Dame Diana Rigg makes her bow in Victoria: 'My Duchess has punchy lines. That's heaven!'

Legendary star Diana Rigg turns up in ITV's Victoria as an acerbic Duchess with very similar traits to Maggie's Smith's Dowager in Downton Abbey...

Any fan of historical TV drama who's missing Maggie Smith's Dowager Duchess in Downton Abbey will fall in love with Dame Diana Rigg as the Duchess of Buccleuch in the second series of Victoria (ITV, Sunday August 27, 9pm).

Just like Maggie's amazingly brusque and blunt Downton character, Diana's Duchess unleashes scene stealing one-liners every time she appears on screen.

What's on TV caught up with Dame Diana – star of The Avengers and Game Of Thrones – on the set of Victoria in Yorkshire...

Your character sounds amazing… "Oh, she is fun. She really is fun. I'm hugely grateful to writer Daisy Goodwin because she has given her every prejudice that a grand Victorian dame would have. She is lovely to play. My Duchess has no long speeches, mostly punchy lines. That's heaven."

What is her function in Queen Victoria's Court? "She is 'Mistress of the Bedchamber'. She doesn’t have anything to do with the Bedchamber though. She is just two paces behind Victoria and makes certain people curtsey."

A lot of that still continues… "I don’t know. I don’t move in those sort of circles. My knees wouldn’t stand it."

It was a political appointment, wasn’t it? "No. It wasn’t political because she’s not remotely political. It was just to do with status. She had to be a Duchess. And most of the aristocracy, certainly the women, in those days were wildly undereducated. They had no education whatsoever. So all they had were their prejudices, which had been handed down to them from their mother or father and they didn’t really think for themselves at all.

"It was a fusty, fusty, fusty atmosphere all round. So much protocol it isn’t true. Backed out of the room, got up every time Victoria got up, curtseyed every time she left the room or entered."

What does she make of Queen Victoria? "She approves of Victoria. But she doesn’t always approve of the people she surrounds herself with. So the French won’t do. The Irish are feckless. Oh and the Belgians, let’s not go there. It’s great fun, but also she is a counter to a great deal of the sycophancy that goes on at the Court. She’s a sort of counter-balance to that."

Do she and Queen Victoria (Jenna Coleman) get on well? "Up to a point. I think Victoria tolerates her because she has got to have a Duchess because they only had Duchesses as Mistress of the Bedchamber. The Queen tolerates her, but she does dismiss her quite crossly from time to time when the Duchess oversteps the mark. She doesn’t know her place."

VIctoria and Albert experience parenthood this series


Was it nice to work with Jenna again after appearing alongside her in Doctor Who? "Yes, though we hardly saw each other. It was mostly my daughter Rachael (Stirling) and I and the Doctor himself."

You spent the first few years of your life in India because your father was an engineer on the railways. When you grew up what sense had there been of Victoria and the Empire? "You understand it. Having lived within it as you were, you totally understand it and the status people had. When my mum first went to India as a very shy young bride, people would call on her and, if she wasn’t there, they would leave their cards. And then she had to learn to reciprocate and that was in a one-horse town in India. They kept up their standards in the most astonishing way."

Do you think there is anything we can learn from the Victorians in that kind of way? "I think the adherence to principle is pretty good. But let’s not go there at the moment. I do sit in front of the television and there are times when I feel like weeping. I do talk to the screen actually and say ‘Shut up!’"

Victoria the second series premieres on ITV this Sunday, August 27 at 9pm

Nicholas Cannon
TV Content Director on TV Times, What's On TV and TV & Satellite Week

I'm a huge fan of television so I really have found the perfect job, as I've been writing about TV shows, films and interviewing major television, film and sports stars for over 25 years. I'm currently TV Content Director on What's On TV, TV Times, TV and Satellite Week magazines plus Whattowatch.com. I previously worked on Woman and Woman's Own in the 1990s. Outside of work I swim every morning, support Charlton Athletic football club and get nostalgic about TV shows Cagney & Lacey, I Claudius, Dallas and Tenko. I'm totally on top of everything good coming up too.