Letters from stars sold by Diana Rigg's estate

‘Never has anyone been so much at sea since Columbus…’: Letters from stars including Ronnie Barker, John Cleese and Ian McKellen describing their worst reviews form part of treasure trove of memorabilia sold by Diana Rigg’s estate

  • The original letters were sent to the late Dame Diana Rigg from several actors 
  • In 1980, she put together a book on the ‘worst theatrical reviews in history 
  • She got responses from likes of Ronnie Barker, Ian McKellen and John Cleese

Letters from showbusiness greats to the late Dame Diana Rigg describing their worst reviews have been unearthed as part of a treasure trove of memorabilia sold by her estate. 

The original letters were sent to the late actress from the likes of Ronnie Barker, Ian McKellen, Charlton Heston, Julie Christie and John Cleese in response to her requests for lines from their most memorable reviews.

The letters are now being sold as part of an archive of documents, scripts, photographs, awards and jewellery by the estate of Dame Diana who died last year aged 82. 

In 1980, The Avengers star was putting together a book on the ‘worst theatrical reviews in history’ and reached out to her circle of celebrity friends for help.

One of the stand-out letters was from comedy legend Ronnie Barker, who recalled a review of his performance as a fledgling thespian with the Oxford Playhouse.

The review in the Oxford Times described the then 22-year-old’s appearance in The Cherry Orchard as ‘the most monumental piece of mis-casting.’ It added: ‘Never has anyone been so much at sea since Columbus.’

Letters from showbusiness greats to the late Dame Diana Rigg documenting the times they were panned by critics have been unearthed

Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee are Emma Peel and John Steed, on the set of the TV Series The Avengers. In 1980, The Avengers star was putting together a book on the ‘worst theatrical reviews in history’ and reached out to her circle of celebrity friends for help

One of the stand-out letters was from comedy legend Ronnie Barker, who recalled a review of his performance as a fledgling thespian with the Oxford Playhouse. The review in the Oxford Times described the then 22-year-old’s appearance in The Cherry Orchard as ‘the most monumental piece of mis-casting.’ It added: ‘Never has anyone been so much at sea since Columbus.’

A Tony awards nomination certificate for My Fair Lady, 2018, an Emmy awards nomination certificate for Game of Thrones, 2013, and an Emmy awards nomination plaque for The Avengers, 1967 for Diana Rigg

The Diana Rigg sale at the auction includes stills from her time in the 1960’s hit The Avengers

Monty Python funnyman Cleese wrote to Rigg to recount the time he was told that he ’emits an air of overwhelming vanity combined with some unspecific nastiness, like a black widow spider on heat’ while on stage.

Ian McKellen recalled how a reviewer cuttingly said of his performance in a Shakespeare play: ‘The best thing about Ian McKellen’s Hamlet is his curtain-call.’

Glenda Jackson recalled her favourite critique was for her role in the 1969 film Women in Love which read: ‘Gelnda Jackson has a face to launch a thousand dredgers.

Sir John Gielgud recalled how he once read that he had the ‘most meaningless legs imaginable.’

Oscar winning actor Alex Guinness wrote from his home in Hampshire that the ‘hurtful and unpleasant’ reviews were written ‘without a grain of wit’. 

The collection, that is valued at over £75,000, also includes letters and personalised note cards from personalities including Laurence Olivier, Jon Voigt, Rex Harrison and Elaine Paige.

In a gushing letter, Olivier wrote: ‘It was wonderful to work with you, darling, and I much hope an opportunity arises soon when we may repeat the occasion..my hearts thanks for being in it and for your ravishing work.’ He was referring to their work on a TV adaptation of King Lear in 1983.

There are 14 letters by the playwright Tom Stoppard sent in the 1970s discussing theatrical productions. The letters to ‘Di’ show his deep affection for her. One reads: ‘You were tremendously good last night, and you’re the soul of N & D [Night & Day].’

A plaque for Dianna Rigg’s Emmy nomination for her role in the Avengers is part of the sale

Diana’s collection of scripts from the theatre and TV form part of the sale at the auction

The collection, that is valued at over £75,000, also includes letters and personalised note cards, as well as school reports (pictured) 

And there are 23 theatrical and film scripts Diana kept throughout her career.

Many of them were annotated by her and are said to provide a unique insight into a method of acting.

Katherine Schofield, director of popular culture at London auctioneers Bonhams, said: ‘This is the most fun and insightful collection relating to the wonderful Diana Rigg.

‘One of the highlights are the review letters. Diana decided to write a book where she would write to a number of friends asking what their most memorable review was.

‘The majority of responses cited reviews that were not very good, mainly because they are the ones that stick in the mind.

‘But they are hilarious especially when you think about some some of the names of the stars involved.

‘Diana Rigg is such a British icon and such an adored actress.’

The sale takes place tomorrow.

The Yorkshire lass who went on to become a star of the silver screen and James Bond’s first wife

Dame Diana shot to fame as Emma Peel in Sixties TV series The Avengers and then as a Bond girl.

But she also notched up many Shakespearean roles and enjoyed a long career, appearing recently as powerful matriarch Olenna Tyrell in Game Of Thrones.

Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg was born in Doncaster on July 20, 1938.

She trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1959.

The actress quickly made her mark there with important roles in productions of The Taming Of The Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth and King Lear.

Diana Rigg as the cutthroat matriarch Oleanna Tyrell in HBO’s worldwide hit series, Game of Thrones, a show she admitted in 2019 that she had never watched

Rigg became the second Bond girl to marry 007 when she starred in James Bond ‘s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969

After that, she was hugely successful in her role as Emma Peel, the secret service agent in The Avengers, co-starring Patrick Macnee.

But Dame Diana was unhappy about the intrusion into privacy that came with being on TV, and she was also critical of the way she was treated by TV bosses.

She also discovered that she was being paid less than a cameraman.

‘It was very, very intrusive in those days, because I was instantly recognisable,’ the actress later told Variety.

‘I was grateful to be a success, but there was a price to pay.’

In 1969, she played Bond girl Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, opposite Bond actor George Lazenby, with whom she had a difficult relationship.

It was in the 1970s that she joined the National Theatre, where she played major roles in Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, The Misanthrope, Pygmalion, Antony And Cleopatra and Stephen Sondheim’s Follies.

In a nude scene she played in Abelard And Heloise, she was described by one critic as being ‘built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses’.

As a result, she produced a book of the worst-ever theatrical reviews, entitled No Turn Unstoned. It was a best-seller.  

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