Remembering Dame Diana Rigg, A True MASTERPIECE Icon

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Related to: All Creatures Great and Small, Season 1

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Dame Diana Rigg has been a MASTERPIECE regular for decades. From her Emmy Award-winning role in the 1997 adaptation of Rebecca to her years-long host duty on Mystery!, Rigg brought her charm and considerable gravitas to PBS TV screens for years. Rigg passed away in September 2020, making her role as the elegant Mrs. Pumphrey one of her very last. The All Creatures Great and Small cast pays tribute to Rigg, along with some of her other MASTERPIECE friends and castmates.

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Transcript

Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.

The cast of All Creatures Great and Small is storied, to be sure, but there’s one cast member who rises above the rest.

CLIP

Tristan Mrs Pumphrey! Looks like you’re putting on quite the shindig.

Mrs Pumphrey Oh just a modest affair for a few of our closest friends. Isn’t that right Tricki?

Tristan And how’ve you been little man?

Mrs Pumphrey Oh dear, I think he remembers you. He stood on his tail.

Jace Of course, we mean Derek the Dog, but we also mean Derek’s owner, the posh beer baron widow Mrs. Pumphrey, played with a haughty joy by the incomparable Dame Diana Rigg.

CLIP

Mrs. Pumphrey Oh my boofoms! Oh my boofoms is home. My goodness, he feels like a sack of spanners. He must be starving.

Jace So it was with great sadness when our MASTERPIECE family learned last September that Dame Diana had passed away at the age of 82, and that her role as Mrs. Pumphrey on All Creatures Great and Small would be among her final film appearances.

CLIP

Mrs. Pumphrey Siegfried, James! So glad you could come.

Siegfried A pleasure as always. And look at this delightful little man.

Mrs. Pumphrey Look, it’s Uncle Herriot! He’s been so looking forward to seeing you.

James Is that trifle I see in his bowl?

Mrs. Pumphrey I know it’s naughty but it’s the only way to keep him happy. He finds these occasions rather testing. Thank goodness he has you to keep him company.

Jace More recent fans of MASTERPIECE would recognize Dame Diana for her role in the second season of Victoria as the imperious Duchess of Buccleuch, who lobbed bons mots like they were grenades.

CLIP

Buccleuch Your Royal Highness.

Albert Duchess?

Buccleuch The Queen told me that I should tell you her whereabouts, if you were to ask.

Albert Then if I wish to know where the Queen is, I will ask you.

Buccleuch I must confess, Sir, that I was surprised to learn of her destination.

Albert Then that is the difference between you and I. Duchess. Nothing the Queen can would surprise me. Good day.

Jace And longtime MASTERPIECE viewers of course know Dame Diana for her regular role as the third host of Mystery!, a role she held for nearly 14 years, from 1989 to 2003, where her witty signature introductions — and closings — became a hallmark of the show.

CLIP

Diana Rigg: A policeman’s lot may not be a happy one, but a police woman’s is even worse, as we’ll see tonight in Prime Suspect. A three part thriller written especially for television. At hte center of the story is Jane Tennison, a policewoman who’s fought her way up the male ranks of Scotland Yard to become a Detective Chief Inspector. In spite of her experience, her superiors have never allowed her to head a homicide investigation. DCI Tennison is one of a very select company. At the time Prime Suspect was written, there were only four female DCIs in Great Britain, and they’ve had to make some sacrifices for their success, as Tennison will when she finally gets a crack at that elusive prize: her own murder case. As a woman on a mostly male police force, she must endure the open hostility of the men under her command, who are none too happy about taking orders from a woman. It’s not easier on the home front. Wrestling with these pressures takes an emotional toll on her, unwilling as she is to admit it, because, deep in her heart, Jane Tennison knows there’s one law a policewoman must obey above all others: never let them see you cry. Part 1 of Prime Suspect.

Jace We spoke with Dame Diana’s All Creatures Great and Small co-stars about what it was like to work with the remarkable actor in this character role, as well as a few of her other MASTERPIECE colleagues and friends, including Alan Cumming, who now hosts MASTERPIECE Mystery with his own inimitable style…

Alan Cumming The fact that I got a job that before but, you know, previously was held by Diana Rigg is one of my greatest achievements in my career, I think.

Jace We asked All Creatures Great and Small stars Nicholas Ralph, Callum Woodhouse, Samuel West and Anna Madeley about working with Dame Diana Rigg.

Anna Madeley It was fabulous. We were so lucky and we’re all really sad that we won’t get to see her Mrs. Pumphrey again. It was a real privilege. I mean, she’s just, she was an incredibly strong personality.

Jace This is Anna Madeley, who plays the supportive but strong Mrs. Hall.

