Mark “Frisky” Lee (Peter Maxwell) is a notorious fence who arrogantly believes he’s above the law. But he’s long been on the radar of Supt. Bill Hemmingway (Wensley Pithey) and Frisky also comes to Gideon’s attention thanks to a young pick-pocket called Peter Wray (Alan Baulch). Peter lifts a woman’s purse from the local market and then makes a run for it – straight into the path of Gideon’s car. The boy’s not hurt, but he drops the purse and runs off. Gideon asks Hemmingway to find the boy, as he could just be the lever they need to bring Frisky’s empire crashing down.
Big Fish, Little Fish has a memorable few opening minutes, as we follow young Peter in his frantic flight from the market. For extra realism, director Cyril Frankel chose to shoot on a genuine market day and this certainly makes the boy’s escape much more impressive, as he struggles through dozens of (presumably) ordinary members of the public.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for Peter, especially after you’ve met his hard-faced mother (played by Carmel McSharry). Mrs Wray has been training Peter to become an expert pick-pocket and she has her own special form of punishment whenever she’s upset with him (locking him in a windowless cupboard under the stairs).
There’s a very unexpected twist fifteen minutes in, when Frisky Lee is found murdered. Based on what we’d seen so far it looked likely the story would proceed in a similar way to The White Rat (Gideon and the police versus an arrogant criminal).
Maxwell Shaw is gloriously demented as Frisky and it’s a pity that he exits from the story so quickly. But there’s plenty of other good actors also guest-starring in this one. Sydney Tafler plays Frisky’s lawyer Gabriel Lyon and Harry Towb is Tod Cowan. Tod is a local fence and therefore is a link in the chain to Frisky’s operation.
There was something rather familiar about the actress playing Mrs Clark, but it didn’t click straight away. She was played by Angela Baddeley, best known for her turn as the autocratic cook Mrs Bridges in Upstairs Downstairs. During her time on UpDown she was heavily padded (giving her a much more rotund figure). Here she doesn’t have the padding, which is why I didn’t recognise her at first.
Prime suspect in Frisky’s murder is “Happy” Roden (Jack MacGowran). MacGowran had an eclectic career, to say the least. He was acclaimed for his stage-work, especially the plays of Samuel Beckett, but also built up an impressive list of film and television credits – ranging from Doctor Zhivago to The Champions (so he was equally at home in heavyweight and escapist drama).
Big Fish, Little Fish, which largely takes place in and around the markets on Petticoat Lane, has a rather grimy feel. But although there’s a “kitchen sink” tone, it doesn’t offer any particular insights into why juvenile crime is thriving or what can be done to combat it. There’s a very clear contrast between Gideon’s contented home-life (with his wife and three children) and Peter’s wretched existence with his mother, although this goes unspoken.
Peter’s ultimate fate is never touched upon, although it seems likely he’ll be taken into care as his mother looks set for a jail term. Therefore there’s no happy ending for the boy and the possibility must be that he’ll simply grow up to be even more of a criminal than he is now. But whilst it’s a disturbing thought, it’s also a realistic one, and is preferable to offering a false or sugar-coated ending.