Just over a week ago, we lost one of Hammer Films’ most alluring beauties – Kate O’Mara. Although she only appeared in two Hammer productions, The Vampire Lovers and The Horror of Frankenstein, she made quite an impact through a long and varied stage, television and film career. Her natural beauty, especially evident in The Vampire Lovers, made her instantly memorable, leaving an indelible impression on anyone who watched her.
Born on 10 August 1939, her first film was in Home and Away (1956 – and no, NOT that one!), playing alongside Jack Warner (Dixon of Dock Green) and Kathleen Harrison (Hobson’s Choice). She then went on to make guest appearances in some of Britain’s most popular dramas, both genre and otherwise, including The Saint, The Avengers, and Z-Cars. Throughout the seventies she continued working in both TV and film, consolidating her reputation as an actress of some distinction. Some would even go so far as to say that Kate’s standing as a thespian of the highest order was confirmed when she was invited to participate in 1976’s Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special, playing a character called Kate O’Mata Hari.
In later years, she became better known as Cassandra ‘Caress’ Morrell in the long-running US drama/soap opera Dynasty, playing opposite Joan Collins, only leaving when Collins told the producers that featuring two brunettes in the same show was a bad idea. Mercifully, O’Mara hated living in California, so she left with some relief. On her return to the UK, she starred in Howard’s Way, playing a character called Laura Wilde who was similar to her Dynasty role.
One of the roles for which she is most famous, in terms of genre, is as the Rani in Dr. Who, appearing in the serial in 1985 and 1987, reprising the role for two mini-episodes in 1993. For most of us horror aficionados, we remember O’Mara most for her appearances in the two Hammer films, The Vampire Lovers and The Horror of Frankenstein. Having seen the former film fairly recently, I can attest to the actress’ paramount acting ability allied to those smouldering looks, a combination which would make anyone, whether male or female, weak at the knees quite frankly. It doesn’t hurt that she plays a corseted governess at an exclusive all-girl boarding school either, quite prim and proper. But, let it be said that the corset is not just holding her in a correct posture, it’s also containing and restraining a wild, untamed edge, just waiting to burst its bonds. Between O’Mara and Ingrid Pitt, this columnist would find it hard to resist the allure of the British actress.
For those who have yet to see The Vampire Lovers¸ O’Mara plays Mme. Perrodot, a governess at a finishing school for young ladies, set deep in the heart of the English countryside. Into this educational establishment comes a young woman, variously known as Marcilla/Carmilla/Mircalla (Ingrid Pitt), who turns out to be a vampire from the notorious Karnstein family. During her stay, people go missing, and the Head of the Establishment is forced to cover up much of the situation due to the scandal which would inevitably follow. Mme. Perrodot is seduced by the girl, becoming a willing accomplice. The film is fairly tame by today’s standards, but at the time it caused a stir with the censors (concerns about the portrayal of lesbianism) that they wanted the scene of O’Mara being seduced by Pitt to be removed. The producers countered by arguing that the lesbian theme was integral to J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel Carmilla, upon which the films was based. The censors relented, and the film was released as is.
O’Mara was perfect for this role – like I averred above she possessed a classic beauty, the kind that lends itself to being painted, sculpted, or lovingly caressed by the all-seeing eye of the camera. There was a certain primness and uprightness there too, which made her seduction all the more shocking (at least for audiences of the time). It would be too easy to dismiss the scene as mere titillation, however what we are dealing with here is an amoral creature, who doesn’t really care what sex her victims are as long as she gets what she wants.
O’Mara so impressed the people at Hammer that she was offered a contract at the studio, but turned it down as she was afraid of being typecast. However, she did appear in another Hammer production, The Horror of Frankenstein, which I’ve not seen yet but which will eventually receive a viewing. She also appeared in the 1968 film Corruption (aka Carnage), starring Peter Cushing. She plays Val Nolan, the daughter of Lynn Nolan (Sue Lloyd), the fiancée of Cushing’s character, Sir John Rowan. The film isn’t a good one, and O’Mara’s role is a weak one, certainly appearing against type anyway. Val is so far away from the typical O’Mara woman that, in some respects, I found it almost painful to watch. (I felt like that about the whole film, in fact – Cushing was out of his depth, something which was painfully obvious while watching.) O’Mara appears too frail and fragile as Val, which I suppose could be taken as an indication of just how good an actress she was.
Perhaps you could argue that, when it comes to genre material, her legacy isn’t such a grand one, but I would counter that by saying quite the opposite. She was very much involved in genre, even if her contribution was negligible in terms of horror. She appeared in some of British TV’s finest genre drama serials, becoming a familiar face to many in Britain. It’s readily apparent that O’Mara was a very versatile actress, her roles spanning many different styles. More than that, though, I think she will be most remembered as being herself.
Kate O’Mara (Francesca Meredith Carroll) 10 August 1939-30 March 2014. Twice married, two sons. She died in a Sussex nursing home after a short illness. R.I.P.