‘Billy Bishop’ goes to small screen

More than 30 years after first mounting their celebrated stage production of Billy Bishop Goes to War, Eric Peterson says he and musical accompanist John Gray have lost none of their ardour for the war hero’s tale as they bring it to the small screen for a special Remembrance Day broadcast.

Roughly 30 years ago

Roughly 30 years ago

TORONTO — More than 30 years after first mounting their celebrated stage production of Billy Bishop Goes to War, Eric Peterson says he and musical accompanist John Gray have lost none of their ardour for the war hero’s tale as they bring it to the small screen for a special Remembrance Day broadcast.

If anything, Peterson says the aging artists have more enthusiasm for the play than ever, noting they relished the packed production schedule they took on during recent stage performances.

“John and I do eight performances a week when we’re on stage and when we were younger we said, ‘No, no, no, it’s too much! I can only do six, I can’t do two shows in a day!” says the 64-year-old Peterson, who wrote the play with Gray and plays multiple roles in the 90-minute stage show.

“And here we are, three times as old, going, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll do the eight shows.’ But with eight shows a week, you are on the edge of your physical (capacity), at least for me. It is a lot.”

On Wednesday, Peterson and Gray star in an hour-long televised version of their award-winning production, shot over two weeks in a CBC studio stocked with props from their numerous live performances.

In this incarnation, the First World War ace from Owen Sound, Ont., is near the end of his life, recalling a storied battle career as he sits in his pyjamas in a relic-filled attic.

As in the stage production, Peterson takes on a myriad of characters as Bishop recounts his airborne exploits, while Gray reprises his role as pianist and narrator.

The pair have performed the play at three distinct times in their lives — first in their mid-30s, again in their early 50s and now in their early 60s. Both are now 64.

“Each time it’s allowed us not to just remount it but to re-interpret it. It’s been a great little creative engine in itself,” says Peterson, best known for playing the curmudgeonly Oscar Leroy in the defunct CTV comedy Corner Gas.

The debut of Billy Bishop in 1978 spawned an acclaimed national tour, TV special and accolades including the 1983 Governor General’s Award for drama. That version featured a young man who’s just returned from the war.

Gray and Peterson revised the show in 1998, adding a new song and presenting events through the eyes of a 57-year-old veteran addressing young flyers about to fight in the Second World War.

In 2009, they brought it back to the stage for a celebrated summer run with Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company. At the time, both Gray and Peterson were 62, the same age the real Bishop was when he died.

“That kind of referencing in these different places made different things in the play come out of it, even with the same words. And in many ways, I think this last time we’ve done it has been, certainly for me, the most fun and the most, in a way, meaningful,” says Peterson.

“It becomes less about a special man who was a war ace and a war hero, and more about every person, in a way, as they look back on their life filled with the same kind of ambivalent feelings.”

Their most recent production heads to Calgary and Montreal in the new year before returning to Soulpepper’s repertory season.

Peterson says the play is as relevant today as ever, if not more so.

“This is the first time we’ve ever done the play in 30 years that we’ve been doing it that our country has been at war,” he says.

“We forget about it until we suddenly see a young face in the paper, either a man or a woman that’s been badly injured or killed in Afghanistan. And I think that’s a factor in it, too… the evocative quality of the play now, because when he’s talking about being young there’s my old wrinkled face up there. And yet we can reference 20 year olds and 21 year old-actual combat fatalities in our front page of our newspaper, time to time. Too often, for sure.”

Billy Bishop Goes to War airs Wednesday on CBC-TV.