The Cast Remembers Diana Rigg
Bringing All Creatures Great and Small‘s Mrs. Pumphrey to life, with all her requisite gusto, entitlement, affection, and charm, required no less than a legitimate grand dame…and Diana Rigg certainly delivered. Here, the cast of the 2021 All Creatures Great and Small TV series reflect on working with the legendary actress.
She was brilliant. Any anxiety you may have had before meeting her was completely washed away as soon as you did, because she was so lovely and easy to chat to. She had a twinkle in her eye, still had a wicked sense of humor, and she kept everyone on their toes.
We were on set one day and there were 30 crew and 30 extras, and we had finished the scene, and Dame Diana said, “Are we going again? Are we going?” And then Dame Diana, who’d just got these 60 people to reset, will go, “Okay, well, when we’re ready, you’ll let me know.” So, she kept everybody on their toes.
What I took away from working with her—and it’s something that, certainly with the more experienced actors, I was always aware of—was her approach to text, and then her approach to every take. So paying attention to each take, when some things are slightly different and some things remain the same as the shots come in, from light to close, how does the performance change? A lot of things like that. Also, if you want to have a dramatic pause, it has to be earned. So if there was ever any gap in any scene where it wasn’t warranted, Dame Diana would be like, [snaps his fingers] “Come on, are we going? Let’s go.”
For this one scene, it was actually just me and Cal, and we were entering this massive estate, this big country house. So it was a long walk for us from the hall to where Dame Diana was sitting, it took a little while. And so we heard, “Can we not have the boys walk from a bit closer? And if you can you bring the camera in? My soul is on the floor.” That’s what she said. It was just brilliant. She was at that point in her career, so experienced, she knew it inside and out, she knew what she was doing, so yeah: she knew that they didn’t need this long walk, and it could’ve been shortened, so that her soul didn’t have to be on the floor. Yeah, that was really funny. I just loved that.
It was a real honor and a privilege to have gotten to work with her. It was one of her final jobs, and she did such amazing work on it. She makes her first appearance in Episode 2, but it’s not until Episode 4 that you really get to see her shine. It was amazing getting to share the screen with her, a real honor. It was amazing, because she’d come from such a different time, and just through the way that she spoke on set, you could see how she’d grown up. On set, we’d finish a scene, and then she’d just turn around and shout, “Cut prints!” Like when it all used to be on film reels. She just wanted to do the one take, and if it was fine, she’d be like, “Well, we don’t need to go again, do we?” And most of the time, she got her own way. And it was great, because we always got an early finish, so we were in the pub by seven!
When I discovered that she died, I tweeted that it was just an extraordinary surprise to think of her not being with us, because she had such energy. She basically lived the hell out of all of us. You meet people like that, and it doesn’t really matter how old they are—in her case, 84 going on 17. She was properly respected, when she’s on set, you know, and things happen with her in mind first, and quite right, too.
She made a beeline for the most attractive men on set (which doesn’t include me!). She took a shine to Paresh, our runner, almost immediately, and he had to follow her around all day. She’s also quite easily bored—which I always admire in an actor—such that she would sometimes walk away from a set, from a scene. Sometimes in the dance scene where I was arm-and-arm with her, she walked, and as soon as she got out of shot, she would say, “Well, I think that was rather good, don’t you?” I’d say, “Um, I think we’re still rolling, Diana.” We had to keep it down a bit.
I also think it’s an extremely good performance. It’s hard, doing any guest starring role, because you haven’t got long to make an impression. And also, these are all parts that people talk about, “Who’s playing Mrs. Pumphrey?” “Who’s playing Tricki?” Or, when you say you’re playing Siegfried Farnon, people go, “Oh, don’t [mess] it up,” or, “You won’t be as good as Robert Hardy,” or, “Oh good, that’s a really good idea.” But there is immediate name recognition, so that’s really hard. Also, you’re working with a dog! Nobody wants to work with a pekingese, particularly one who is such a—I was going to say “scene stealer,” but “scene grand larcenist” would be closer to the mark—as Derek, who just has to sort of waddle along, and nobody’s watching anything else. You might as well give up!
Obviously, we know Diana as Emma Peel, and we know her as a film and television star for many, many years, and I also was lucky enough to see her on stage a number of times, particularly as Medea at the end of her life. But she was first working at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1950s. So it was something very touching for me (whose parents are both actors with similarly long careers, about the same generation, and were very fond of Diana and worked with her many times) to watch Nick, who cut his teeth in the theater, but whose first job this was, as it were, sharing the baton with somebody who’s classical career went back to Viola in the 1950s, with the new Royal Shakespeare Company. I just felt that that was a sharing of the profession—a sort of a continuation of the profession, which I know Nick would understand and respect, because he’s a theater boy, as well. That’s something that not many people talked about: that she was a great stage actress. It was really nice just to see. That’s one for Nick, to tell his grandchildren or great grandchildren, that he worked with somebody who started their career, I don’t know, forty years before he was born.