Cinema, Campari and a carrier bag of Quality Street: Edgar Wright remembers Diana Rigg

‘She knew exactly how to enter, be note perfect and utterly incandescent for the cameras’ … Diana Rigg and director Edgar Wright on the set of Last Night in Soho. Photograph: Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features

The director of upcoming psychological thriller Last Night in Soho on the delights and surprises of working with Rigg on what turned out to be her final film

“Diana Rigg will meet you at Berners Tavern.” Just seeing those words written in a text gave me an anxious thrill. Despite her illustrious work on stage and screen (big and small), the blushing adolescent in me was still nervously excited to meet Emma Peel. When I walked into the restaurant I was dead on time. But she was 15 minutes early, already at the table and looking fabulous in leopard print and gold bangles. After I stumbled through my hello, she offered, “I’m having a Campari and soda, darling, will you have one?” That was the first time, aged 45, I’d ever had a Campari and soda. And what a great way to start.

Production on my film Last Night In Soho took place in summer 2019 and working with Diana (or as I called her variously, Dame D or sometimes just DDR) was a treat. She was such a formidable performer that she raised everyone’s game as soon as she stepped on set. And so funny and wry too, often bringing a carrier bag full of Quality Street for the crew – which, frankly, all actors should do. Since she’d lived most of her life on a film set or stage, she knew exactly how to enter, be note perfect and utterly incandescent for the cameras and also, crucially, be out of her make-up and in her car 15 minutes or less after wrapping.

What little downtime we had on set would invariably turn to me nudging her for the most brilliant anecdotes. After the shoot, this led to some cherished Campari-fuelled Sunday brunches in her favourite South Kensington spots where we talked about the state of the world, the business as it is now, and all of her stories in-between. She was such a wickedly funny raconteur, and though we gossiped a lot, I feel like I only heard five percent of her tales.

Earlier this year, pre-pandemic, we were planning to shoot a few pickups for the movie. Although I didn’t need Diana for much, I became aware she might not be able to come back. I didn’t ask why, but had an inkling. She was open about her health before, though usually in more arch terms (“I basically died, darling”). And we had spoken a few times during the early days of lockdown, talking about old movies she saw in Leeds on a Friday night. But then she went quiet and stopped responding to emails.

Edgar Wright’s photograph of Diana Rigg on the set of Last Night in Soho. Photograph: Edgar Wright

As we finally ramped up to shoot in late July, I received a message to call her. I knew she couldn’t shoot, she was now living with her daughter, son-in-law and grandson, but she wanted to tell me it was “killing her” that she couldn’t come back and that she’d “never missed a performance”. I told her we’d be okay, but I’d need to record some ADR – looping lines of dialogue – with her. She said that was fine.

A month ago, Diana’s daughter, Rachael, called to say she wanted to do her final ADR for the movie but we would need to come to her and have to do it soon. I didn’t want to admit it, but I knew what that meant.

This led to a quickly-arranged trip to her bedside the following week where myself and my dialogue editor Dan were to record her final lines. Rachael mentioned that Diana may, if she had the energy, want to have a drink and talk after. I asked if it would be weird to bring a bottle of Campari. “No,” Rachael replied. “She’d love it.”

I was anxious about going, not least in the time of Covid, but also worried about tiring her out. As Dan and I came up the stairs to see Diana, I heard her cry out “I know that voice!” and was already glad I came. When I saw her, infirm in bed, I said: “Dame D, I’ve been so bold as to bring some Campari.” She replied, sippy cup in hand, “Darling, I’m having one right now. Will you have one?” I said: “It would be rude not to.” She shouted to her daughter, “Rachie, could you make two Campari and sodas for Edgar and his friend?”

Then, a short, beautifully civilised ADR session commenced, with myself, Dan and Dame D all sipping Campari while finishing her dialogue, doing only as many takes as we absolutely needed. When she was happy, she’d say, “I thought that last one was rather good.” We finished recording, I showed her the trailer twice, we had a right old gossip, reminisced about the shoot, and then it was time to go.

I had been so worried how the afternoon might go and had prepared myself to be upset seeing Diana, but it was the opposite. As I walked down the garden path with Dan I said, “I’m not sure that could have gone any better.” She was in such fine form and great spirits, it didn’t feel like farewell.

Later, I watched what we’d done in the mix and I realised I needed one more word from Diana to really make it perfect. Rachael had mentioned that working still gave Diana great joy, so I enquired, would it be crazy to record one more word? I even suggested that Guy, her son-in-law, record if it was easier. Rachael said she’d do it but it would be done that weekend. I replied, “Whatever you need, I’m here.”

That Friday night, a day before I expected the recording, I was in the office and got a call from Guy. He said, “We’ve recorded the final word, it all went great, I’m passing you over to Diana.” I asked, “Is that Dame Diana Rigg, star of stage and screen?” She replied, “The very same! Currently bedridden, but still working!” Diana said she admired my fastidiousness for getting one more word. We discussed the preview for the film and how well it had gone. She was happy to hear.

I could tell she was tired, so I simply said, not wanting to say goodbye for good, I couldn’t wait for her to see the finished film. She replied, “I had such a lovely time making your film. I wish you all the luck in the world with it.” Then a final “Bye-sy, bye.” The line went dead. I started crying. When I stepped back into the office, my colleagues asked “What’s wrong?” I replied: “I think Diana just said goodbye.” It was indeed the last time we spoke. Just two weeks ago. I miss her so much already.

And what was the final word we recorded? “Well …”

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