A great beauty… A consummate actress who loved acting for acting’s sake… Whatever tags are attached to her – and “camp” and “vamp” readily are – Kate O’Mara brought a lot of joy to millions.
I first noticed her in the 1970s. My parents were hooked on The Brothers, a massive Sunday-night hit for BBC1 about – believe it or not – a family involved in road haulage. Dear Lord, it was dull, at least to me. That is until the 1975 series introduced Jane Maxwell, played by Kate O’Mara at her most alluring and commanding.
The spiky boss of an air-freight company, Jane (right) was the only person who could get the better of “the most hated man in Britain”, businessman Paul Merroney (Colin Baker). Suddenly, with Baker and O’Mara aboard, The Brothers was must-see TV.
Forget what the obits have claimed about O’Mara’s rise to fame in Dynasty in the 80s. She’d had a steady career on stage, film and TV since the 60s, but The Brothers is what registered her name with the British public. By Christmas 1976, she was a big enough fish to guest-star on The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special.
Although I didn’t know Kate O’Mara by any stretch, we had several brief encounters over the decades – thanks to Doctor Who, in which she played the recurring Time Lady villain, the Rani.
The first time was – oh dear! – 30 years ago. In November 1984, I was sitting at one of the long Formica tables in the canteen at BBC TV Centre, and two or three tables ahead of me sat an actress in old-lady make-up and rags. After a moment, I clocked Kate O’Mara in one of the Rani’s nifty disguises. She glanced up from her plate of baked beans on toast and, still munching, glared at me long and hard, before returning to her beans, smirking. I was thrilled.
The next perturbing encounter with La O’Mara came in 1987, again at TV Centre. I was down in the studio for Time and the Rani (seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy’s debut story). As I rounded the rear side of the Tardis walls, a woman came charging towards me, with a face like thunder. It was O’Mara dolled up in the flaming ringlets of Bonnie Langford’s character Mel (another less-than-cunning disguise) – and she did not look happy. Who could blame her!
Later, in the same production, I saw her in the far more glamorous garb of the Rani, recording McCoy’s opening dialogue scenes. I took a few snaps of them and, between takes, she came to chat with me. She was an utter delight.
Fast-forward 26 years to the only other time our paths crossed – last November at the massive Doctor Who Celebration at London’s ExCeL. Although only 74, she was visibly very frail. Tragic events in her life (the suicide of her son the previous winter) and her own failing health had understandably taken a toll.
I felt sorry for her, not least because I’d been told she hadn’t received an official invitation to the event – at least not until late in the day. But trouper that she was, she was determined to attend the 50th-anniversary bash and mingle with her fans.
No matter what was going on in her private life, on stage and screen Kate O’Mara was always strong, sexy and often hilariously funny. Among all her well-honed talents, her comic timing must not be underestimated.
Her arch delivery was the saving grace of Time and the Rani. She was hilarious opposite Joan Collins in Dynasty, and she strode magnificently through the shallow waters of BBC1’s ferry soap Triangle and boat-business drama, Howards’ Way.
My favourite comic performance by her has nothing to do with planes, ferries or Tardises. It’s in Absolutely Fabulous – the Happy New Year episode from 1995. She played Jackie, Patsy’s older, wayward, even more spiteful sister. O’Mara certainly knew how to make an entrance.
Employing an exaggerated Marlene Dietrich swagger and accent, she stubbed a cigarette into Edina’s hallway carpet, checked behind Patsy’s ears for signs of a facelift, and asked Eddy if her fancy Holland Park house was actually in Shepherd’s Bush.
She scorched Patsy’s beehive with another ciggie. Stalking into Eddy’s lounge, she groaned Germanically: “Is it very bright in here… or am I… badly lit?” The killer line was “Pats, I’m seventy-twooo!” On paper maybe it’s not that funny but in her hands, this was ultra-camp at its classiest best.
I first watched the episode with friends when we came back tipsy from a birthday picnic. We’d taped it that evening. It only lasts half an hour, but it took us three times longer to watch the recording as we kept replaying O’Mara’s hilarious remarks and gestures.
As I said, Kate O’Mara brought a lot of joy.
Kate O’Mara 1939–2014
Absolutely Fabulous photographed by Don Smith. Doctor Who photographed by Don Smith and Clive Landen. Copyright Radio Times Archive