By Issy Flower
When Diana Rigg died earlier this month, Twitter was flooded with memorial hashtags, childhood memories and photos. However relatively few of these were from her illustrious stage career the majority focused on her time in The Avengers and Game of Thrones with perhaps a smattering of Shakespeare and Chichester Festival here and here. Is this the right way to memorialise our actors, and do they deserve more focus given to their lives off the screen?
To some this might reveal a traditional bias, even classism, against television and film as ‘lesser’ formats for actors, suggesting that their performances are not as worthy, not as considered or intellectual as on the stage.
This is clearly rubbish as good actors are good actors, and they consistently lift good scripts and give performances regardless of the medium and these should be celebrated. Andrew Scott’s Hamlet was as good as his Moriarty, and vice-versa, and both deservedly won awards. Similarly, it is these screen performances that normally reach a wider audience—this often seems to be the case for ‘genre’ films and shows in particular, which are
sneered at by critics and loved by viewers.
Edward Woodward, for instance, was an actor whose stage career spanned from the 1940s to the 2000s, but whose obituaries focused on two well-received spy shows and a folk horror in which he was brutally burnt to death. The same applies to Diana Rigg: her performances in The Avengers and Game of Thrones brought her art to the attention of multiple generations, and to disvalue this impact is an insult to the people who watched and enjoyed those programmes as much as a night out in the West End.
However, perhaps a little more consideration should be given to these actors’ theatrical art due to the impact it had on their own lives. After all, there is a reason that these actors, safe and secure in lucrative screen careers, kept coming back to the stage. Namely their love of it and the desire to really connect with an audience, as Diana Rigg put it, ‘bring them
into your truth’ without the glass between you. Their passion for what they do is sometimes missed in favour of trotting out amusing anecdotes or trivia in obituaries and so a key part of their lives is ignored when celebrating them.
Similarly, actors’ lives are often shaped by their experiences in the theatre: marriages, divorces, births, all play out against the backdrop of the theatrical community and so adding some of this context into an obituary may serve to allow a reader to understand the shape of a life as well as a career. Ian Holm’s marriage to Penelope Wilton maybe makes more sense when you separate them from their roles as Bilbo and Harriet Jones MP, as both were respected stage and television actors with a particular line in Pinterian intensity. Art helps to understand life, and vice-versa.
In the celebration of iconic actors, their stage-work should neither be the sum of their lives nor the thing we forget. Although the screen is often what they are remembered for, and sometimes where they delivered some of their greatest performances, these actors were passionate about theatre, and to place more emphasis on it within an obituary pays tribute both to their love of their craft and the impact it had on their lives, without devaluing the intense impact they had on millions through their other work.
Yes, Diana Rigg was Emma Peel, but she was also Lady Macbeth, Medea, and Eliza Doolittle. Both sides are worth remembering.
Image: Wikimedia Commons