■ The legendary actress, 80, on The Avengers, Game of Thrones and why she’s supporting Macmillan’s carol concert
How did you get involved with the Macmillan carol concert?
I’ve supported Macmillan for years now. They’re a wonderful organisation but they aren’t government-funded. They desperately need funds to carry out their care of terminal patients. A member of my family will now be using Macmillan nurses so it has an extra potency for me.
What do you enjoy about a carol service?
I love carol services and they’ve changed hugely since I started doing them. Way back when it was only Bible readings interspersed with carols and poetry, readings from Dickens and anything that pertains to Christmas were introduced. Last year I compiled a book of Christmas readings to go with carols, which I’ll be reading from.
Has Christmas lost its religious aspect?
Not entirely but a lot has gone. That’s why carol services are wonderful. Schools have them and that brings back the meaning. My daughter [Rachael Stirling] played Mary, patted her stomach and said, ‘I can feel the baby coming’. I burst into tears. For me, the traditional way of starting a carol concert is the choirboys singing Once In Royal David’s City. I find it moving.
Did playing Mary put your daughter on the path to becoming an actress?
I don’t know about that. I haven’t asked her. All I know is she hated Joseph. She kept on giving him withering glances. She remembered every word. She just didn’t like her husband very much.
Did you enjoy doing Game Of Thrones?
It’s always fun playing a bad person.It’s so much more interesting than playing a good one.
And she got things done…
She did. If you describe knocking people off as ‘getting things done’.
Were you happy with how things ended for your character?
They gave me a wonderful scene to go out on. I’d have hated to have ended up on a lavatory like Charles Dance.
Did the show attract a new audience for you?
I’m not a great one for knowing who’s been attracted or who hasn’t but suddenly I’m known to a younger audience, which is really good. I’m also introducing young people to the entertainment business, what I do, and hopefully it will lead them to the theatre — that’s what I love because it’s live, it’s people.
You worked with your daughter on Detectorists. What was it like playing her mum?
It’s always lovely working with someone you love and know — we also did Doctor Who together. It was lovely working on Detectorists and I liked being a bit hard on Mackenzie Crook. He’s the dearest of men. I loved working on it and watching it as well. It was so charming and really quite an anachronism at this time, when everything happens so quickly on television and there’s often a degree of violence.
What were the highs and lows of being a 1960s icon?
The lows were the intrusion into one’s private life. That was hard to deal with. But it was mostly wonderful and I look back on it with great pleasure and gratitude. I became famous overnight with The Avengers. One minute I was anonymous and the next, heads turned.
And you didn’t enjoy that?
Not terribly. You always feel you’re not quite up to scratch, that you’re not living up to people’s expectations. Well, you haven’t got the slap on, have you?
Is that why you only did two years on the show?
No, not at all. I was relatively young and knew I was close to getting stuck in it and I wanted to practise my craft in as varied a way as possible. But it still has a loyal following all around the world. It’s astonishing.
You protested for equal pay on The Avengers…
I’m not remotely apologetic about that. I’m not a great one for banging my drum but I led the way and I had absolutely no support from anyone anywhere.
Did your co-star Patrick Macnee help you out?
He was dear but he didn’t want to put his neck on the line. I understand why. In the end I got a minimal rise. A token £20 or something ridiculous.
Have things improved?
Things are better now. I’m not in the position to know what goes on at that level but it’s a market and now I think it’s evaluated on how a big draw you are.
What are your proudest achievements?
My daughter. And surviving in my career.
■ Dame Diana Rigg is attending Macmillan’s annual carol concert at St John’s, Westminster tomorrow. Tickets from macmillan.org.uk/amacmillanchristmas