Stop getting Bond wrong! (Part 1)

 

© Eon Productions

 

When I’m browsing through a newspaper or magazine website, or a website devoted to popular culture, no headline is more likely to fill me with despair than the one ALL THE JAMES BOND FILMS RANKED FROM WORST TO BEST.  (Well, maybe except for the headline FLEETWOOD MAC TO RELEASE NEW ALBUM.)  That’s because such articles invariably get Bond wrong.  And that’s because they’re written by young, acne-pocked dipshits with zero life experience and less-than-zero knowledge of James Bond in either his cinematic or literary incarnations.  Or, worse, they’re written by someone from the older end of the Generation X demographic, i.e., they were a kid during the 1970s and believe Roger Moore was the best actor who ever lived.

 

Now that the latest Bond epic No Time to Die is being released – after a zillion Covid-19-inspired delays, which had me worried that by the time it finally was released poor Daniel Craig would be turning up at the Royal Premiere with a Zimmer frame, hearing aid and dentures – there’s been another rash of these hopelessly ill-informed articles, in the likes of the Independent and Den of Geek.

 

So, to sort out this confusion, misinformation and stupidity once and for all, here is my – and hence the correct – ranking of all the James Bond films from best to worst.  Don’t even think about arguing with me.

 

© Eon Productions

 

24: Die Another Day (2002)

Winning the unenviable title of Worst Bond Film Ever is Pierce Brosnan’s final outing as 007.  Because it was released in the 40th anniversary year of the franchise, the makers of Die Another Day packed it with homages to the previous 19 films, such as bikini-ed heroine Halle Berry rising out of the sea like Ursula Andress in Dr No (1962) or villain Toby Stephens swooping into central London with a Union Jack-emblazoned parachute à la Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).  But these homages, as well as seeming smug, highlight how inferior Die is in comparison.  And with the film’s stupid plot contrivances (an invisible car), its derivativeness (what, another killer satellite?), its Carry On-level, innuendo-ridden dialogue and Madonna’s horrible theme song, we’re talking greatly inferior.  What I hate most about it, though, is its use of Computer-Generated Imagery during the action sequences, an insult to the stuntmen in the old Bond films like Vic Armstrong, Terry Richards, Eddie Powell and Alf Joint, who did those stunts for real and made them so viscerally exciting.

 

23: Octopussy (1983)

I remember seriously not liking Octopussy when I saw it because it seemed desperate to cash in on the recent success of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and deposited Roger Moore in a version of India populated with palaces, turbaned swordsmen, fakirs and snake-charmers, which had only ever existed in the imaginations of Hollywood scriptwriters and looked ridiculously corny by 1983.  Having worked in India several times since then, I suspect I would hate it even more now.  The film’s one saving grace is the sub-plot taking place in its other main setting, Germany, which has Steven Berkoff as a deranged Soviet general wanting to knock NATO for six by engineering an ‘accident’ with a nuclear warhead.  Opposing, and in part thwarting, Berkoff’s insane plan is General Gogol (Walter Gotell), who appeared in half-a-dozen Bond films as 007’s respectful adversary and occasional ally in the KGB.  Indeed, I’d say Octopussy marks Gogol’s finest hour.

 

22: Moonraker (1979)

Moonraker also attempted to cash in on a recent hit movie, in this case Star Wars (1977).  Thus, it has Roger Moore going into outer space in search of a stolen space shuttle.  It piles silliness upon silliness: not just the far-fetched science-fictional plot, but also sequences with gondolas turning into speedboats, speedboats turning into hovercraft, speedboats turning into hang gliders, steel-toothed villain Jaws (Richard Kiel) crashing through the top of a circus tent, Jaws finding a girlfriend, and so on.  Michael Lonsdale as the big villain Hugo Drax gives Moonraker some dignity it really doesn’t deserve.  Brace yourself for the inevitable “He’s attempting re-entry!” joke at the end.