Anna She had such energy and enthusiasm and passion for the work. I think, you know, you see it in her relationship that she builds with Tricki Woo, that she embraced that character. It’s it’s so much fun and so delightful and heartwarming and true as well, that this woman really loves her, her Tricki Woo,  so it was really, really delightful. I had those few scenes in the house with her, the guys that had more scenes with her at the house. But just that professionalism and determination. I just got the passion for the work from her that was just, you know, contagious. It was really wonderful.

Jace Samuel West, who plays Siegfried Farnon, offered up a Twitter tribute to Dame Diana when she died in September, but he spoke to me at length about how remarkable she truly was.

Samuel West It was extraordinary, I tweeted when she died how it didn’t really make sense because she was always the one who kind of lived the hell out of all of us. She was incredibly energetic, enormous fun on set, very much ran to the beat of her own drum. And, you know, she’s extremely experienced. You don’t keep her waiting, but when she arrives, she makes a beeline for the most attractive men in the cast. So she was very keen on Nick and she was very keen on Peresh, our runner, who had to look after her for the rest of the day. And I’d worked with her a couple of times on little things. It was very nice to see her again. But I mean, it’s a wonderful performance and not an easy part, actually, Mrs. Pumphrey, because, you know, you’re in danger of being upstaged by a dog. And although Derek is very brilliant, as Tricki Woo, actually the two of them have to be a double act. So you have to be ready to work with animals, which of course, famously you must never do. And I think, you know, it is a wonderful performance, as you say, as one of her last ones, and I mean, we know her as a film star and as a television star from The Avengers and from so many other things. But of course, she also had a 60 year long theater career. She was working in the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing Viola in Twelfth Night in the 50s. And it was very moving to watch Nick, whose first television job this is, who plays James, work with this person who, you know, really has a theatrical pedigree as long as your arm or anyone’s arm and and to feel those two extending out. I mean, when Nick is 80 and talking to his grandchildren or great grandchildren about having worked with Diana Rigg, who made her professional stage debut in the early 50s, I don’t know that that was really special. And I think he’s sensible and sensitive enough to realize that that was quite an honor.

Jace Nick, of course, being Nicholas Ralph, who plays James Herriot and who made his on-screen debut in All Creatures.

Nicholas Ralph It was absolutely fantastic. She was so lovely to chat to, so down to earth, but she also just oozes class, you know, from start to finish. She really does. And she still got that. She still got the wee twinkle in her eye as well. Kind of mischievous humor that she has, a real wicked sense of humor, should I say. Yes, she was just so much fun to work with. And I just feel so fortunate that I had a chance and an opportunity to work with her with a couple of days up in the Dales working together. Yeah, it really was a treat for all of us.

Jace “Print.” Callum Woodhouse, who plays Tristan Farnon, remembers hearing Dame Diana say that after almost every take.

Callum Woodhouse It was an absolute whirlwind, getting to work with her really was. It was, she was from a completely different, different sort of time of acting where she’d be. So, you know, she’d be so ready just constantly to work and, you know, be setting up the lights and the camera. And she’d be like, ‘Come on, come on, let’s get it done.’ And and after everything, she’d shout, ‘Print.’ And it was like I remember Brian was saying something about how that was like that’s what they used to say when they were shooting on film and stuff like that. And she was just from a really old school of acting. And it was so amazing to spend time around someone like that because you know they’re the people we’ve grown up watching and that the people who really set the stage before us and to get to spend time around an absolute like acting icon around that was just it was yeah. I just feel so incredibly grateful and blessed that I got to spend time with her before she suddenly passed away. And getting to see the way she worked was just a privilege. It really was. Andit, you know, you know, it influences you as an actor, seeing and seeing these scenes, these absolute professionals at the top of their game and the way they work. You know, you want to you want to emulate that.

Samuel: Yes. She would decide whether it was any good sometimes before it was finished. And the director was very much second in that decision making process, but she was always right.

Jace We also asked our cast what Dame Diana brought to the role of Mrs. Pumphrey — and what Mrs. Pumphrey brought to the Yorkshire Dales.

Nicholas As Mrs. Pumphrey, she oozes class and also the wit, the humor with that character as well. You know, she she had an abundance. I think if you read Mrs. Pumphrey from the books and you watch them Dame Diana’s performance, I think they just go hand in hand. And, um, yeah, it was just stunning.  

CLIP

Mrs. Pumphrey François? François. This is Tricki’s guest Uncle Herriot. Make certain his glass never runs dry. As for you, there are ladies in there, in need of entertainment.

Siegfried Then let us begin with my absolute favorite.

Callum I mean, what an incredible and ridiculous character. You know, this the way that she treats this dog is absolutely ridiculous. Although now that I have got this, I’ve got this new puppy now and I can see why, you know, Mrs. Pumphrey would spoil this dog. I just want my new puppy, Ralph. I’m just wanting to spoil him and give him treats constantly and give him kisses. He’s probably absolutely sick of me. He’s probably just like, can I have five seconds, please, to myself.

