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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law

footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Sudan, the last male northern white rhino
environmentThe death of a white northern rhino in Kenya has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
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

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth