Kate O'Mara: Actress whose feline beauty allowed her to play the vamp on TV but who also scored a string of successes on stage


Although she was regularly recruited to deliver her impeccable feline seductress act, Kate O'Mara was, behind the campy television pedigree, a shrewd and devoted actress. She was indefatigable in her constant stage triumphs, and her wiliness funded one of the most original and exciting mainstream theatre companies of the 1980s.

She was born Francesca Meredith Carroll in Leicester in 1939, the fifth generation of an acting dynasty – her mother Hazel Bainbridge had made her debut as a babe in arms in 1909 in the Victorian melodrama The Octoroon and later was cast as Wendy in Peter Pan by JM Barrie himself. She bestowed the name O'Mara on her daughter, having decided that the shorter the name the further she would go.

Bainbridge had broken with family theatrical tradition by marrying an RAF flying instructor, and her daughter was bounced around various boarding schools, one of which she was expelled from, before enrolling at the Aida Foster stage school. She made a few appearances as a juvenile in films while working backstage at Glyndeboune and Stratford-upon-Avon, and taught at a girls' school in Sussex before becoming a professional actress alongside her sister, Belinda Carroll, in 1963.

She first came to the attention of the critics playing Lady Macduff in Macbeth and Jessica in The Merchant of Venice at the Shaftesbury Theatre, in afternoon performances for Robert Tronson's Shakespeare for Schools venture, before repertory work in Bromley and Bournemouth, and touring with the Welsh Theatre Company. Her break came in the film version of Shaw's comedy Great Catherine (1968). Her contact forced her to be available for whatever promotion the studio thought fit, and consequently a clutch of bikini-clad shots outstripped the film itself in interest, and she learned that "you get employed based on the amount of publicity you attract."

Her proper West End debut came when she took over from Imogen Hassell in The Italian Girl at Wyndhams in 1968, in which she was praised for "a fascinating display of calculated histrionics." Elsewhere she was honing the ice maiden act which would prove lucrative for the rest of her life. As the wicked Mrs Cheveley in An Ideal Husband at Watford in 1971 she used her "unusual beauty and sub-acid wit to overcome the men in a men's world." At Stratford in Bell, Book and Candle in 1974 she was "so sleekly svelte and elegantly feline as a witch that it seemed almost a shame to deprive her of such an aura."

A pattern was emerging: those telescopic-sight eyes and high cheekbones would make her a typecast telly bitch for the next 30 years. She happily did the duties whenever necessary, beginning with Jane Maxwell in BBC's The Brothers in 1976 (a part originally written for a man). However, she decided in the late '70s to take a break from television to concentrate on theatre (although somehow the disastrous cross-channel soap Triangle slipped though).

In Don Taylor's politico-supernatural lantern lecture The Exorcism (1983) O'Mara had the most taxing role of the quartet, at the climax becoming possessed by a vengeful ghost and delivering a traumatic speech over five minutes long. Her co-star, Norman Eshley, remembers that "we did that play for six months, sometimes twice a day, and even on a midweek matinee, Kate never gave that speech anything less than 100 per cent."

In 1985 she starred for the first time alongside her mother, in The Ghost Train at the Theatre Royal York, and at Colchester she and Ian McCulloch presented An Evening with the Macbeths, a two-handed game of two halves which began with the pair light-heartedly looking back on the history of the play before presenting a thrilling abridged version of it.

Her annus mirabilis was 1987. After a stint out-bitching Joan Collins in Dynasty, as Caress Morell, sister of Collins' character Alexis Colby – "We had a tremendous bitchy tension between us," O'Mara recalled – she was Goneril to Sir Anthony Quayle's Lear at Richmond, then the last word on dumb blondes in Moss Hart's Light Up the Sky. She used a chunk of her Dynasty earnings to set up the British Actors Theatre Company with Peter Woodward, which saw her revive her Katherina in a director-free production of Taming of the Shrew in which "the artistic decisions are made by the entire company and staff". With its ethos of Equity minimums, profit shares and democratic creativity (even the ASM could offer notes on an actor's performance), it was an idea that sounded more a product of the late-'60s than the mid-'80s.

The company was formed partly as a response to her dissatisfaction with being pigeon-holed, and although she went from $20,000 an episode on Dynasty to £139 a week it was clearly artistically lucrative. She popped back to telly to do turns in everything from Doctor Who (as Rani, the renegade Time Lady) to Howard's Way to put some more into the kitty, and broadened her range even further in the 1990s with a feisty Kiss Me Kate at Plymouth in 1991, and as the ageing grand dame of the Paris theatre in Colombe at Salisbury in 1999. Alongside this her CV was peppered with a whole coven of wicked witches in pantomime.

After years of fine health, thanks to a regime of non-smoking, non-drinking veganism, tragedy overwhelmed her when her son Dickon, a stage manager, took his own life in 2012 after a road accident had left him with deep psychological problems. Kate O'Mara, who died after a short illness, revelled in her glamour but never coupled it with shallowness. She was a fascinating performer, graced with a dangerous beauty, and always with an implicit sophistication.

Francesca Meredith Carroll (Kate O'Mara), actress and writer: born Leicester 10 August 1939; one son deceased; married 1961 Jeremy Young (divorced 1976), 1993 Richard Willis (divorced 1996); died Sussex 30 March 2014.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Ed Miliband and David Cameron are neck and neck in the polls
election 2015Armando Iannucci: on how British politics is broken
Life and Style
Great minds like Einstein don't think alike
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds This i...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power