 

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21: The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

Another entry in the series where the only thing going for it is the villain, the impeccable Christopher Lee as the super-hitman Francisco Scaramanga.  Elsewhere, Lulu warbles the cheesy, innuendo-slathered theme song (“He’s got a powerful weapon / He charges a million a shot!”), Britt Ekland is barely contained by her bikini, and redneck comedy-relief American policeman Sheriff Pepper (Clifton James), who was so annoying in the previous film Live and Let Die, makes an unwelcome reappearance even though the film’s set in East Asia.  Pepper just happens to be holidaying in Thailand with his wife when he bumps into Bond again.  (He refuses to have his picture taken with a local elephant, telling Mrs Pepper: “We’re Demy-crats, Maybelle!”  Surely not.)

 

20: Live and Let Die (1973)

And that brings me to Live and Let Die, in which Roger Moore makes his debut as Bond.  From all accounts Moore was a lovely bloke and he kept the franchise massively popular during the 1970s and 1980s, but his lightweight acting style meant the character was far removed from the one imagined by Ian Fleming in the original novels.  Even by 1973’s standards, Live and Let Die’s plot about a villainous organisation of black drug-smugglers, headed by Yaphet Kotto’s Mr Big, dallies worryingly with racism, although Moore’s presence actually defuses some of that.  His portrayal of Bond as a posh, silly-assed Englishman gives the bad guys some gravitas in comparison.  I suspect modern audiences might feel more uncomfortable with Bond’s pursuit / stalking of love interest Jane Seymour – Seymour was only 22 years at the time while Moore, already in his mid-forties, was old enough to be her dad.  The film’s spectacular speedboat chase anchors the film in most people’s memories, though it’s spoilt somewhat by the involvement of the aforementioned Sheriff Pepper.  The theme song by Paul McCartney’s Wings is, of course, great.

 

© Eon Productions

 

19: A View to a Kill (1985)

A View to a Kill, Roger Moore’s final film as Bond, is often ranked bottom in lists like this, but it at least has something most 1980s Bond movies lack – memorable villains, i.e., Christopher Walken’s Max Zorin and Grace Jones’s Mayday.  Also, Moore gets to form an agreeable double act, for a while, with Patrick Macnee and I like how General Gogol pops up at the end to give ‘Comrade Bond’ the Order of Lenin.  Still, the film contains much duff-ness.  Duran Duran do the theme song and one unkind critic once described Simon Le Bon’s vocal performance as ‘bellowing like a wounded elk.’

 

18: Quantum of Solace (2007)

Daniel Craig’s second appearance as James Bond, in which he comes up against a sinister, secret organisation called Quantum, was savaged by the critics.  When I watched the film, I remember thinking it didn’t seem as bad as everyone made out.  That said, I can hardly remember anything about it now.

 

17: The World is Not Enough (1999)

A frustrating film, The World is Not Enough has much going for it, including Sophie Marceau and Robert Carlyle as the baddies, Robbie Coltrane returning as ex-KGB man / lovable rogue Valentin Zukovsky, and a plot that anticipates Skyfall (2012) wherein Judie Dench’s M is threatened by a villain whose relationship with her is more complex than one of simple professional enmity.  And like Skyfall, it has scenes set in Scotland, the introduction of a new Q, and an explosion that rocks MI6’s London headquarters beside Vauxhall Bridge in London.  Plus, the theme song by Garbage is the best one in yonks.  But the quality stuff is cancelled out by some rubbish bits, including Denise Richards as Bond girl Christmas Jones – so-named, apparently, to allow Pierce Brosnan to crack a joke about ‘coming once a year’.  Particularly cringe-inducing is John Cleese’s debut as the replacement for Desmond Llewelyn’s Q, here making his 17th and final appearance in the franchise.  Not only does Cleese clown around to no comic effect whatever, but the scene where he’s introduced is also the one where Llewelyn bids farewell and Cleese’s slapstick robs the scene of its poignancy.

