BOOTLEG FILES 739: “Diana” (1973-74 sitcom starring Diana Rigg).
LAST SEEN: One episode is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Unavailable for many years.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.
Yesterday brought the sad news of the passing of Dame Diana Rigg at the age of 82, and there were countless tributes to her glory days as Emma Peel on the cult television series “The Avengers” along with her performances in film classics “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and “Theater of Blood” and her late-career success in “Game of Thrones.” Much less attention was paid to one of Rigg’s more curious endeavors: an American sitcom called “Diana” that ran for 15 episodes in the 1973-74 television season. In a career that was rich with artistic and commercial successes, “Diana” was a very rare misfire for the gifted actress.
The concept of “Diana” was liberally lifted from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” with a single career-focused woman enjoying work and life while surrounded by a circle of wacky friends and colleagues. In this case, Rigg played Diana Smythe, a divorced Englishwoman who relocates to New York to work as a fashion coordinator for a department store. By 1973, the U.S. networks were finally comfortable having a program with a divorced woman as its central focus – when Mary Tyler Moore’s sitcom debuted three years earlier, the initial concept of having her as a divorcee was erased, even though the national divorce rate was on the rise.
A pilot episode was shot under the title “The Diana Rigg Show,” and Rigg was surrounded by Carol Androsky as her neighbor who works as a model in hand and foot advertisements, Richard B. Shull as a crotchety copywriter, Robert Moore as a window dresser whose flamboyant behavior was mid-70s code for homosexuality, David Steiner as Rigg’s hardworking and beleaguered boss and Nanette Fabray as Steiner’s wife. For reasons that are not clear, Fabray exited the show after the pilot and was replaced by Barbara Barrie, while the show itself had its name shortened to “Diana.”
One of the running gags of “Diana” was having her live in an apartment that belonged to her brother, who was traveling on business. Her brother gave apartment keys to multiple friends who would crash at the apartment, always without advance warning. In the one “Diana” episode that is available for online viewing, a soaking-wet man clothed only in a towel emerges unexpectedly from the bathroom to inform Rigg that her shower is broken. Rigg is not the least bit concerned over the intruder’s presence and behaves as if there couldn’t be anything strange about his appearance.
And that was the main problem with “Diana” – Rigg did not seem to be connected with anything happening around her. From the footage that can be seen online and from my own recollection of the program, she went through the episodes in a somewhat robotic manner, offering the slightest of smiles and an unmistakable air of indifference while the other actors chewed the scenery with gusto. Whereas much of the joy of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” involved Moore’s reaction to the nonsense happening around her, Rigg seemed to be in her own bubble.
Her failure to be assimilated into the comedy was particularly evident in what should have been the series’ highlight: a reunion with her “Avengers” co-star Patrick Macnee. In the footage of the episode that is online, the chemistry that once united the actors on “The Avengers” was weirdly absent, with Macnee trying to pump energy into the scene and Rigg giving nothing to the moment.
What went wrong? The scripts were certainly dismal – I recall trying to embrace the show back in 1973 but giving up after a few episodes because no laughs were to be found. It is not clear what Rigg thought about the production – she never talked about in interviews – but the fact she’s not even bothering to phone in her performances suggests she had little enthusiasm for the work.
Rigg’s fans tried to give “Diana” the benefit of the doubt – Cecil Smith, the television critic for the Washington Post, charitably wrote, “‘Diana’ is as cool, as sophisticated, and as elegant as its star.” NBC had high hopes for “Diana,” scheduling it on Monday from 8:30pm to 9:00pm against long-running hits “Gunsmoke” and “The Rookies.” But the series never truly found its footing and was quickly cancelled.
To date, “Diana” has never been made available in any home entertainment format – and I am unaware that it was ever rerun on any cable station specializing in retro programming. One of the 15 episodes, titled “The Gilt Complex,” can be found in an unauthorized posting on YouTube, and a poor quality snippet of the Rigg-Macnee episode can be seen online, too. (Rigg and Macnee appeared together at the time on “Hollywood Squares,” but that appearance is unavailable for online viewing.)
Mercifully, “Diana” was quickly forgotten and Rigg would continue to reign on stage and screen without interruption. Hey, we all make mistakes and Rigg was lucky enough not to be hobbled by this erroneous blip in her career.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
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