Diana Rigg has had a long and storied career as an actress. She’s performed in numerous stage plays, married James Bond, and had her prized diamond necklace recovered by Muppets. But the role she’s best known for is the surefooted, quick-witted British agent Emma Peel on the 60s-era landmark spy series The Avengers.
Every bit the equal to her crime-solving companion John Steed, Emma Peel was far from the typical damsel in distress of most spy fiction. She knew several martial arts and could dispatch any number of evil henchmen with ease. But more than just a lethal weapon, she also had a solid scientific background and often proved herself more intellectually capable—and quicker with a finely turned witticism—than Steed. Rigg played the part of Mrs. Peel with an elegant charm, lending her character a certain dignity that raised the show above its occasionally camp origins. Though Honor Blackman was the first to star opposite Steed as one of his female partners, the very capable and independent Catherine Gale, it’s Emma Peel that everyone remembers so fondly.
Sadly, though the producers of the show were ahead of their time in creating a liberated female protagonist, they weren’t bright enough to extend that same philosophy to Diana Rigg herself. She left the show after two successful seasons partially because she was fed up with how the producers treated her. It’s said that twelve episodes in, Rigg discovered that she was paid less than the cameraman. Reportedly, Rigg also had few friends on set. One of her defenders was none other than John Steed himself, Patrick Macnee, who tried to convince Rigg to stay—but to no avail. And though Rigg eventually moved on to other marquee projects, The Avengers lasted just one more season with the somewhat naive and innocent spy-in-training Tara King by Steed’s side—in many ways a watered-down wallflower version of Emma Peel.
I discovered the show in high school, thanks to some random channel flipping that brought me to the Canadian television station Bravo! on a weekday afternoon. Sadly, Bravo! has long since stopped airing old Avengers reruns, but A&E released a whole pile of Avengers DVDs in the 90s that culminated in a massive sixteen-DVD Emma Peel box set. I bought this lovely package a couple of years back, and it’s the treasured centrepiece of my DVD collection, but if dropping over a hundred bucks for the set isn’t to your tastes, you can probably rent the individual DVDs from your local movie rental place.
Here’s a couple of choice Emma Peel episodes that show off her many talents:
The House that Jack Built (season 4): Mrs. Peel discovers she has an inheritance from an uncle she never knew, and goes to check it out—only to find that her uncle’s estate is actually a trap full of strange and dangerous illusions. When Steed figures out something’s up, he goes to save the day—only it turns out his help may not be so helpful after all. Emma’s left to figure things out on her own.
The Master Minds (season 4): The first Avengers episode featuring Emma Peel, there’s an early scene that lingers way too long on Diana Rigg’s many curves (her character, after all, was named because they needed a character with man appeal—M Appeal). But get beyond that scene and the producers start to do Mrs. Peel some justice. Steed and Peel must infiltrate a club of intellectuals that may be up to dastardly deeds. Peel passes the entrance test with flying colours, and so does Steed—“but that’s hardly surprising because I also did your papers for you.” When Steed has to take another test to prove his intellectual fortitude, he’s suddenly in trouble—at least, until Peel passes him the answers.
Murdersville (season 5): Emma drives to a small village where a friend of hers is moving in, only to find gradually that the town’s inhabitants have secrets to hide. When she finally unravels the plot, she’s rewarded for her troubles by nearly being drowned by the local residents—a scene that seems just a bit too reminiscent of the recent American discussions about waterboarding as torture. But afterwards follows a lovely phone conversation where Mrs. Peel reveals that only one person knows where she is: John Steed, her, erm… “husband.” Later, Emma reveals that she’s pretty good with a javelin in one of the series’ sillier fight sequences.
The Living Dead (season 5): A local chapel is haunted—but not, as it turns out, by ghosts. Emma disappears early on in the episode, seemingly taken by the spirits, but she manages to escape her fate and save Steed from a nasty end—for which she gets two pecks on the cheeks from a relieved Steed.
Epic (season 5): In perhaps the finest Emma Peel episode of the series, Emma is accosted by a struggling film director with an obsessive desire to make Mrs. Peel a star—posthumously. The Destruction of Emma Peel never quite makes it to production, thanks in no small part to Emma outwitting her hapless co-stars and bumbling director at every turn. Also contains the wonderfully bizarre sight of Diana Rigg re-enacting the MGM lion roar.
A Touch of Brimstone (season 4): This one was a controversial episode at the time of release, and perhaps even so today. In some ways you’d think it downright sexist; the episode’s most (in)famous scene puts Emma Peel, disguised as the Queen of Sin, on display as a sex object for the amusement of the Hellfire Club. But one factoid may help rehabilitate the episode’s feminist credentials: the risqué and revealing leather costume was designed by none other than Diana Rigg herself. And if you happen to think the dominatrix look is empowering, maybe you don’t need any justification at all.