 

16: Diamonds are Forever (1971)

Diamonds are Forever features a beyond-caring Sean Connery, enticed back into 007’s shoes by a 1.25-million-pound paycheque after George Lazenby jumped ship, in a lazy film where the plot meanders nonsensically from one action set-piece to another and the visuals are packed with easy-on-the-eye spectacle and lavishness.  At least it’s pretty funny.  It depends on your tolerance level for sledgehammering 1970s political incorrectness whether or not you enjoy the banter between gay assassins Mr Kidd and Mr Wint.  (Sticking Connery into a coffin and feeding him into a crematorium furnace: “Heart-warming, Mr Kidd.”  “A glowing tribute, Mr Wint.”)  However, uber-Bond-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld is very amusingly played by Charles Gray.  While he’s wreaking havoc with a deadly laser beam mounted on a satellite, he sneers: “The satellite is now over Kansas.   Well, if we destroy Kansas, the world may not hear about it for years.”

 

© Eon Productions

 

15: For Your Eyes Only (1987)

For Your Eyes Only makes a noble attempt to bring the franchise down to earth again following the excesses of Moonraker.  Mostly, it works nicely as an action / adventure piece, although the villain Krystatos, played by the normally reliable Julian Glover, is a bit drab. More effective is the excellent Michael Gothard as the taciturn Belgian assassin Locque.  Alas, it runs out of puff towards the end.  After some exciting mountaineering stunts while Roger Moore and the good guys ascend to a mountaintop monastery / villains’ lair, the climactic battle is a damp squib.  Also, there’s an excruciating ‘comic’ final scene where Margaret Thatcher (played by impressionist Janet Brown) phones Bond to congratulate him on a job well done and ends up speaking instead to a randy parrot: “Give us a kiss!”  “Oh, Mr Bond…”

 

14: Goldeneye (1995)

Pierce Brosnan’s debut as Bond, after the franchise had endured a six-year hiatus, won a lot of praise.  I find it slightly unsatisfying, though.  It tries a bit too hard.  There’s a bit too much packed into it, a few too many twists and turns, as it tries to prove to audiences that a Bond movie can still be relevant and with-it in the 1990s.  Also, its good intentions are undone by the occasional piece of Roger Moore-style silliness and a cobwebbed plot-MacGuffin – yes, it’s another killer satellite threatening the world, or in this case, the City of London.  Sean Bean and Famke Janssen are cool as the main villains, though it’s a pity that Alan Cumming and Joe Don Baker are both allowed to act with their brakes off.

 

13: Spectre (2015)

Another Daniel Craig Bond that got a critical kicking, I think Spectre deserves a little more love.  The film brings back Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played here by Christoph Waltz as a Euro-trash scumbag who commits crimes against fashion by not wearing socks under his loafers.  Also back is Blofeld’s insidious criminal organisation SPECTRE.  (After decades of legal wrangling, the Bond producers had by 2015 won the right to use Blofeld and SPECTRE again in the franchise.)  However, Spectre’s Bond / Blofeld backstory earned hoots of derision.  Blofeld, it transpires, is the son of Hannes Oberhauser, the man who looked after the young James Bond after his parents were killed in a climbing accident.  Oberhauser much preferred little James to little Ernst, leaving his biological son with some serious personality issues.  Yes, it sounds contrived, but I didn’t have a big problem with this, since the adoptive father-figure of Hannes Oberhauser existed in the original, literary Bond universe created by Ian Fleming and Bond referred to him in the short story Octopussy, published in 1966.  The opening sequence in Mexico City, filmed by director Sam Mendes in one long, supposedly continuous take, is brilliant, but the film’s attempts to incorporate / retcon the previous Daniel Craig Bond films into its plot are clunky.  For example, we learn that the Quantum organisation in Quantum of Solace is only a subsidiary of SPECTRE.  Another negative is the comatose theme song performed by Sam Smith.

 

© Eon Productions

 

And my next blog-post will rank the remaining Bond movies from number twelve to number one.

Some thoughts on Columbo – from Colombo

 

© Universal Television

 

When I was a kid during the 1970s, British television was awash with imported American detective and police series.  My schoolmates and I agreed that the genre had a ‘big five’ – maybe because the title characters of these five shows had gimmicks that impressed them deeply on our young consciousnesses.