Anna It became sort of feydeau farce because she was there waiting for a cup of tea on the sofa where we literally ran around outside. That’s another thing that’s so brilliant about that set, is that you can go in and out of rooms in many different ways and get quite lost. We used to regularly get lost on set and find yourself out in the back of the house and then wonder how you got there. But yeah, it was just a huge amount of fun, I think Diana Rigg bring sthat wonderful status to the set as well as her love for Tricki Woo.  And so this idea that we were running around like crazy, trying to find the the naughty little Tricki Woo, greedy little Tricki Woo. It was just a lot of fun.

CLIP

Mrs. Pumphrey You quite alright?

Siegfried What? Yes erm. Gin wasn’t it? Your tipple of choice?

Mrs. Pumphrey It’s twelve o’clock. Your housekeeper offered me a cup of tea.

Mrs. Hall Coming Mrs Pumphrey.

Mrs. Pumphrey Tricki. Is that Tricki!? Tricki!? Well? Where is he?

Tristan I’m sorry, who?

Siegfried We were just telling Mrs Pumphrey about all the exercise Tricki’s been getting.

Tristan Oh..

Siegfried He doesn’t leave Tristan’s side.

Mrs. Pumphrey That is patently a lie.

Siegfried Would you excuse us a minute?

Samuel She’s quite easily bored, I think, and fair enough at her age and with her experience. So sometimes she would finish a take and walk out of shot and say, ‘Well, I thought that went quite well,’ And I have to say, ‘I think they’re still rolling actually,’ though. But she didn’t care about that. I think, you know, as I say, you don’t keep her waiting, but it’s good for everybody. Actually, I think it keeps everyone on their toes and. You know, it’s good for people to have a focus, I find the alchemy of television or film set almost extraordinary. I mean, there’s this piece of paper on which 100 people’s names are written and their jobs and their mobile phone numbers and the notionally the time they might arrive. And then one of them is Dame Diana Rigg. And you know, exactly when she arrives and what she’s going to do when she arrives and when she gets on set, everybody’s ready and we don’t keep her and she shoots and then, you know, we don’t keep her too long. And she goes home and people are really good at concentrating for the 30 seconds or the five minutes that they really need to concentrate in order to get the incredibly important job done and then becoming completely invisible the rest of the time and totally silent. And I find that an amazing skill. And what I’m not always good at doing myself.

Jace Before our next Dame Diana memory, let’s take a quick break to hear a word from our sponsors…

Jace Working with Dame Diana is a privilege many MASTERPIECE regulars have had — including Victoria’s Jenna Coleman, who played Queen Victoria to Dame Diana’s fastidious Duchess of Buccleuch.

Jenna Coleman She’s hilarious. The crew love her. I mean she’s just a complete pro and very, very funny. She has amazing stories. I’ve worked with Diana before, on Doctor Who, where we were both dressed in Victorian clothes, except for she had a creature attached to her chest by prosthetics and was threatening to take over the world. So it is a bit of a different set up, but you know, similar costumes.

Jace Victoria creator Daisy Goodwin had met Dame Diana when she was a young woman, and casting her as the Duchess of Buccleuch was a real casting coup for her series’ second season.

Daisy Goodwin I first met Diana Rigg when I was 18 and my father who was a film producer, had made an Agatha Christie film called Evil Under The Sun which starred her and Maggie Smith. And so I remember her from that time I thought she was hilarious then, and it was rather wonderful because when I came to write series two I thought what we need is in the show is is a Lady Bracknell character we need someone who can speak truth to power and I have an older woman in the show and someone suggested Diana Rigg and I thought yes, that would be astonishing. And so I went to see her and she was like Yes. No she she deigned to take part and she was terribly funny, because she said, ‘Well of course if you need to, I can bring my own jewels.’ Which was very generous of her I thought. And she’s fabulous. There was a real Duchess of Buccleuch. But in fact the real Duchess of Buccleuch was a lot younger than Diana but I thought it I thought an older character would give more depth and sort of gravitas to the show. I guess Buccleuch is one of my favorite characters to write because she’s terribly rude. She’s xenophobic but she has a kind of wisdom that comes with with age. And now she’s the one who spots that Victoria has postnatal depression. She says, ‘You’re not the first woman to be in low spirits after the birth of a child,’ and I think that’s the first time you realise that here is a woman who’s been who’s seen it all done it all you know knows everything.

Jace Of course, any film with Dame Diana Rigg is a treat. Charles Dance, lately best known for his role on Game of Thrones, starred opposite Dame Diana in her Emmy-Award winning performance in the 1997 adaptation of Rebecca.

Charles Dance Well, I’d kind of known Diana over the years pretty well, and she was just wonderfully cast as Mrs. Danvers, which I think is by far the most interesting character in that story. And it was directed by a friend of mine, Jim O’Brien, who was one of the directors of The Jewel in the Crown. So, you know, there was a double connection there. And the young Emilia Fox, who played the new young Mrs. Winter, was playing the part that her mother had played. Quite a few years before, so it was a bit of a family thing all around, really, and I thought it was a rather wonderful adaptation and beautifully done.

Jace Indeed, beyond her hundreds of Mystery! introductions, Dame Diana Rigg appeared in nearly a dozen titles on MASTERPIECE, including her BAFTA Award-winning lead role in Andrew Davies’ Mother Love, her stylish mystery series The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries — for which she introduced herself on Mystery, of course — the 1985 version of Bleak House, and The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders.

Rebecca Eaton, our former executive producer, remembers inviting Dame Diana to the host’s chair to succeed longtime host Vincent Price.

Rebecca Eaton  She’d been in The Avengers, but she’d also been in a movie with Vincent Price called Theater of Blood. Some horrible horror movie. Not horrible. Probably a wonderful horror movie. So we called up Diana and she said absolutely right away.

Jace And she brought her in jewels. Is that correct?

Rebecca And she brought her own jewels. Her husband, Archie Stirling, had a castle. And so we were getting costume jewelry and kind of putting them on. And she said, no, no, no. And she would whip out these fabulous diamonds and pearls and put them on and look great.

Jace Outside MASTERPIECE, Dame Diana played the scheming Lady Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones. The catsuited Emma Peel in The Avengers. The doomed Tracy Bond, the only woman to ever tame Bond’s heart — and get 007 to commit to marriage for love — in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. She was a star of stage and screen for whom the word “legend” isn’t hyperbole.

Current MASTERPIECE executive producer Susanne Simpson is honored that Dame Diana is on MASTERPIECE’s screens this one final time.

Susanne Simpson When I started watching the rushes from All Creatures Great and Small, I could hardly wait until I could see the scenes with Diana Rigg. And she is, of course, just perfect in the role. She’s pompous and aristocratic and fawning all over her, her dog, who needs attention from the vets. And she’s just perfectly funny in conveying her character. She’s just really such a pro. And I remember watching The Avengers, that was one of my favorite shows when I was growing up, and I just thought she was an incredible character and actress. And so we’re quite moved by the fact that she is one of her last performances is actually in a MASTERPIECE.

Jace Personally, there’s one Dame Diana line that I always remember. At the end of any Mystery! title, Dame Diana would appear on screen to offer up a summation of an idea or theme from that week’s mystery and then, with a wry smile, sign off by wishing you and the rest of her viewers a lovely evening.

CLIP

Diana I’m Diana Rigg. Good night.

Jace Back in the ‘90s, I taped dozens of Mystery! episodes off-air onto VHS tapes (remember VHS tapes?), and, even years later, after watching a British mystery on television, I would sometimes say to myself jokingly, “I’m Diana Rigg. Goodnight.” — because there would be something incomplete hovering in the air. Something ineffable that only Dame Diana could sum up.

Now, as a podcast host repeatedly recording scripts, it was amusing for me to see a gag reel from Dame Diana’s distinctive hosting years, watching a fellow kind of hosting puppet say the same words, incorrectly, again and again and again, with great mistaken precision. Dame Diana, I know the feeling.

CLIP

Diana He worked on the school newspaper. He played the clarinet….oh damnation. He played the clarinet, He clayed the plarinet. On the other hand, sidekicks sometimes deserve…I’ll start again. Deserve — I sound drunk! Pity has much in common with Patricia Routledge…oh here we go with that Routledge trouble again.

Jace I’ll miss seeing Dame Diana Rigg on MASTERPIECE.

She was, in the words of her All Creatures Great and Small castmates—

Anna Vital

Callum I think she’s a real icon for acting, in many ways.

Nicholas Class.

Samuel Irreplaceable.

Jace And all of us here at MASTERPIECE will miss her greatly.

Coming up next on the podcast, we’ll hear in full from the real queen of Skeldale House: Mrs. Hall.

CLIP

Tristan Two bob says he won’t last past lunchtime.

Mrs Hall Honestly, Tristan?!

Tristan Remember when Grier did it? Drunk by midday. Threatened to punch Foyle in the mouth.

Siegfried Morning’s not the problem, it’s the pony measuring, gets them every time. Two bob. Three thirty.

Tristan What d’you say, Mrs Hall? Think he’ll make it to the family pets?

Mrs Hall I most certainly do. And I don’t approve of gambling.  Two bob. Six o’clock. Not a minute sooner.

Anna Madeley drops by for a visit here on the podcast on February 7.

MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob, and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Susanne Simpson.

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