A classic act when you Peel off the sex kitten

February 19, 1999

Jennifer Wallace meets the latest professor to bestow a whiff of glamour on Oxford

I don't know why drama schools don't teach the history of the theatre," announced Diana Rigg to a packed lecture theatre in Oxford University. "It would take, what, 55 minutes. I galloped through it. I think it is vital that they know that they come from this long tradition. But somehow they are all rushing towards their first job and don't take time to put the theatre in context."

As Oxford's new Cameron Mackintosh professor of theatre, the tenth in a line that includes Stephen Sondheim, Ian McKellen and Arthur Miller, Rigg, 60, is committed to bringing the practical world of dramatic performance and the academic world of theatre studies closer.

The requirements of her job, which lasts for a year and is based at St Catherine's College, are vague, but she feels enthusiastic. "I really look forward to meeting the students," she says. "I'm keen to hear what they've got to say. I'm certainly not going to dictate. I see it as an exchange of ideas and maybe we'll hit on something we can do together."

The first task of the professorship was to deliver a lecture to a bizarrely mixed audience of begowned university grandees, bussed-in critics from London's media and star-struck undergraduates. Rigg spoke for an hour on the history of theatrical criticism, its influence on the public profile of the acting profession and its function as a litmus test for the prevailing taste of the time. "If I had known how old and honourable my profession is when I was at drama school," she said, "I think I might have felt a little more dignified and perhaps I would have had a sense of carrying that tradition with me."

In fact the Cameron Mackintosh chair marks just one more stage in the general dignification of Diana Rigg. Made a dame in 1994 and now director of United British Artists, she has become a formidable force in British theatre. Her higher public profile has been matched by a string of acclaimed roles in classic theatre. In 1994, she won the Evening Standard Drama Award for her performance of Medea, in 1995 she played the leading role in Brecht's Mother Courage at the National Theatre and last season she starred in Racine's Ph dre and Britannicus.

Preaching very much to the converted in Oxford, she stresses the importance of studying and performing the classics: "I passionately believe that each generation must have the right and the freedom to re-examine the classics in the context of the age in which we are living. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than doing the Racines in London, and I'd look up into the gods and see young faces who were seeing Racine for the first time and who were hopefully not bored or put off Racine for life."

But while Rigg has always acted in classical theatre - she began at the RSC in 1959 and three years later aged 24 started getting leading parts at Stratford - her memorable role as Emma Peel in the television series The Avengers has meant that she is still thought of more as British theatre's sex kitten than as the public face of its venerable acting tradition. Look up Diana Rigg on the internet, for instance, and one is bombarded not with reviews of her roles in Euripides but with naked pictures, offers of Diana Rigg mouse pads and signed Emma Peel portraits. "An armed woman in a leather jumpsuit. What more could a man want?" one entry cheekily reads.

Although Rigg professes weariness with this male adulation, she seems amused by it. Despite her academic elevation, she still plays on her reputation, flirting with her audience and teasing them with double entendres. When asked about her plans for the year in Oxford, she says that she is "open to all sorts of suggestions. Up to a point." And, dressed in a Little Black Dress, she shares with the audience her worst ever review, written about her nude performance in Abelard and Heloise: "Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses."

Even being a professor seems to her a little incongruous: "Little did I think ten years ago, as I tapped out an impossible 11-second routine in Cameron Mackintosh's Follies, that I could be his prof in Oxford." Her lecture concentrated more on the entertainment value of her recital of theatrical reviews than on more conventional professorial wisdom.

But perhaps the flirtatious playfulness and whiff of glamour are what Oxford needs. The fellows of St Catherine's College are smug about their new arrival, snootily barring hoi polloi from mingling at the post-lecture reception. But one wonders how, as the year goes by, the very male, hierarchical and academic world of the Oxford college will cope with Rigg's refreshing difference. For, if not still an armed woman in a jumpsuit, she continues to be unashamedly sexy and feisty. What for example does she think about the proposed new all-male Antony and Cleopatra? "I think it's time we women struck back. How about an all-female Lear?" That provocative attitude seems more valuable to Oxford fellows than any amount of careful "putting the theatre in context".

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