Elvi Hale as Lady Molly in The Woman in the Big Hat by the Baroness Orczy
Adapted and Directed by Alan Cooke
When a customer is found dead at a tea shop, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (Elvi Hale) and her faithful assistant Mary Grandard (Ann Beach) are on hand to investigate. As a female detective in a predominately male environment, Lady Molly is something of a pioneer – and certainly she’s the right person to uncover the tangled threads of this baffling murder.
Lady Molly was created by the Baroness Orczy, best known for writing The Scarlet Pimpernel. Lady Molly of Scotland Yard was published in 1910 and contains twelve adventures, of which The Woman in the Big Hat was the tenth. The book can be read here.
Her precise rank in the police force is something of a mystery as she’s only ever referred to as Lady Molly – but since she speaks to Inspector Saunders (Peter Bowles) as an equal, presumably she’s on a similar level. Saunders appears to be on hand to be someone who’s essentially well-meaning but lacks the subtle approach of Lady Molly (for example, he picks up the teacup which held the poison, much to the dismay of Lady Molly, who chides him about fingerprints).
The murdered man was Mark Culledon, a member of a very good family – and it appears someone beyond reproach. Considering Lady Molly’s rarefied status and the fact that the members of the working class we see (such as Katie Harris, played by Una Stubbs) are portrayed as untrustworthy at best and criminal at worst, it does appear at first to be a story that’s sympathetic to the struggles of the upper classes.
But things aren’t so cut and dried and it becomes clear that even behind the most genteel of drawing room doors, passions can run high. However, the first thing Lady Molly needs to to do is to track down the woman in the big hat. Mark Culledon was seen having tea with a woman wearing a rather large hat and after she left, he was found dead. It therefore seems obvious that Culledon was poisoned by the woman.
A prime-suspect is found, Elizabeth Löwenthal (Elizabeth Weaver). She admits that she had a relationship with Culledon in the past and that she visited him after he was married – and she certainly possesses a big hat, but is she the one? Saunders is convinced, but Lady Molly isn’t so sure.
Elvi Hale plays Lady Molly with great gusto. She’s clearly somebody who has to work in rather makeshift surroundings (the sign on her office says “stores”, over which has been hung another sign saying “female department”) but she makes the best of things. She shoots a gun as well as any man and is dismissive when Grandard tells her that Saunders is a great believer in her intuition. Lady Molly counters that he has to call it intuition, he simply can’t believe that a woman can think for herself.
Peter Bowles is on hand to do the leg-work whilst Ann Beach as Grandard is there to take notes, swoon over Molly’s deductions and effectively act as Watson to her Holmes (Grandard was the narrator of the Lady Molly stories).
Elsewhere, Catherine Lacey gives a rather individual performance as Culledon’s aunt, Mrs Steinberg. Catherine Lacey was by this time a veteran actress and had appeared in many notable films, including Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and Whisky Galore. She gives a rather stagey, unrealistic turn, which might possibly have been what director Alan Cooke (who also dramatised the story) was aiming for – but for me, it’s a little jarring. Francis White is more composed as Culledon’s widow and there’s a nice demonstration of low-cunning from Una Stubbs as Culldeon’s ex-maid, Katie Harris.
Since Mark Culledon is dead when we see him for the first time, the story never gives us a chance to understand what he was like as a character, first hand. Instead, as the story progresses, more layers are lifted away as more people are questioned about him – until finally we see exactly what sort of a man he was and when we know that, the reason for the murder becomes quite clear.
In terms of a whodunnit, it’s probably one of the most interesting yet seen in the series, and this helps to make The Woman in the Big Hat one of the more memorable episodes of The Rivals.
Next Episode – The Affair of the Tortoise