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
Tuesday 01 April 2014
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.
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