to say that in Bleak House I'm playing Lady Dedlock, who is the older woman. Goodness knows I'm looking older." These days she finds it increasingly difficult to avoid matronly roles. "But I'm not a character actress yet," she sniffs. "If I'm clever about what parts I play, I'll stay a leading lady for 15 years. Then I'll switch to character roles." If her critics have any influence, she won't be acting in the great tragedies. They feel her wit keeps bubbling through. Rigg grudgingly agrees. "Deep down I have an irreverent spirit," she says, "and it emerges at the most unlikely times. People who take themselves deeply seriously are really good at tragedy, and I don't take myself that seriously."

Many critics carp that Rigg is a great actress who has not yet fulfilled her promise. Rigg replies: "They're absolutely right. I could have gone on and done greater and greater things.... But I didn't. It's as simple as that." So, yes, she is an underachiever—and proud of it. Rigg has her reason, and she's about to run out to fetch that reason—her daughter—from school. "If, at the end of 25 years," she says, "it was said that I didn't fulfill my potential as a mother and a wife, I would be heart-bro-ken. But if they said, 'She hasn't developed as an actress as much as she might,' I know the reasons why. And that, as far as I'm concerned, is good enough." Then, in a single, fluid flourish, Rigg finishes her champagne and she's off.

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