Kate O’Mara takes on classic Agatha Christie whodunnit

Famed for her glamorous television roles in TV series such as Dynasty and Howard's Way, Kate O'Mara heads the cast of Agatha Christie's classic whodunnit Murder on the Nile at Norwich Theatre Royal next week. EMMA LEE meets her.

'She's a ghastly woman — a snob, a bully, unspeakable,' says actress Kate O'Mara, roaring with laughter.

The woman in question is Miss ffoliot ffoulkes, the character she plays in Agatha Christie's classic whodunnit, Murder on the Nile, which is at Norwich Theatre Royal next week.

As well as her name being a bit of a mouthful, she's also a handful.

'I find her an acting challenge,' says Kate, speaking from a dressing room at Cambridge Arts Theatre as she prepares for a matinee.

'I can't believe that people like this even existed in 1932,' she continues. 'I suppose they did or might have done.

'When you're acting, the first thing you have to do is believe in what you are doing, so I have to try and make up a background for her and why she's like this. The only thing I could think of was maybe she lost her fianc� in the first world war, maybe that's soured her. I don't mind playing ghastly women as long as they're funny, and I get a few laughs because I push it,' she says.

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Packed with the queen of crime's trademark twists and turns, Murder on the Nile marks a welcome return to the Theatre Royal for the Agatha Christie Company. Kate is joined in the cast by Denis Lill, Susie Amy and Chloe Newsome.

While her personal preference is for Dorothy L Sayers, Kate is an admirer of Christie's work.

'She was a very clever woman. What she does, which I think is superb, is lull you into a false sense of security. She puts her characters into a safe environment, usually an English country house and then something frightful happens.

'In this instance they're on a lovely cruise on the Nile. What could be nicer? Looking at antiquities, drifting down the Nile, soaking up the atmosphere — the amazing thing about this is that you can never remember who's done it,' she laughs.

Famous for her glamorous television roles in series such as Dynasty and Howard's Way, Leicester-born Kate, now in her 70s, comes from a long line of actors and actresses and cut her teeth in the theatre.

'I went into the family business,' she says. 'There wasn't that much television around. You started out in the theatre, and then you'd get the odd movie and go on from there.'

She's certainly built up an impressive — and varied — CV. She was one of Hammer Studio's Glamour Girls, starring in The Vampire Lovers and The Horror of Frankenstein, while on the small screen she's had roles in The Brothers, Triangle, the infamous soap set on a cross-channel ferry, Doctor Who in which she played The Rani, Absolutely Fabulous, Bad Girls, Family Affairs and Benidorm.

Norwich is a city Kate knows well – she starred in Anglia TV's Weaver's Green 'long before you or your mother was born' and has appeared on stage at the Theatre Royal — a few years ago she played Mrs Cheveley in Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband.

She also supported a fundraising appeal at the Maddermarket Theatre.

'I'm very fond of Norwich,' she says. 'It's rather lovely. I'm looking forward to coming back very much.'

Speaking to her, it's clear that theatre is her great passion. As well as a comprehensive stage resum�, she co-founded the British Actors Theatre Company, which has mounted more than 20 productions, and has written six shows for the stage herself. She lists Tom Stoppard, Melvyn Bragg and Alan Bennett among her favourite playwrights, as well, of course, as the Bard.

'My favourite roles include Cleopatra and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. I can do Shakespeare until it's coming out of my ears. I worship the man,' she says.

When it comes to her television roles, Kate has a soft spot for Laura Wilde, who she played in Howard's Way.

'Laura was quite a tough cookie,' she says. 'She was glamorous and intelligent and had a sense of humour.'

But while she's a regular on our TV screens, Kate isn't a fan of the current schedules.

'There's nothing on television,' she says. 'I just watch history programmes. There's very little decent drama. Personally, at the moment, I don't have a television.' And she's delighted that people seem to be getting out of their armchairs and into auditoriums, saying that theatre seems to be finding a new audience. 'I've noticed that there are a lot more young people coming to the theatre, which is vital,' she says, 'In spite of the recession people do need a little bit of escapism.'

Then there's a knock on the door and Kate is called to the stage — and she's off to create some more escapism herself.

? Murder on the Nile, Norwich Theatre Royal, September 24-29, �22.50-�5.50, 01603 630000. www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk