Kate O'Mara

Kate O'Mara

Kate O’Mara was a versatile British actress whose commanding presence and flair for the dramatic left an indelible mark on film, stage, and television. With a career spanning several decades, O’Mara became particularly noted for her vampish roles, embodying characters with a seductive allure and often a hint of danger.

On the big screen, she brought to life memorable characters in Hammer Horror classics, while on television, she captivated audiences with her regular roles in popular series like The Brothers and Howards’ Way, as well as her iconic portrayal of the villainous Rani in Doctor Who. Her stage performances were equally impactful, showcasing her range from Shakespearean tragedies to modern dramas.

Francesca Meredith Carroll was born on 10 August 1939 in Leicester to John Carroll, an RAF flying instructor, and Hazel Bainbridge, a touring actor who often brought her children along for her work. Her younger sister, the actor Belinda Carroll, affectionately called her Merrie. Despite being expelled from a convent school in Woking, O'Mara was determined to continue her education, independently taking her O-level exams and even participating in an exchange trip to learn French.

When her mother took a longer-term position at the Worthing Rep in West Sussex, O’Mara attended the Aida Foster School in London. She made her film debut in 1956 as Merrie Carroll in Home and Away, a film about a family man who wins the football pools, portraying Jack Warner's daughter alongside Kathleen Harrison and Thora Hird. Her television debut came in 1957 with a role as a nurse in the popular medical drama Emergency-Ward 10. Despite her early screen parts, she decided to focus on her talents as a pianist and artist and worked backstage in various roles, including wardrobe mistress at Glyndebourne and wig specialist at Stratford-upon-Avon, eventually becoming a teacher at a girls' school in Burgess Hill, West Sussex.

Kate O'Mara

When Belinda began her acting career, O'Mara returned to the stage, making her professional debut in 1963 as Jessica in The Merchant of Venice at the Flora Robson Playhouse in Newcastle upon Tyne. She worked in rep in Guildford, Watford, Bromley and Leatherhead before picking up a number of roles in some of the most popular 1960s television series such as Danger Man, No Hiding Place, Adam Adamant Lives!, The Champions, The Saint, The Avengers and Department S.

Coming from a theatre family – five generations of actors and actor-managers, including JW Boughton, her great-grandfather, a theatre owner in Southsea, Hampshire, and a friend of Charles Dickens, it's no wonder that she continued to tread the boards as her screen career was gathering pace. She considered Lydia Languish in Sheridan's The Rivals, which she played for the Welsh Theatre Company in 1965, and Elvira in Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit as her favourite roles. In 1968 she made her London stage debut when she took over the role of Elsa in The Italian Girl at Wyndham's Theatre. She would later appear with the Royal Shakespeare Company, in the lead role of Lilli Vanessi in a tour of Kiss Me Kate, but her major performances were invariably in repertory theatres, or on Bill Kenwright tours.

Kate O'Mara

In 1970, she starred in two Hammer Studio horror films: The Vampire Lovers and The Horror of Frankenstein. In the former, she had a notably erotically charged scene with Ingrid Pitt, where O'Mara was supposed to be seduced. The filming of this scene turned into chaos as Pitt's fangs kept falling into O'Mara's cleavage, causing both actresses to burst into laughter on set. O'Mara's performance in The Vampire Lovers left a strong impression on Hammer Studios, leading them to offer her a contract. Despite the enticing offer, O'Mara declined, wary of being typecast in horror roles and wanting to maintain her versatility as an actress. This decision underscored her desire to pursue a broader range of characters and genres, ensuring her career would not be confined to the horror niche.

Kate O'Mara

Her first major television role came as Julia Main, the wife of the main protagonist in the ITV series The Main Chance. She gained further recognition with a regular role in the BBC drama series The Brothers, portraying Jane Maxwell. In the early 1980s, she starred in the BBC soap opera Triangle, which has often been cited as one of the worst television series ever produced – even the BBC featured it in an evening dedicated to the worst-ever TV shows. O'Mara also left her mark on the iconic science fiction series Doctor Who, playing the villainous Rani in two serials opposite Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. Her character was a Time Lady and a formidable adversary, making her a memorable part of the show's lore. Additionally, she reprised her role as the Rani in the Doctor Who 30th-anniversary spoof Dimensions in Time, which was part of the Children in Need charity event.

Kate O'Mara

Between her appearances in Doctor Who, O'Mara auditioned for a leading role in the American primetime soap The Colbys, a spin-off of Dynasty. She was eventually offered a role alongside Stephanie Beacham but had to decline due to her existing commitment to the stage play Light Up the Sky at the Old Vic Theatre. Shortly after, she was cast as Caress Morell on Dynasty, playing the sister of Alexis Colby, portrayed by Joan Collins. O'Mara appeared in 17 episodes of the sixth season and 4 episodes of the seventh in 1986.

Kate O'Mara

Reflecting on her time opposite Collins, O'Mara recalled, "We had a tremendous bitchy tension between us. My character Caress was like an annoying little mosquito who just kept coming back and biting her." Despite her success, O'Mara disliked living in California and preferred the changing seasons of Britain. She was relieved when she was released from her five-year contract, after Collins convinced the producers that having two brunettes on the show was a bad idea. Upon returning to the UK, O'Mara continued her role as a scheming villain by playing Laura Wilde in the BBC soap Howards' Way from 1989 to 1990.

Kate O'Mara

In 1987, O'Mara and Peter Woodward formed the British Actors Theatre Company. The company’s 1989 production of Antony and Cleopatra starring O’Mara and Woodward caused a stir when controversial promotional material presented a topless image of her on top of Bernard Lloyd's Antony. According to O’Mara’s 2003 autobiography, Vamp Until Ready – A Life Laid Bare, the image was innocently presenting the historically accurate presentation of fashionable Egyptian women, but the result was that many theatres stuck labels over the offending breast. O’Mara stated in her autobiography, "Nowadays, I dare say no-one would bat an eyelid. Anyway, it paid off with Antony and Cleopatra, we were packed out for the entire tour".

In her book, she also wrote candidly about her experience with the casting couch. She recalled close encounters with “this very unpleasant and humiliating procedure”, which included episodes with a well-known television casting director, the boss of Associated Television at ATV Elstree Studios, and the director of Great Catherine. On an episode of The Word in 1994, she claimed that American producer Judd Bernard pulled down her panties during a hotel-room audition for the Elvis Presley vehicle Double Trouble.

Kate O'Mara

In the 1990s, O’Mara’s television work continued with two episodes of Absolutely Fabulous in which she played Patsy's older sister, Jackie, a recurring role in the prison drama series Bad Girls and the revived soap opera Crossroads. She continued to perform on stage as Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, as Mistress Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and as Goneril in King Lear for Anthony Quayle's touring Compass Theatre and in March 2008 she played Marlene Dietrich in a stage play entitled Lunch with Marlene. In 2012, she appeared in a theatre adaptation of Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile.

O'Mara was married twice, first to Jeremy Young in 1971; the couple divorced in 1976. In 1993, she married Richard Willis, but the marriage was dissolved in 1996. She had two sons, Christopher Linde and Dickon Young, both from previous relationships. In 2012, O'Mara was in hospital with pneumonia when Dickon hung himself at the home they shared together at Long Marston in Warwickshire. It was a blow, according to her friends, from which she never really recovered.

In 2014, O’Mara was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She moved into a Sussex nursing home where she passed away on 30th March, aged 74 years.

Kate O'Mara

Kate O'Mara's remarkable talent for bringing depth and subtlety to each of her roles, whether portraying a femme fatale or a complex historical character, established her as a beloved figure in the entertainment industry. Her ability to imbue those characters with authenticity and sophistication earned her not only a dedicated fan base but also the admiration of her peers. Her diverse body of work, spanning television, film, and stage, showcased her versatility and commitment to her craft. She was celebrated for her powerful performances in dramas and thrillers as well as her memorable roles in science fiction and soap operas. Her portrayal of strong, multifaceted women set a high standard for character acting, making her a role model for aspiring actors. Through her illustrious career, Kate O'Mara left an indelible mark on the world of entertainment, paving the way for future generations to follow in her footsteps.

Published on June 18th, 2024. Written by Marc Saul for Television Heaven.

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