 

There was Kojak (1973-78), whose detective hero was unashamedly bald, which meant anyone coming to school with a new haircut would be nicknamed ‘Kojak’ for days afterwards; Ironside (1967-75), whose hero was confined to a wheelchair; Cannon (1971-76), whose hero was fat – cue more cruel nicknames at school for kids slightly on the stout side; McCloud (1970-77), whose hero was a cowboy; and Columbo (1971-78), whose hero, essayed by Peter Falk, sported a grubby raincoat, unkempt head of hair and smelly-looking cigar and generally looked a bit manky.  Such was Columbo’s level of scruffiness that, whilst carrying out investigations in a soup kitchen in the 1974 episode Negative Reaction, a nun working there (Joyce Van Patten) mistook him for one of its homeless patrons.

 

In the half-century since, I’ve seen episodes of those shows repeated on TV, often on obscure satellite channels, and I have to say most of them have fallen victim to what is known in contemporary slang as the ‘suck fairy’.  This is neatly defined on fanlore.org as a “mythical creature who comes to old favourite books, art, TV shows or other media that one has not revisited in years, takes away everything in them that one loved, and refills them instead with suck.”

 

The shows seem formulaic, unmemorable, even dreary now, indistinguishable from a million other pieces of conveyor-belt-produced 1970s American TV.  Was this really the stuff that inspired us as ten-year-old kids to strut around the playground speaking in wavery drawls, like Dennis Weaver’s Deputy Marshall Sam McCloud, applying his cowboy law-enforcement techniques to the bad guys of New York (where he was on seemingly never-ending loan to the NYPD from the police department of Taos, New Mexico)?  Or inspired us to puff out our bellies and lurch / amble across the playground in imitation of William Conrad’s Private Detective Frank Cannon chasing the villains?  (Cannon, despite his obvious lack of athleticism, was able to not only run after those villains but also, somehow, catch them.)

 

However, there are two exceptions to the suck fairy rule.  One is the earlier episodes of Kojak, which capture something of 1970s New York’s sleazier side.  The other is Columbo, which although the episodes vary in quality, is frequently brilliant.  Today is September 15th, 2021, exactly 50 years to the day since Columbo debuted on American TV – not as a show with a weekly slot, but as ‘rotating episodes’ in the NDB Mystery Movie series, where it alternated with McCloud and McMillan & Wife (1971-77).  Incidentally, surely even Quentin Tarantino has difficulty remembering McMillan & Wife these days.

 

To mark the occasion, and because I’m currently living in the capital city of Sri Lanka, here are some thoughts on Columbo – from Colombo.

 

© Universal Television

 

Actually, there’s little I can say about Columbo that hasn’t already been said in this feature by Shaun Curran, which recently appeared in the BBC website’s ‘Culture’ section.  I’d take issue with one of the feature’s comments, though, that the ‘concept of class warfare wasn’t central to the creators’ thinking’.

 

Well, class warfare may not have been on the radar of William Link and Richard Levinson, the writing-producing duo who invented the character.  But I’m pretty damn sure it was at the forefront of most viewers’ minds while, episode after episode, they watched Columbo, the most humbly blue-collar of detectives, use his softly-spoken but bloody-minded persistence to wear down a succession of rich, arrogant, entitled sophisticates who, convinced of their own brilliance, believe they’ve just committed the perfect murder.  I’m certain those viewers cheered when, at the end of each episode, Columbo comprehensively outsmarted those bigshots and nabbed them for their misdeeds.

 

The show’s atypical structure saw each episode begin with some stinkingly rich, stinkingly amoral character – an art dealer, a bestselling novelist, a company CEO – commit a murder in some ingenious fashion.  Immediately, we’d be plonked into that person’s affluent world: mansions, penthouses, country retreats, exclusive clubs, golf courses, fancy cars, swimming pools, yes-men, servants, hangers-on.  Columbo wouldn’t appear until after 20 minutes or so, when the police are called.  You can imagine the murderer’s mental cry of delight when they realise that this bumbling, zero-class klutz is handling the investigation.

 

Ah, but the viewers know better.  Columbo is on the case and the disgustingly wealthy git is going to suffer.

