Nothing like a dame

IT’S hard for young men now to know what all the fuss was about. But there she was last week in the popular newspapers in the sort of pose that set even the swinging 60s alight.

Tight leather catsuit wrapping a lissom body, topped with the face of an aristocratic beauty. High, sculpted cheekbones, large, dark eyes and, boy, could she pack a punch. Karate-chopping, wisecracking Emma Peel of The Avengers, aka up-and-coming actress Diana Rigg, was the sort of girl you needed at your side during a crisis - and when the action was over and it was time to slip into something a little more comfortable.

Even so, no one was more surprised than Rigg herself when she was voted the sexiest small screen star of all time by editors of the US TV Guide magazine. In the process she beat off the challenge of other sex sirens of the TV age including Angie Dickinson, Farrah Fawcett, Linda Evans, Heather Locklear, and even icons of the new century Jennifer Aniston and Kim Cattrall of Sex in the City. Now 64, and a grande dame of British acting, she remarked in those familiar cut-glass tones: "God, I was really quite tasty, but I didn’t know it at the time."

Strangely, Rigg herself never really wanted it that way. A classically trained actress in the best Shakespearean traditions, she decided to play Emma Peel - a play on male appeal - for a laugh. Astonishing as it may now seem, she only appeared in 26 episodes alongside the urbane Patrick Macnee as the upper-crust, bowler-hatted good guy John Steed.

But it was 1965 and a period when the portrayal of a woman as an all-action fighting machine, who gave men as good as she got, was still way ahead of its time. That she had a pretty face and displayed a precocious sexuality was an added bonus.

The Avengers - still shown in some parts of the world - has assured her place in TV history, but it would still have horrified her old tutors at the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts. She really should have been destined for greater things.

Rigg, who was born in the railway town of Doncaster, was never top-drawer but led a privileged and exotic early life as the daughter of a rail engineer. Louis Rigg decided to further his career by emigrating with his young family to India before World War Two. There she spent her early years in colonial splendour with her brother Hugh learning Hindi, riding ponies, eating kedgeree and being looked after by the customary Indian ayah (nanny).

Her idyllic existence was rudely shattered, however, when at the age of seven she was shipped back to England and boarding school. It was cold, she caught lice and she felt horribly rejected and let down by her parents, a feeling which she says has persisted throughout her life. There was one ray of light. At Fulneck School for Girls, in Yorkshire, teacher Sylvia Greenwood noticed that nine-year-old Rigg had a wonderful voice and encouraged her to take up drama. Her first starring role was as Goldilocks aged 13. At 17, after the school had persuaded her parents she could make a career out of it, she was accepted by Rada.

Graceful, intelligent and talented, the next step was the Royal Shakespeare Company where the company was illustrious. Peter Hall was the director and Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton were still on the payroll. She began earning rave reviews for her stage performances as Shakespearean characters.

Then along came The Avengers and a complete change in direction. What she didn’t know then but certainly knows now is that the flirtation with the sleek and sexy Emma Peel was to become her most famous role.

That she walked away from the dizzy success of the cult TV series spoke volumes for her courage and her longing for acclaim on the stage, her first love. TV then was not the cash cow it was to become for aspiring actresses and the respect of your peers was still earned in the theatre. She felt happier and more comfortable as Lady Macbeth.

The big screen also beckoned. She starred in enjoyable romps such as The Hospital, a black comedy in 1971, horror send-up Theatre of Blood in 1973 and the Agatha Christie mystery Evil Under The Sun in 1982, but Hollywood success was to elude her. She returned to the National Theatre and began to take on critically-acclaimed classic roles that hid some of the pain of her private life. Despite her obvious intelligence, charm and attractiveness, Rigg has been churned through the matrimonial mill.

In the 1960s she shared a bed with director Philip Saville but after the affair fizzled out she married Menachem Gueffen, an Israeli artist, in 1973. Three years later, after a two-year separation, it ended in divorce with Rigg calling the marriage a "grotesque error".

Then along came the man she thought she would be spending the rest of her life with, dashing Scottish laird Archie Stirling. Rich and rugged, he was the son of a founder member of the SAS, and Stirling was all Rigg had dreamed about. They met in the mid-1970s and daughter Rachael was born in 1977, cementing a relationship which took in a London townhouse and a country estate in Perthshire.

They finally married in 1982 and the relationship seemed destined to last until friends told Rigg that she seemed to be taking her husband’s relationship with an actress 28 years her junior very well. Stirling had been seen canoodling in a Mayfair restaurant with Joely Richardson, the 25-year-old daughter of Vanessa Redgrave. The couple were divorced in 1990.

She admits now that she went into a form of "mourning" for Stirling. "I was a mourner," she says. "In public I bounced back, taking on the greatest roles I have ever had but in private I was grieving about the passing of something I valued so deeply. But the best thing a woman can do is acknowledge it is over and move on."

She was 52 and public acclaim never deserted her. In 1994 she was created a Dame Commander to add to the OBE she was awarded by the Queen in 1987. In 1998, she was made professor of Theatre Arts at Oxford and she is the chancellor of Stirling University. She is involved with the Children With Aids charity and has taken some political causes to her heart. Last weekend she was in London to support the Countryside Alliance march. As for men, she has abandoned them as a lost cause. She still cuts an elegant figure but says that following her divorce she suffered the fate of many middle-aged women and became "almost invisible."

She has now turned her attentions to renovating a house in Provence, where, she insists, men recognise a beautiful woman whatever her age. "For the first time in years, I am treated as an attractive woman. The plumber, the electrician, the mayor, the shopkeeper are all wonderful to me. English men don’t really like or trust women, They seem to prefer being with men."

Having recently announced her retirement from acting, she is pouring her passion into her French home, her dog and her daughter. By this time next month "Scots stunner" (the Daily Star) Rachael Stirling will be one of the best-known young actresses in Britain. The 25-year-old will be stripping off beside Keeley Hawes and Anna Chancellor in what is being billed as the "steamiest show ever seen on TV" - Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Tipping The Velvet, a Victorian lesbian extravaganza.

Stirling plays the sex slave of a rich, sado-masochistic woman. Viewers are promised "breasts everywhere". Rigg, who always kept her clothes on, simply says she is proud of her daughter’s progress. Whether it will be enough to wrest the title of TV’s sexiest woman from her mum is entirely another matter.