Photography by Norman Parkinson: Lunch break on the bridge

National Theatre celebrates the centenary of Parkinson's birth

It isn't every day that you end up starring in a celebrated photograph in your lunch-hour. This 1959 image of a carefree couple on Brooklyn Bridge running towards the camera with the New York skyline as their backdrop, is one of Norman Parkinson's most famous shots. But its English star, Pippa Diggle, now 79 and living in London, was not a model nor an actress, but Parkinson's next-door neighbour in Manhattan.

Diggle was working as a medical secretary in America when Robin Miller, who wrote the book for the musical Dames at Sea, asked her if she would pose for a photograph with him as a favour to their famous neighbour, who had an assignment for Go – a travel magazine.

“We were meant to visit six locations but it poured with rain,” recalls Diggle, who had to dash straight back to work after the shoot. “Parks stopped the car and put the trunk up, pretending to have broken down. He crouched down and we had to run towards him on the bridge. He kept shouting, 'Run, dears, run!' I got the giggles. That's why we were laughing, as we had to keep running towards him.”

It was the first time Diggle had met Parkinson, who lived with his wife, Wenda, on the ground floor. “He was absolutely charming and wore his trademark embroidered cap. They lived in Tobago most of the time. After we met, he'd ring me and I'd buy his basic groceries before they returned,” she says.

“I had no idea this photograph would become one of his most famous – but neither did he. Often when I tell people it is me in the photo, they look at me rather blankly until I tell them the story.”

The photograph is one of 87 works by Parkinson on show in the National Theatre foyer to celebrate the centenary of Parkinson's birth in 1913. The exhibition covers all aspects of his long 50-year career as a fashion, portrait and society photographer, until his death in 1990.

The show includes many fascinating shots: Audrey Hepburn wears a pink dress in 1955 standing by a pink tree; a young Elton John looks dapper in a blue suit in 1977; Maggie Smith strikes a dramatic pose in a bright red dress and purple eye-shadow in 1970; Ava Gardner dazzles in a fashion shoot for Vogue in 1953; a simmering image of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor shows them huddled together on a street in Budapest in 1973; David Bowie, in 1977, wears lime-green trousers and waistcoat while sitting on a multi-coloured sofa and holding a pool cue.

Lifework: Norman Parkinson's Century of Style, National Theatre, London SE1 (www.national to 12 May