 

His apparent obsequiousness (“The wife thinks you’re terrific!”) gives way to a gradual but relentless process of psychological torture as some teensy-weensy inconsistency (“Just one more thing… One thing that’s bothering me…”) arouses the wily detective’s suspicions and he starts tightening the screws on his quarry.  No wonder that when the climax of each episode arrives and Columbo reveals all – usually by setting some final trap in which the culprit irrefutably incriminates him or herself – arrest is usually accepted with a minimum of fuss.  The bigshot murderer has been thoroughly ground down by this disheveled, raincoated dispenser of justice.  Prison will seem a blessed relief after what they’ve just been through.

 

Colombo, with his rubbish clothes, hair and car (an elderly Peugeot 403), his clumsiness, his dozy dog and his bossy wife who, despite never making an appearance, lurks as a formidable presence in the background, might be an everyman figure.  But he also helps rectify the injustices in the American Dream that allow such unprincipled scum to rise to the top while the decent folk get stuck at the bottom.  As Joyce Van Patten’s nun remarks in Negative Reaction, “A man’s worth is not judged by the size of his purse.”  Really, each episode of Colombo ought to be watched with L’Internationale playing softly in the background.

 

© Universal Television

 

So, which are my favourite Columbo episodes?  Well, there’s 1973’s A Stitch in Crime, which is fascinating because Columbo is pitted against Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, who plays an ambitious heart surgeon using his medical know-how to bump off a colleague so he can take control of a research project.  Ironically, this episode has less logic and more emotion on display than usual.  We get a rare glimpse of Columbo losing his cool.  When Nimoy laughs at him condescendingly, he smashes a water pitcher onto the former Vulcan’s desk and spits: “I believe you killed Sharon Martin… and I believe you’re trying to kill Dr Heideman!”

 

Then there’s Double Shock, also from 1973, in which smug – okay, all Columbo villains are smug – identical twins, played by Martin Landau, conspire to kill their wealthy uncle by electrocuting him while he’s having a bath.  What makes this episode a joy is the horror shown by the victim’s prim, cleanliness-obsessed housekeeper (played by Jeanette Nolan) while Columbo trudges about her pristine household with his dirty shoes and crumbling cigar.  You get the impression she’d rather have her employer’s murder go unsolved than have this apparent oaf tramp over her expensive carpets.  “You belong in some pigsty!” she shouts at him, patience finally snapping.

 

The shiny-pated, bug-eyed Donald Pleasence was everywhere in 1970s films and television, so it was inevitable that he’d turn up in Columbo.  In the episode Any Old Port in a Storm, yet another one from 1973, he plays a fanatical wine connoisseur who at one point rages at a waiter: “This wine has been oxidized by overheating…!  An exciting meal has been spoiled by the presence of this liquid filth!”  However, unusually, Pleasence’s character is sympathetic overall.  Indeed, he only murders his dastardly half-brother when that half-brother threatens his beloved winery.  And, unlike most of Columbo’s adversaries, he’s sporting in defeat.  When he realises the game is up, he even shares a final glass of wine with the detective.

 

1974’s Swan Song has Colombo investigating a plane crash that’s resulted in the deaths of two women. One is the wife and the other is the backing singer of country-and-western star Tommy Brown, who was piloting the plane and miraculously got thrown clear during the impact and suffered only minor injuries.  But the truth is less miraculous.  Brown had got himself into a compromising situation with the background singer when she was way too young for such things, and his wife (played by the marvellous Ida Lupino) was blackmailing him into donating large sums to a religious project she championed.  To rid himself of these two sources of torment, he drugged them when they were on the plane, bailed out with a parachute, and turned up at the crash scene to make it look like he was on board when it went down, but survived.  I find this episode’s script far-fetched, but as Brown is played by Johnny Cash, and it’s basically Columbo versus the Man in Black, it makes my pick of favourites.

