Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Interview • KATE O’MARA • 2008

Photo: Mike Lawn / Rex Features

Photo: Mike Lawn / Rex Features

Many people imagine that actors are just like their onstage characters. While this may be true in some instances, there’s no getting away from the fact that some are as far removed from the parts they play as it’s possible to get.

One such is Kate O’Mara with whom I worked back in 1978 on a tour of Charles Dyer’s Rattle of a Simple Man.  She was always known for playing hard, glamorous bitches – “it’s the cheek bones” – whether in Dynasty or in series such as The Brothers. Rattle of a Simple Man was my first job and everyone said to me: ‘I bet O’Mara’s a bitch.’ I kept saying, “No, she bloody isn’t. She is the sweetest, kindest most considerate lady.” And she was. When I interviewed her in 2006 – she was on tour in The Hollow – I revealed that to her for the first time and said how much this frightened lass had appreciated her efforts to welcome me into ‘the business’ and make me feel at ease.

At the time of the interview, we talked about much else besides The Hollow and fascinating it all was, especially as she comes from a line of ‘theatricals’ that reaches back five generations.

Kate was about to play that icon of the silver screen, Marlene Dietrich, in Lunch with Marlene by Chris Burgess at the New End Theatre, a production she already knew she would be doing when we spoke at the end of 2006.

The news that Kate died this morning after a short illness has saddened me considerably. Her son, Dickon, from her marriage to the actor and director Jeremy Young, committed suicide last year, which must have been traumatic beyond belief. God bless you, Kate.

The State of the Business

Television is a bit depressing because of the lack of a bit of decent television. With the odd exception like Bleak House and things like that, there is very little on which one wants to watch or be in. So I spend my life in the theatre and I spend my life – it sounds a bit grand – but trying to set a good example. I believe so passionately that people are paying for their seats that they are entitled to have the best entertainment that you are able to give them on the stage.

I can’t be doing with people who don’t know their lines properly. I think we are lucky to be working, very lucky indeed, so I’m trying to fight for the older generation in that respect and I’ve turned down television that I think is awful and, not to put on to fine a point on it, crap. I won’t do reality shows, I am always being asked to do them and I just won’t do them. I don’t like them and I say no, no it’s taking work from actors and so, you know, I do the odd television but nothing really good.


But I do remember the days up at the ‘Acton Hilton’ [rehearsal rooms in London] in the mid-seventies – you could see everybody from John Gielgud and other actors down there, all rehearsing and doing Plays for Today or whatever; I can’t remember what they were all called now, but wonderful one-off dramas. They used to do a classic, at least one classic in the series going on, plus very good things like the thing I was in called The Brothers, something called Wings, Dad’s Army. We all used to rehearse in the same building up at North Acton and all congregate at the lunch break in the canteen at the top and it was fun and you’d meet all sorts of mates. And you were inspired by it because you would see so many good actors around and you weren’t just thinking, I am in a drama series; you thought it was good. Now you think, what has happened to good television like The Brothers, you know. Howard’s Way, those sort of things.

Clarity and Comprehension

It was very interesting, I had to do a sort of commentary on some old episodes of Doctor Who that I had done in ’80-something or other, ’85 I think, just before I went to Hollywood, and I had never seen the episodes before and I watched in disbelief because it was so good. I thought, ‘Gosh! This is really good, well shot, well directed, the scripts fantastic and the acting is not too bad.’ I thought, ‘You know, dear God where has it all gone?’ I’m so used to not being able to understand a word that anyone says, and I mean that – I really can’t. I get so irritated because not only can I not hear them, I can’t understand them. And, you know, to be able to hear people articulating properly, well, it was bliss. Even though I was watching myself, which I don’t normally like doing, I thought, well, I thought, ‘What a shame.’

An Education in the Theatre

I don’t know what they do teach them at drama schools but there is no rep system anymore. At least in the old days, you know, when I was in my twenties, I did rep here, there and everywhere, which is where one learnt one’s trade and craft. I was very fortunate that I had that experience because you had to learn lines bloody quickly and at twenty-two I was playing everything from middle-aged women, teenagers and character parts, different accents, and it was a very good experience indeed. They don’t have that now.

You see, I am fortunate, as are you, in that we both come from an acting family and so, of course, I did know all about that and indeed saw it. My family built theatres.

My mother was an actress, as indeed your father was an actor. And so we had it from the parents as to how one behaved and what one had to do and hadn’t to do. I think we’re fortunate. Not everybody can have that experience.

The British Actors Theatre Company

Yes, we [The British Actors Theatre Company] are still functioning. Obviously we ran out of money a long time ago but I have written a play; well, no, I have adapted a detective story into a play which all things being equal will go on at the New End Theatre Hampstead next summer because also at the New End Theatre Hampstead I am playing Marlene Dietrich in the summer in a two-handed piece called Lunch with Marlene. The first half is a conversation with Noël Coward and Marlene Dietrich and the second half is doing their very famous numbers. So I said, yes, I will do that and, of course, I do want to get my play on there. I said we could play Marlene at night and rehearse this during the day. As I am not in my own play, I am only directing, then that would be alright because it would be a nice kick up the arse.

I think the most recent thing we did was about three or four years ago which was a tour of The Rivals. I did schools workshops with it as well, as with a production of Twelfth Night which I did schools workshops with, which is what our brief had been. But of course you just can’t raise the money now. I haven’t got the money to do it so I have to go with the flow and I have to go with whoever will have me. But that’s where my ambitions such as they are, such as they are left, lie. I enjoy the process of directing so much indeed and I also enjoy encouraging young people. I like seeing young people trying to get it right and helping them get it right and I am also trying to get it right; that’s an ongoing problem – I’m sure I never get anything quite right.

Coming Around Again

Things do change, nothing remains constant; everything is cyclical so hopefully it will come around again. I am sure it will because we’ve been through this before in a funny way, after the initial flowering of English literature – Shakespeare, Marlowe and all that lot – and the Jacobeans, you know, and then with women being allowed to go on stage. When we got to the Victorians it got quite different and it got much more popularised and there were more melodramas and Shakespeare got really buggered about with in a rather unpleasant way.

Then there was a dearth, I suppose caused by the First World War – thank God for Oscar Wilde. But of course he became a family friend. My grandmother actually adored him. Oscar Wilde was not done; Gielgud did some, some time in the ’40s. And in the ’20s there was a sort of… they just didn’t do Shakespeare or all the classics, really – very, very seldom. Because, I suppose, of the First World War. You know, people wanted some lighter fare. It was the same in the ’30s, of course.

It wasn’t until we got to Christopher Fry and those sort of people that suddenly proper drama started again, in the ’50s, after the Second World War. Playwrights then, like William Brown, N C Hunter and those sort of people, came to the fore and there was a real burgeoning of the theatre in the ’50s ‘cos I was always being dragged off to the theatre to see all sorts of amazing plays and people. So, a lot of good theatre and, of course, rep was then in its heyday and I suppose television killed it off.

Theatre Informs Television

Actually television took from the theatre because all the good directors in television had come from the theatre. And all the producers likewise – they all had theatre backgrounds. Then for some reason it all changed; it was very sort of… I don’t know, it was very surreptitious. One wasn’t aware that it was going on. Suddenly people were being trained as television directors, not having done any theatre training at all, to the detriment of television, in my opinion.

Because, as you know, it just went down and down. I think good drama on television became elitist or at least it was made to feel elitist and my argument is you should always play to the highest common denominator and it’s gone the other way, it’s literally gone the other way. There’s a thing sitting in my sitting room behind an arm-chair which professes to be a television. It’s been there since 1976 and I never ever, ever watch it and when it goes completely digital I will not have a television of any sort. I’ve got it there just in case one of my mates is on and I happen to want to see them. But I have only got the one and it’s not very good and I don’t have a DVD player – I hate those ruddy things – and I don’t have a computer. And my great love in life is Radio 3 and Classic FM. I have an amazing collection of CDs, classical CDs, and I will continue to work in the theatre until I drop really.

Theatrical Heritage

Well, it started with my great, great–grandparents which goes back to the very early nineteenth century, the 1820s, I suppose. My great-great–grandfather was a Shakespearean actor and joined Kean’s company at Drury Lane. You won’t have heard of him; his name was P E Evans. They always used their initials in those days. He married an actress and they had their own Shakespearean company together. You know, he would play Othello and she would play Desdemona, he’d play Hamlet and she would play Ophelia, and so on. All the great Shakespearean tragedies, which I think they probably buggered about with a bit as they did in those days. One dreads to think what the acting was like. Then they had a daughter and she followed them into the business and became an actress and joined their company and played the juves.

Her name was Caroline, and this Caroline was married to a man who was an entrepreneur and the reason she was more interesting is because she was part of Oscar Wilde’s circle, a friend of Oscar Wilde’s mother, Lady Wilde, Francesca Wilde, and they used to have poetry evenings; they used to write poetry and read it aloud to each other. I am sure it was quite dreadful but they used to all turn up in Oakley Street. The only reason they did this is because they were waiting for Oscar to arrive and lean against the mantelpiece and talk to them, which he did, apparently, with utter brilliance. I got all this from my Grandmother Boughton who was also an actress, in fact the third daughter.

Dickens, Wilde and Building Theatres

He built a theatre for her, he built the King’s Theatre, Southsea, for her, which is a beautiful theatre. It is being rescued as we speak; it’s a little Italian Renaissance theatre actually. It’s glorious and I remember it in its heyday in the ’40s but it then went downhill rapidly when the family lost control of it. It was taken over.

So this Boughton, J W Boughton, he built three theatres: King’s Theatre, Southsea, Theatre Royal, Portsmouth and the Prince’s Theatre, Southsea, which no longer exists. But he built the King’s mainly for her and I have a wonderful wall plaque which came from the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth; because Sarah Bernhardt played there, it says ‘For my director from Sarah Bernhardt’ and it’s signed 1902. She wrote it on the wall of his office and it got preserved. Fortunately, we took photographs of it because I am sure it will go eventually. So, anyway, as I say, he was there for her. He opened the King’s and 2007 is the anniversary from 1907, and he opened it with Henry Irving’s son.

The first actor, P E Evans, was a great friend of Charles Dickens and the theatre he built, the Little Theatre, Rochester, is mentioned in one of Dickens’ novels. I don’t know which one now, I think it’s Our Mutual Friend but I can’t be certain about that. So that was interesting.

And this Caroline who is part of Oscar Wilde’s circle, she had a daughter that was my grandmother and she married an actor. Her name was Edith Bainbridge. She married Julian Bainbridge, my grandfather. He was an actor-manager and he ran the Theatre Royal, Brighton, the King’s Southsea, various theatres he was the manager at.

Following in Grandmother’s Footsteps

She was an actress and they ran various theatre companies up and down the country. In fact, my earliest memory of them was war-time and my mother was on tour with ENSA. I was sent to stay with my grandma. I remember the conversation at breakfast was entirely about box office returns and what the takings were, which was completely above my head. I had no idea what they were talking about but that’s all they talked about. Then they had my mother – it’s always been the females that come down the line.

My mother was their only daughter and she became an actress called Hazel Bainbridge and she didn’t marry an actor, she married a pilot who later joined the RAF, my father. He was the non–actor in the family. She was around for years and years and years on television, playing rep, West End shows. She was in Peter Hall’s first production, I think. She worked with Noël Coward, Donald Wolfit, a bit like your father really. Then she died about ten years ago now. As I say, it continued down the female line all the way apart from the original actor. My sister’s an actress, Belinda Carroll.

She is married to a lovely actor called Michael Cochrane. We’re all back on the boards in no uncertain terms and trying to keep the flag flying that way.

To Be or Not to Be an Actress

Incidentally, I disapprove entirely of being described as an ‘actor’ unless I am among a group of many. If I am referred to in the singular, I am an actress; if I am among a company, fine, I am an actor. Otherwise, people don’t know what sex I am.

