I was sad to hear about the death last week of actress Kate O’Mara. The newspaper obituaries for her talked chiefly about her performance as Caress, little sister to Joan Collins’ über-bitch character Alexis Colby in that preposterous, glitzy and oh-so-1980s American soap opera Dynasty. Because Collins had created such a buzz when she’d joined the show, Dynasty’s producers were soon on the phone to various other vampish British actresses, desperate to up the high-class-British-crumpet quota even more. So O’Mara’s services were duly called upon, as were those of the impeccable Stephanie Beacham. To be honest, the glorious, campy slinkiness of Kate and Stephers and, it must be said, old Joanie herself was about the only reason to watch the stupid programme.
The striking and slightly feline-looking O’Mara had previous form in soap operas, although American audiences could be forgiven for not knowing this. She first made her mark in Britain starring in The Brothers, a BBC TV Sunday-night soap-drama that was extremely popular when it was broadcast but that seemed to vanish from public consciousness immediately afterwards. The show, the saga of a middle-class family with working-class roots – in those days there was still such a thing in Britain as social mobility – struggling with control of a big haulage company, was very much of its time. Indeed, when I think of it now, I find myself buffeted by a host of 1970s associations: dark, rainy and ultra-dull Sunday evenings, black and white TV sets, middle-aged men sporting wide shirt-lapels, loosely-knotted kipper ties, sideburns and oversized moustaches, boardrooms full of cigarette smoke and unprepossessing plastic and foam-filled furniture, whisky being endlessly poured out of chunky decanters and into chunky tumblers. The one sliver of glamour that this dour show had was, of course, Kate O’Mara.
A decade later she added a much-needed sliver of glamour to another British soap opera, the cheap, tacky and much-mocked Triangle. Triangle was a soap with a nautical setting. Probably the original idea had been for it to be about the adventures of the crew and passengers on board a luxury cruise liner while they shunted from exotic location to exotic location, but thanks to BBC budgetary restrictions it ended up being about the crew and passengers on that dankest, rustiest and most seasickness-inducing of vessels, a North Sea ferryboat. O’Mara played a sultry and mysterious passenger who spent the first episode of Triangle being ogled by the ferryboat’s leery crewmen. Then at the end of that episode she revealed herself as a millionaire-ess who’d just bought the whole ferry company. Ha!
But never mind the soap operas. O’Mara had cult-movie and cult-TV status too. Like just about every other showbiz glamour-puss who came to prominence in 1970s Britain, she served a stint with the much-loved studio Hammer Films, appearing in the period gothic horror movies that they churned out when the country still had a functioning film industry. She turned up, for instance, in 1970’s The Horror of Frankenstein, directed by Jimmy Sangster, who’d written scripts for many of the studio’s best-regarded films 10 or 15 years earlier. By 1970, however, Sangster was bored with the gothic formula and he decided to turn The Horror of Frankenstein into a spoof of the genre. It is not a good film, though. About the kindest thing that can be said about it is that, as spoofs go, it isn’t in the same league as Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein – it’s nowhere near it.
O’Mara plays Baron Frankenstein’s girlfriend. Apparently, just before shooting, she’d had a spectacular boob-job done, which was disconcerting for actor and muscle-man (and the future Darth Vader) Dave Prowse, who played the monster. Prowse spent most of his scenes with her lumbering towards her with arms outstretched and hands grasping hungrily.
(c) Hammer Films
O’Mara’s bust was also a distraction in her other Hammer film, The Vampire Lovers, made the same year but a hell of a lot better than The Horror of Frankenstein. Lovers is an adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s famous 19th-century short story Camilla, the title character of which is a mysterious young woman who worms her way into the affections of a wealthy family. She proves to be a vampire and, even more unspeakably for Le Fanu’s genteel 19th-century readers, a lesbian, and she has designs on the family’s daughter. The Vampire Lovers is surprisingly faithful to its source material but, predictably for a 1970s Hammer movie, the lesbian aspect, hinted at in the original story, is ramped up to explicit extremes. The late, great horror-movie actress and raconteur Ingrid Pitt played Camilla and she liked to entertain people with the story of how, whilst shooting a sensuous neck-biting scene with O’Mara, her plastic Hammer fangs dropped out of her mouth and disappeared down O’Mara’s cleavage.
Like everybody else with an Equity card in 1960s, 1970s and 1980s Britain, O’Mara also got around to making a guest appearance in the BBC’s long-running science-fiction show Doctor Who. She played the Rani, a renegade, sultry and evil member of the Doctor’s own species, the Time Lords. As such, she was basically Professor Moriarty, with a gender twist, to the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes. O’Mara was good in the role, although unfortunately she joined the show in the mid-1980s when it was on its last legs. By then the Doctor was played by Colin Baker and the show was lumbered with a producer (John Nathan-Turner) who seemed happy to make terrible decisions so long as they earned the show some short-term publicity – for example, he made Baker wear an awesomely ugly coat-of-many-colours as part of his costume. When O’Mara returned as the Rani a couple of seasons later, the Doctor had regenerated into Sylvester McCoy, his travelling companion was played by the shrilly awful Bonnie Langford and the show wasn’t so much as on its last legs as on its knees. O’Mara reprised the role a third time in 1993 for a cheap-and-hasty 30th anniversary special called Dimensions in Time, and all one can say about it was that it was beyond shit.
Despite the issues with the show’s quality during the period, Doctor Who fans remember O’Mara’s Rani character fondly. Indeed, a while back, a rumour circulated that a new regeneration of the Rani was going to appear in the revived show, pitted against Matt Smith’s Doctor and played by Gillian Anderson from The X-Files. It was just a rumour, alas, but a delicious one.
I think my last sighting of Kate O’Mara came in the 1990s, when I saw her guest-starring in the celebrated Jennifer Saunders-scripted sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. Riffing on her persona in Dynasty, she again played a detestable über-bitch’s sister – this time the sister of Patsy, the ridiculous, ageing but determinedly 18-until-I-die character played by Joanna Lumley. Now getting a little long on the tooth, O’Mara gives Lumley an unwelcome reality check when she turns down her sister’s invitation to join her in some debauched hell-raising. “Pats,” she pleads, “I’m 72.”