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Diana Rigg – Emma Peel


Series 4–5 (1965–1967)

The show was sold to the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in 1965, and The Avengers became one of the first British series to be aired on prime-time US television. The US ABC network paid the then-unheard-of sum of $2 million for the first 26 episodes. The average budget for each episode was reportedly £56,000, which was high for the British industry. The fourth series aired in the US from March to September 1966. Each episode is still finished with the logo of ABC Weekend TV.

The US deal meant the producers could afford to start shooting the series on 35mm film. The production transferred from ABC’s television studios in Teddington to the Associated British Film studios in Elstree. The use of film, rather than the videotape of the earlier episodes, was essential because the British 405-line video was technically incompatible with the US NTSC videotape format. Filmed productions were standard on US prime-time television at the time. The Avengers continued to be produced in black and white.

The transfer to film meant that episodes would be shot using the single-camera setup, giving the production greater flexibility. The use of film production and the single-camera production style allowed more sophisticated visuals, camera angles, and more outdoor location shots, all of which greatly improved the series’ look. As was standard on British television filmed production through the 1960s, all location work on Series 4 was shot mute, with the soundtrack created in post-production. Dialogue scenes were filmed in the studio, leading to some jumps between location and studio footage.

Diana Rigg as Mrs Emma Peel

New female partner Mrs Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) debuted in October 1965. The character’s name derived from a comment by writers during development that they wanted a character with “man appeal”. In an early attempt to incorporate this concept into the character’s name, she was called “Samantha Peel”, shortened to the awkward “Mantha Peel”. Eventually, the writers began referring to the idea by the verbal shorthand “M. Appeal”, which gave rise to the character’s ultimate name. Emma Peel, whose husband went missing while flying over the Amazon, retained the self-assuredness of Gale, combined with superior fighting skills, intelligence and a contemporary fashion sense.

After more than 60 actresses auditioned, Elizabeth Shepherd was the first choice to play the role. However, after filming one and a half episodes (the pilot, “The Town of No Return”, and part of “The Murder Market”), Shepherd was released. Her on-screen personality was deemed less interesting than that of Blackman’s Gale, and it was decided that she was not right for the role. Another 20 actresses auditioned before the show’s casting director, Dodo Watts, suggested that producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell check out a televised drama featuring the relatively unknown Rigg. (She had guested in an episode of The Sentimental Agent that Clemens had written.) Rigg’s screen test with Macnee showed that the two immediately worked together.

A prologue was added to the beginning of all the fourth-series episodes for the American broadcasts. This was to clarify some initial confusion audiences had regarding the characters and their mission. In the opener, a waiter holding a champagne bottle falls dead onto a human-sized chessboard, a dagger protruding from a target on his back. Steed and Mrs Peel (dressed in her trademark leather catsuit) walk up to the body as the voice-over explains: “Extraordinary crimes against the people, and the state, have to be avenged by agents extraordinary. Two such people are John Steed, a top professional, and his partner Emma Peel, a talented amateur. Otherwise known as The Avengers”. During this voice-over, Steed pours two drinks from the wine bottle, and Mrs Peel replaces her gun in her boot. They clink glasses and depart together as the screen fades to black and the opening titles begin.

Film location plate presented by ABC Weekend TV to the Stapleford Miniature Railway, which is still in use today
In contrast to the Gale episodes, there is a lighter, comic touch in Steed’s and Peel’s interactions with each other and their reactions to other characters and situations. Earlier series had a harder tone, with the Gale era including some serious espionage dramas. This almost completely disappeared as Steed and Peel visibly enjoyed topping each other’s witticisms. The layer of conflict with Gale—who on occasion openly resented being used by Steed, often without her permission—is absent from Steed’s interaction with Peel. Also, the sexual tension between Steed and Gale is quite different from that between Steed and Peel. In both cases, the exact relationship between the partners is left ambiguous, although they seem to have carte blanche to visit each other’s homes whenever they please, and it is not uncommon for scenes to suggest that Steed had spent the night at Gale’s or Peel’s home, or vice versa. Although nothing “improper” is displayed, the close chemistry between Steed and Peel constantly suggests intimacy between the two.

Dame Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg DBE (20 July 1938 – 10 September 2020) was an English actress of stage and screen. Her roles include Emma Peel in the TV series The Avengers (1965–1968); Countess Teresa di Vicenzo, wife of James Bond, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969); Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones (2013–2017); and the title role in Medea in the West End in 1993 followed by Broadway a year later.

Rigg made her professional stage debut in 1957 in The Caucasian Chalk Circle and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1959. She made her Broadway debut in Abelard & Heloise in 1971. Her role as Emma Peel made her a sex symbol. For her role in Medea, both in London and New York, she won the 1994 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. She was made a CBE in 1988 and a Dame in 1994 for services to drama.

Rigg appeared in numerous TV series and films, playing Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968); Lady Holiday in The Great Muppet Caper (1981); and Arlena Marshall in Evil Under the Sun (1982). She won the BAFTA TV Award for Best Actress for the BBC miniseries Mother Love (1989) and an Emmy Award for her role as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1997). Her other television credits include You, Me and the Apocalypse (2015), Detectorists (2015), the Doctor Who episode “The Crimson Horror” (2013) with her daughter Rachael Stirling, and playing Mrs Pumphrey in All Creatures Great and Small (2020). Her final role was in Edgar Wright’s 2021 psychological horror film Last Night in Soho, completed just before her death.


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