It would be alright in another profession like doctors and it’s only in the last 150 years that women have been allowed to become doctors, even an aviator – a female is an aviatress. But we women became actresses in 1660. There was a charter passed which allowed women to work on the stage as actresses and why should we suddenly abandon that?

I don’t know, I just don’t understand it. I get very cross and I have been described as an actor in the Guardian and papers like that. And they announce my birthday and I wish they wouldn’t because I don’t want anybody to know how old I am.

In fact, if anyone is interested, when I die I shall make a point of it that it says ‘Actress’ very firmly underlined. I won’t be able to do anything then but I hope my son [Dickon] will kick up a fuss. If I live as long as my predecessors nobody will care and I won’t have an obituary at all, it won’t matter!

Vamp Until Ready: A Life Laid Bare

Sarah Vernon © 30-03-14
Adapted from an interview originally published at the R&V website on 13-02-08

11 comments on “Archive Interview • KATE O’MARA • 2008

  1. Such a wonderful interview .Thank you for sharing both it and your memories of working with her. I was a fan of Ms. O’Mara’s work, and I’m sorry that I never had the opportunity to meet her or see her perform on stage.

  2. First Night Design

    Thank you so much, Ben. She was, of course, a delight to interview and a delight to work with. I still can’t quite believe she’s gone. I thought she would go on to a grand old age like her mother. Very sad.

  3. Robert Holloway

    I also enjoyed the above interview. Thank you…like ben I did not have the opportunity to see Kate O Mara in the flesh…but for some unknown reason her death has had a profound effect on me..I cant explain why..I recently read her autobiography [vamp until ready]which has left me with a huge sense of awe and loss for this life long dedicated [actress]..on the 4/5/2014 I went on a personal homage to the Kings theatre in south sea to pay my respects to Kate O mara”s memory. And what a beautiful theatre the Kings Theatre is..[just as she described it]

  4. First Night Design

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the interview, Robert. I was affected far more than I’d expected; I thought and dreamt about her for a couple of weeks or more following the news. I must read Vamp until Ready. Ah, the King’s Theatre in Southsea is delicious!

  5. olganm

    Fabulous. I’ve only known her as an actress on TV and never seen her in a life performance, unfortunately but she sounds formidable. Thanks to Sally’s interview for bringing me here. Thanks Sarah!

  6. First Night Design

    She was a real darling and a consummate pro.

  7. George Kaplan

    Fabulous interview. It is such a pleasure to read Ms O’Mara’s forthright no BS views, much more interesting than the pizzle that too many (not always younger) actors spew forth. I particularly like her observations about much modern British television (quite why Scandinavian drama-aping squiff such as Broadchurch sends people into fleck-mouthed raptures, I do not know. It is garbage next to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or Edge of Darkness or G.B.H.). I could scarcely agree more with her comments on the word “Actress” either, it’s as if being identified as a Woman is a Bad thing. Dim-witted.
    Ms O’Mara’s words also bring to mind the disappearance of rehearsal time for television; when performers such as Louise Jameson rightly complain about this, they are often pooh-poohed and I would guess that *some* younger actors would be among the, uh, pooh-poohers, in which case the best response would be (BEWARE: PROFANITY AHEAD!) : “Well, you can barely fucking ACT, dear, so you should shut your mouth and listen.”
    Thank you for re-posting this, Ms Vernon.

  8. First Night Design

    Her forthrightness was exactly why I adored her. It breaks my heart that she had to endure the loss of Dickon in such a way. Thank you for commenting, Mr. K.

  9. George Kaplan

    It is certain that she would have been delighted by your admiration of that facet. Yes, how almost unbearably tragic was the loss of Dickon, it gives one a sad pang to read her mention him in this interview with knowledge of what was to come. How cruel this world can be.

  10. turnbullclan

    I interviewed Kate in Sunderland in 1983, she was a lovely lady & will be sadly missed.

  11. First Night Design

    She certainly will. Thank you for commenting, turnbullclan.

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