Our regular Icon strand this month takes a look at the career of Kate O’Mara; from humble beginnings in the little remembered Anglia soap Weavers Green to major roles in Dynasty, Howards’ Way and Doctor Who, the actress has carved out a memorable career for playing strong and scheming women. Here we take a look back at some of those more memorable roles.
An updated version of this article, from March 2014, can be found here
One of Kate O’Mara’s earliest major roles was in Weavers Green, now a little remembered soap. Weavers Green was produced by Anglia Television and was launched in 1966 as the franchise hoped to copy the success ATV enjoyed with Crossroads and Granada Television enjoyed with Coronation Street. However, Weavers Green was very different from both fellow ITV soaps as it revolved around a small Anglian village and featured extensive location shooting – something neither Corrie or Crossroads boasted at the time.
In the series, which also starred a young Wendy Richards, O’Mara played a trainee vet. Weavers Green isn’t remembered because it found great difficulty in establishing itself in the ITV Networked schedules with several franchises not showing the series. With little support from the network and only airing on a few of the franchises the ratings spelt the end of the series only just months. In 1972 Yorkshire Television launched their own rural soap; Emmerdale Farm, and some saw the comparisons between Weavers Green and the new Yorkshire soap. Anglia certainly did which may explain why the soap was hidden away in their schedules for many years.
Following the cancellation of Weavers Green O’Mara made guest appearances in many popular programmes of the late 1960s/early 1970s. Amongst the programmes she guest starred in were The Champions, The Saint, The Avengers, Department S, Paul Temple, The Persuaders, Jason King and Z Cars. In 1970 she appeared in two Hammer Horror film; The Vampire Lovers alongside Peter Cushing and Ingrid Pitt and The Horror of Frankenstein opposite Ralph Bates and Veronica Carlson. The Hammer Horror franchise of films, like the Carry On franchise, were hugely successful with cinema goers in Britain and spawned many different films. The Carry On franchise even spoofed the Hammer Horror franchise in the film Carry On Screaming.
In 1975 Kate O’Mara joined the cast of the BBC Drama series The Brothers which revolved around a family owned haulage business. The series was produced by Gerard Glaister and the storylines and themes explored within The Brothers (such as family rivalries, high-powered business tactics and the rise of women in the work place) were explored in other Glaister dramas such as Howards Way. The Brothers starred Glyn Owen, Colin Baker, Liza Goddard, Jean Anderson, Gabrielle Drake and Derek Benefield. The series started in 1972 and in 1975 O’Mara was introduced as Jane Maxwell, the tough female boss of an air-freight company; a role similar to what she would go on to play in Howards Way. O’Mara appeared in 30 episodes of the series which was never formally cancelled by the BBC after 7 seasons instead though another series simply wasn’t picked up.
Following the end of The Brothers the actresses next major role was in the ill-fated and infamous BBC soap Triangle. The soap was set in the North Sea onboard a passenger ferry which travelled between Felixstowe, Amsterdam and Gothenberg and ran for three seasons – quite staggering considering the concept behind the soap was deeply flawed. One memorable scene involved O’Mara’s character topless sunbathing in the North Sea during what was quite clearly a gale! Perhaps Triangle was an early attempt by the BBC to capture the glamour and intrigue of Dynasty but it failed – however, the BBC had better success with Howards’ Way. Triangle was filmed onboard a real ferry which may have saved costs in terms of set but presented its downs set of problems; sea sickness and poor lighting just two examples. O’Mara played Katherine Larker in Triangle but wisely quit after just one season. Triangle, like Eldorado and Crossroads, has become over time infamous for its cheap production values.
In 1985 Kate O’Mara joined the cast of the 1980s super-soap Dynasty. Much like Dallas, which launched in 1978, Dynasty concerned the exploits of a wealthy family who ran an Oil company. However, when Dynasty launched in 1981 it wasn’t the instant success that Dallas had been; struggling somewhat in the ratings. It wasn’t until the introduction of actress Joan Collins as Alexis, the vengeful ex-wife of lead character Blake (John Forsyth) that Dynasty became popular.
The introduction of Alexis along with a string of more sensational and action orientated storylines saw Dynasty shoot up in the ratings chart. In 1985 Kate O’Mara joined the cast as Caress Morrell, the sister of Alexis. The character was added as a new foil for Alexis, a new sparring partner; it was quite clear that there was little love lost between Caress and Alexis. The role in Dynasty, although brief (O’Mara appeared in 21 episodes) helped secure her status as an actress who played strong, dominate women and shaped the future of her career – many roles afterwards were because of her association with Dynasty. It is perhaps the role she is most associated with alongside that of The Rani in Doctor Who.
Following her stint in Dynasty Kate O’Mara returned to the UK to guest-star in Doctor Who in which she was cast as new renegade Time Lord, The Rani. The actress was reunited with former The Brothers co-star Colin Baker who by 1985 had taken over the role of The Doctor from Peter Davison. The Mark of the Rani, O’Mara’s introduction story, saw the actress work alongside Anthony Ainley as The Master in a story set during the Industrial Revolution. The introduction of The Rani proved popular with fans and plans were put in place for the character to return in a new story. The Rani was due to re-appear, possibly with Anthony Ainley again, in a story set in Singapore which would have seen the return of the Autons last seen in the 1970s. Yellow Fever and How To Cure It was set to be written by Robert Holmes who had scripted many popular stories during his long association with the series.
However, in 1985 it was revealed that the controller of BBC One, Michael Grade, had cancelled Doctor Who because of growing levels of violence. Although the series was saved thanks to a press campaign the planned stories of the new season were scrapped in favour of something new – Yellow Fever and How To Cure It was canned. O’Mara would return to play The Rani in 1987 though in Time and the Rani. It was the first story with Sylvester McCoy in the title role but isn’t fondly remembered by some fans. The story is quite famous for having O’Mara’s character pretend to be companion Mel (Bonnie Langford) for a portion of the story. Doctor Who was cancelled again by the BBC in 1989 meaning the actress didn’t have a further opportunity to reprise the role on-screen save for the 1993 Children in Need special Dimensions in Time. The special, not considered part of Doctor Who continuity, reunited many former stars of the series in a crossover story with EastEnders – The Rani was the main villain of the piece. In 2000 O’Mara reprised her role of the Rani once more for an audio story and while there has been much speculation about a possible return to Doctor Who, for the new series, as yet nothing has come of it.
The late 1980s saw the actress join the cast of Howards Way, a BBC take on Dallas/Dynasty revolving around a series of businesses set in the fictional coastal town of Tarrant. While early seasons revolved around the struggling Mermaid Boat Yard the series quickly expanded to focus on fashion, power boat racing and other businesses. The series was produced by Gerard Glaister and although some put O’Mara’s casting down to her stint in Dynasty it is more likely because of her previous association with the producer on The Brothers. Kate O’Mara played the scheming and devious Laura Wilde on Howards Way who managed to steal Ken Masters (Stephen Yardley) company from under him while doing her best to try and worm her way into Jan Howard (Jan Harvey) fashion business. O’Mara appeared in the fifth and sixth, the final season, of Howards Way losing control of the company back to Ken in the series finale.
In 1999 O’Mara guest starred in four episodes of the ITV Prison drama series Bad Girls playing Virginia O’Kane, a former prostitute who claims to be disabled but is quickly proven to be anything but. While inside Virginia is able to use her charm to manipulate some of the inmates but her business arrangement with dodgy Jim Fenner (Jack Ellis) make her many enemies. In the season three finale the character is killed off sparking a whodunit plot lasting in season four. In 2003 the actress guest starred in several episodes of the newly re-launched Crossroads playing Lady Alice Fox.
O’Mara was one of several guest stars lined up by new producer Yvon Grace to usher in a new “glam” era of the Motel based soap. Linda Robson, Emma Noble and er Lionel Blair. Lady Alice Fox was introduced as a potential business interest for new owners Max (Stuart Milligan) and Angel (Jane Asher) Samson and undoubtedly O’Mara was cast in the series because of her previous role in Dynasty. Lady Alice Fox appeared in five episodes although it was possible the character was intended to return for further episodes; Crossroads was cancelled by ITV cutting short its time on air.
Following her stint in Crossroads the actress signed up for a stint on Five soap, Family Affairs, playing Jackie Lawrence. However, Family Affairs was unexpectedly axed in 2005 by Five despite improving ratings and success at that year’s British Soap Awards. It was speculated that Family Affairs was cancelled by Five to reinvest its budget into producing more home-grown drama but Tripping Over and Minder, two examples of dramas that followed, failed to warm audiences and were cancelled.
It is without doubt that Kate O’Mara will be best remembered for her glamorous roles in dramas such as Howards Way, Dynasty, Bad Girls and Doctor Who. The actresses long and varied career though should not be forgotten even if those roles she’s best remembered for are iconic.
Pictured: Top: Kate as Michelle ‘Mick’ Armstrong in Weavers Green, Middle: ITV reunite the Howards Way cast in 2007, Bottom: Kate as Lady Alice Fox in Crossroads.