The strange feminism of Colonel March

I confess, I watch a lot of British television. In fact, I almost exclusively watch British television these days, given the choice: Inspector Morse, Miss Marple, Poirot, Scott and Bailey, Hinterland, Jonathan Creek, etc etc etc.

I usually don’t find older programs, but I came upon Colonel March of Scotland Yard with Boris Karloff, made in 1955-6, and have been watching its one season of 26 episodes.

It was made in the early days of ITV, when the new station was trying to promote itself, and has been roundly criticized for having very little intellectual content. It is based on the John Dickson Carr book The Department of Queer Complaints, which I would love to read but which costs a ridiculous amount of money when one searches for a copy.

I’m terrible at figuring out whodunnit. I always have been, which makes mysteries wonderful for me. I also forget whodunnit immediately afterwards, making it possible for me to see The Mousetrap in London four times before I could remember. I have solved only one Midsomer Murder out of 21 seasons of the show, though I have done two of Death in Paradise.

Which means that Colonel March is excellent entertainment for me. I don’t need to follow it closely, and March always wraps things up quickly at the end. But I’ve noticed something odd, something I didn’t expect.

Frances Rowe in At Night All Cats are Grey (yes, that’s Christopher Lee)

The women. Despite an occasional “because she’s female” line, the female characters seem pretty equal to the male in terms of agency, career, ambition, intelligence, and cunning. They are business owners, scientists, research assistants, intrepid explorers. They don’t usually commit the crime, and sometimes there is jealousy between men over a woman, but they aren’t in the background either. Their motives and actions are as complex as the male characters.

It’s a decade after the war, so I would assume that women in public roles was fairly common, but if one watches The Bletchley Circle, one would get the impression that the problem with the “Back to Home” women was the same in Britain as in America. Perhaps it was, but even “mindless” television may have been comfortable with the idea that not all women belonged at home, cooking and having babies.

         Elspet Gray in Murder is Permanent

In “Murder is Permanent”, Elspet Gray plays the daughter-in-law of the woman who owns a beauty salon, and is into shady dealings. In “The Abominable Snowman” a somewhat ridiculous premise is saved by Doris Nolan as Mary Grey, a mountain climber who isn’t allowed to be in the Himalayan Mountaineers’ club because she’s female (which Colonel March finds absurd). She led a major climb and it’s the film she made on that adventure that helps solve the mystery. Of course at the end she’s in the club, and will clearly be leading it.

So one has to be careful. Any number of 1950s films and television, on both sides of the pond, have surprised me by either confronting the very issues that supposedly restricted them, or by portraying certain types of people with a different sensibility than I was led to expect. I’ve seen so many now that I’m wondering whether the exceptions to the rule are so numerous that the rule is the exception. . . .