 

© Universal Television

 

However, my all-time favourite Columbo episode is Troubled Waters, a 1975 episode that has Columbo and the missus taking a break on a 1970s cruise ship, an experience that I have to say looks like hell on earth.  Columbo is asked to help after rich slimeball passenger Robert Vaughn murders the ship’s lounge singer and tries to pin the blame on a pianist (played by Dean Stockwell).  What makes this episode a pleasure is not only that Columbo is up against Vaughn, The Man from UNCLE (1964-68), but also that he’s allied with John Steed from The Avengers (1961-69), for playing the perplexed ship’s captain is none other than the splendid Patrick Macnee.  While Columbo drives Macnee and his crew to distraction by insisting on calling their beloved ship a ‘boat’, we get tantalising suggestions that we’re going to see Mrs. Columbo at last – though inevitably, Columbo, and the viewers, keep ‘just missing’ her.  (When the purser informs Columbo that the captain would like to see him, he asks worriedly, “It’s not about my wife, is it?  I mean… she likes to have a good time, sometimes she gets carried away…”)

 

Columbo was revived in 1989 and carried on with another two dozen episodes and specials until 2003, eight years before Peter Falk’s death.  These later Columbo-es weren’t as good as the ones from the 1970s, although it was always a pleasure to see the character on screen, still socking it to the high and mighty.

 

With Falk gone, there’s been talk of remaking the show, the most promising talk proposing Mark Ruffalo as the actor who’d take over the raincoat.  Now, while Columbo obviously wouldn’t be the same without Falk, I’d still welcome a modern-day version of the show that has the rumpled detective shuffling into luxury 2021 penthouses with his shabby raincoat and malodorous cigar, first inviting derision from, then causing irritation to, and finally striking terror into the likes of the Trumps, the Kardashians, the Kochs, the Murdochs, the Musks and so on.  I’d welcome the sight of him annoying villainous investment bankers, hedge fund managers, real estate tycoons, arms dealers, celebrity reality-TV stars and pampered YouTube influencers into submission, before collaring them and sticking them behind bars.

 

Yes, today, when a quarter of the world’s wealth now resides in the pockets of some 175,000 billionaires and multi-millionaires, and much of it didn’t get into those pockets through honest means, we need Detective Lieutenant Columbo more than ever.

 

© Universal Television

The real Princess Diana

 

© ITV / ABC / Thames

 

2020 has been a rotten year and I suspect it still has more rottenness in store.  One of the many reasons why I’ve found it so godawful has been because it’s seen the deaths of two actresses who meant a lot to me, firstly because they both had leading roles in James Bond movies and I’m a big James Bond fan, and secondly because they both starred in one of my favourite TV shows, The Avengers (1961-69).  I’m talking, of course, about Honor Blackman, who died in April, and now Diana Rigg, who died last week.

 

I never got to see Diana Rigg perform on stage, where she appeared in plays by Edward Albee, Bertolt Brecht, Anton Chekov, Noel Coward, Henrik Ibsen, Molière, Jean Racine, George Bernard Shaw, Tom Stoppard, Tennessee Williams and, obviously, William Shakespeare.  Nor did I catch her when, after becoming a Dame in the mid-1990s and being recognised as a national treasure, she appeared in prestigious TV productions like Rebecca (1997) or Victoria & Albert (2001), both of which resulted in her winning or being nominated for Emmy Awards.  I was living abroad and didn’t have access to English-language TV at the time.

 

I didn’t even watch her much-praised performance as Olenna Tyrell in the TV show Game of Thrones from 2013 to 2017, since I thought I should first read the George R.R. Martin books on which the show was based – something I’ve yet to get around to doing.

 

Despite what I’ve missed, however, I offer here a collection of Diana Rigg performances that I have seen and remember fondly.

 

Playing Tracy di Vincenzo in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is ostensibly about James Bond (George Lazenby in his one-and-only shot at the role) tangling with his arch-enemy Ernst Stavros Blofeld (Telly Savalas).  However, it also explores Bond’s emotional side and highlights his vulnerability.  Key to this is OHMSS’s sub-plot about the romance between Bond and Contessa Theresa ‘Tracy’ di Vicenzo (Rigg), daughter of the boss of the crime syndicate the Unione Corse of Corsica.  At the film’s end, Blofeld is seemingly vanquished and Bond and Tracy get married.  Then Blofeld makes a sudden reappearance in the final scene, sprays their honeymoon car with bullets, kills Tracy and leaves Bond as a babbling wreck.

 

Fascinatingly, for a film franchise that’s often accused of de-humanising the Ian Fleming novels that inspired it and emphasising big, dumb spectacle at the expense of characterisation, Tracy is a more fleshed-out character in OHMSS-the film than in OHMSS-the-novel.  She’s given more to do and, played by Rigg, has a sparkle that’s missing in the rather aloof, ambiguous character that Fleming sketches.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Particularly memorable is her appearance after Bond escapes from Blofeld’s Alpine headquarters.  Hunted by Blofeld’s henchmen, exhausted, frightened even – something that Lazenby, despite or perhaps because of his acting inexperience, conveys well – he takes refuge in a crowded Christmas market / ice rink in the local town.  Just as he thinks he not going to make it, Rigg comes to his rescue, unexpectedly skating into view in front of him like some heaven-sent angel of mercy.

 

Playing Sonya Winter in The Assassination Bureau (1969)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service wasn’t the only instance in 1969 of Diana Rigg rubbing shoulders with Telly Savalas.  In Basil Deardon’s black comedy The Assassination Bureau (based on an unfinished Jack London novel), she plays an aspiring female journalist in Edwardian London sent by Savalas’s unscrupulous newspaper proprietor to investigate a secret criminal organisation offering assassins for hire.  Armed with a bagful of money that Savalas has provided, Rigg brazenly hires this Assassination Bureau to assassinate its own chairman, Ivan Dragomiloff, who’s played by Oliver Reed.  Admiring Rigg’s audacity, Reed accepts the commission and, with her in tow, spends the movie zigzagging around Europe dodging the efforts of his own board of directors to kill him.

 

It’s a pleasantly silly film and, admirably, doesn’t waste any time in setting up its convoluted premise and getting into the action.  Rigg is delightful as the uppity Sonya Winter, determinedly doing her job and flying the flag for women’s rights amid a world of starchy, patronising male chauvinists.  Meanwhile, Reed had only just played the brutish Bill Sikes in Oliver! (1968) and at the time was in contention to play James Bond, although his reputation for drunken offscreen hi-jinks put 007 producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman off the idea.  His pairing with Rigg in The Assassination Bureau is no beauty-and-the-beast affair, however.  He dials down the roughness and dials up the charm so that their chemistry together is actually very pleasing.

 

© Paramount Pictures

 

Playing Edwina Lionheart in Theatre of Blood (1973)

Douglas Hickox’s brilliant comedy-horror movie Theatre of Blood has Vincent Price as an insane and hammily over-the-top Shakespearean actor who starts killing the snobbish London theatre critics who’ve bad-mouthed his performances, using murders methods borrowed from the Bard’s plays.  “They’re not going to start killing critics for giving bad notices, are they?” exclaims the campest critic Meredith Merridew, played by Robert Morley, who eventually meets a grisly fate modelled on events in Titus Andronicus.  As the corpses pile up, murdered in ways suggested by Julius Caesar, Troilus and Cressida, Cymbeline, Richard III, Henry VI: Part One and even The Merchant of Venice (Price rewrites it so that he can extract a pound of flesh from Harry Andrews), the youngest and least obnoxious critic, played by Ian Hendry, and the investigating police officers, played by Milo O’Shea and Eric Sykes, turn to Lionheart’s supposedly normal daughter, Edwina (Rigg), for help.

 

Distraught about what her father is doing, yet repulsed by the critics who destroyed his career, Edwina is initially a troubled and conflicted character.  Yet as the film progresses, it transpires that Rigg is having as much fun in her role as the Bard-quoting, soliloquizing Price is in his.

