M Appeal: Diana Rigg’s Mysterious German 8mm Movies

In 1969, the star of The Avengers was appearing in two big-budget movies – but still found time to make a collection of low-budget shorts for the home movie market.

In 1969, Diana Rigg’s career was in the ascendency. Having just left The Avengers – where her Emma Peel character had effectively defined the show and lifted it to eternal cult status – she’d made two big films – The Assassination Bureau and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – and even if they had not been the box office successes that everyone expected, no one was blaming her. In fact, her role in the Bond film effectively reinvented the Bond Girl years before the Daniel Craig era, and in a much less contrived way – tough but sexy, rounded and a world away from the secret agent character everyone knew. The world, you might think, was Diana Rigg’s oyster at this point.

Why then, we might ask, did she sign up to a pair of German-produced 8mm movies that vaguely riffed on the Emma Peel character that she’d left behind just a year earlier? The obvious answer is ‘money’, but having just appeared in two big-budget movies the same year, it’s hard to imagine that she was exactly struggling to put food on the table. Perhaps the projects were simply nice little earners between projects and offered a free vacation thrown in? Who can say?

What we do know is that the two films – The Diadem and Minikillers – are quite the oddest thing to find on the filmography of this most respectable and serious of actors.

Of the two, Minikillers is the more ambitious. It’s actually four films, around ten minutes long each, that combine to tell a full story with Rigg playing the ‘Karate Journalist’. It’s in colour and, seen as one piece, is not much shorter than an Avengers episode. It’s shot on location in Spain and seems to have had some money – not much, admittedly – spent on it. As a project, you can see how Rigg might have been drawn into it, with the thing passed off as a feature film or TV movie. However, it bears little resemblance to any conventional film.

For a start, there’s no dialogue. While the film has music and some sound effects, the budget clearly didn’t stretch to recording dialogue, even to be dubbed afterwards. This must’ve become obvious during shooting even if Rigg had signed on to make a ‘real’ movie – but then, if you’ve signed up to star in a knock-off of the TV show that you’d just quit, perhaps that doesn’t matter very much.

Director Wolfgang von Chmielewski – who also co-wrote with his brother Michael – didn’t exactly have a glittering career. This seems to have been his first film and his only other directing credit is for a German-made western-comedy in 1971, though he also wrote a few episodes of crime series Sonne, Wein und harte Nüsse a few years later. How he managed to get this particular project off the ground remains as much a mystery as the purpose of the film and its planned distribution.

 If we are to believe the YouTube version, the film was made for showing at gas stations on TVs next to the petrol pumps as both a distraction and attraction. It’s an unlikely story, but who knows? More likely is that the films were made for the market where they eventually found a home – as 8mm home movies. The running time of each episode definitely suggests that, as does the lack of dialogue – most people with home movie set-ups only had silent projectors and films with sound commanded high prices that most people found off-putting. The four parts made the film more attractive to people – the kerfuffle involved in setting up projectors and screens was more worthwhile if you had more than ten minutes worth of movies to watch.

The idea of Rigg signing on for 8mm movie releases is odd, if only because the market at the time for straight-to-8mm movies was almost entirely dominated by adult movies. I wonder if she ever had the suspicion that these German filmmakers with no pedigree might be tricking her into starring in a porn film on the quiet. While her scenes are innocent enough, who knows what else they might have been shooting on the side? If she did have doubts, it clearly didn’t stop her – because she made a second 8mm film the same year for the same company Accentfilm.

Now, it’s unclear which of these films actually came first – but The Diadem is a rather more basic affair, seemingly only available as a black and white silent movie and running for just under thirteen minutes. That said, it’s action-packed stuff – well, it needs to be really. There’s little time for padding in a film this short. Rigg plays The Secret Agent and the film has a lot going on. Director Uwe Beetz had an even less glittering career than Wolfgang von Chmielewski – this is his only credit (and his name doesn’t even appear on-screen).

Given how reluctant Diana Rigg was to discuss The Avengers in later years, it’s perhaps unsurprising that she never discussed these films or even included them in her official filmography. Even if people knew of their existence, it’s easy to imagine that they might have suspected that simply mentioning them would bring any interview to a swift end. As it is, they remain two of the oddest films ever to feature a big star at the peak of their career.

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  1. I’ve seen these a couple of times and they are seriously “WTF” moments. After I stop laughing, I just accept them as little adventures Mrs. Peel got herself involved in while trying to reconcile the fact that she had left the man she loved for the man she married.

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