 

Taking the mickey out of herself in The Morecambe and Wise Show (1975), The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and Extras (2006)

Rigg never took herself too seriously.  She teamed up with Britain’s most famous comic double-act Morecambe and Wise for their 1975 Christmas TV special, where she appeared in the inevitable Ernie Wise-penned play.  This featured Rigg as Nell Gwynne, Eric Morecambe as Charles II and Wise as Samuel Pepys.  (“Have you read Ernie’s play?” demands Morecambe.  “Yes, I have,” replies Rigg.  “And you’re still here?”)  Better still is her appearance in The Great Muppet Caper, the second movie starring Jim Henson’s much-loved puppets, in which she plays the snooty fashion designer Lady Holiday, who’s robbed of her jewellery by a gang led by her devious brother (Charles Grodin).  Predictably, Miss Piggy approaches Rigg in the hope of securing a job as a fashion model and insists on showing Rigg her portfolio: “This is me reeking grandeur!”

 

And then there’s a 2006 episode of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s comedy show Extras, which is about a struggling actor (Gervais) trying to make ends meet with bit-parts and uncredited roles in films and on television.  This scenario enables the show’s gimmick of having real, famous actors and actresses play versions of themselves – usually twisted, unpleasant versions.  In this particular episode, Gervais gets a three-day job in a new fantasy film starring the then-17-year-old Daniel Radcliffe and Dame Diana Rigg.  The joke is that Radcliffe is a randy, boorish and clueless teenager.  Whilst eating with him in the studio canteen, Radcliffe tries to convince Gervais that he’s a man of the world by whipping a condom out of his pocket – he’s unravelled it but seems to think he can still put it on – and then accidentally pings it through the air to a nearby table, where it lands on the unamused Rigg’s head.  Radcliffe asks her for his ‘johnny back’ and gets a schoolmistress-ly reply: “May I have my prophylactic back, please?”

 

Later, Radcliffe sidles up to her and inquires, “You still got that catsuit from The Avengers?”  Rigg retorts: “Go away, Daniel.”

 

© BBC / HBO

 

And that brings me nicely to…

 

Playing Emma Peel in The Avengers (1965-67)

By the time Rigg joined The Avengers in the mid-1960s, the show, under the guidance of creator Brian Clemens, had gradually mutated from being a conventional action / thriller show with Patrick Macnee’s John Steed and Ian Hendry’s Dr David Keel as a pair of crime-fighters to being a television phenomenon that did everything on its own terms, both determinedly non-realistic and restlessly inventive.

 

Rigg’s tenure on The Avengers was surely its golden era.  With her Emma Peel character partnering Macnee’s now surreally debonair Steed, and the show being broadcast in colour for the first time, it was a self-confident cocktail of the funny, the silly, the fantastical, the baroque and, occasionally, the gothic and the kinky.  (The kinkiness factor came to the fore in an episode called A Touch of Brimstone, wherein Rigg dons a costume comprising a spiked collar, whalebone corset, black leather boots and a snake.  Funnily enough, this attracted the highest viewing figures of any episode in The Avengers’ eight-year history.)

 

Rigg brought to the show a bemused, unruffled quirkiness that was the equal of Macnee’s majestic imperturbability.  She was also his equal in being proactive, having no qualms about wading into fights to show off her martial arts prowess or hurtling around in a Lotus Elan.  As a villain in one episode remarked, “She’s well and truly emancipated, is that one.”

 

Rigg wasn’t comfortable about the fact, but Emma Peel also became a sex symbol.  She couldn’t well avoid it, being ephemerally gorgeous and clad in a succession of leather catsuits, mini-skirts and mod-inspired outfits that, inevitably, ended up being sold in the ladies’ fashion shops of the real Britain.  Wisely, though, sex was off the agenda in her character’s onscreen relationship with Macnee’s Steed.  The two indulged in a relaxed, platonic flirtatiousness and left it at that.  Macnee did get a kiss from her at the end of her final episode on the show, when she left him with the parting advice: “Always keep your bowler on in times of stress, and watch out for diabolical masterminds.”

 

Appearing at the height of the swinging 1960s, but tongue-in-cheek and light-hearted rather than smug, which is how I find many productions from the time, The Avengers, and especially the Emma Peel-era Avengers, projects a charming and not-taking-itself-seriously notion of Britishness that seems light-years removed from the discredited, embittered, clapped-out Britain of 2020.  The death of Diana Rigg, who’d been one of the last links with the show, just seems to emphasise that it’s now all in the past.

 

© ITV / ABC / Thames