TORONTO — Veteran Canadian performers John Gray and Eric Peterson are still willing to battle future incarnations of Billy Bishop Goes to War.
Their lauded, long-running stage musical — which is now a film that opens Friday in Toronto and other cities later this month — depicts the life of First World War flying ace Billy Bishop of Owen Sound, Ont.
When it debuted in 1978, Peterson played Bishop as a young man who’d just returned from war. Gray accompanied on piano and sang along with him.
Over the years, they’ve revived the show around the world and updated it to suit their ages: a 1998 version depicted Bishop as a war veteran, and the latest incarnation has a 62-year-old Bishop in the last year of his life.
Now both 65, Gray and Peterson — who won a Governor General’s award for creating the show — say they’re open to the idea of exploring Bishop’s life from yet another angle.
“We are older than Billy Bishop ever lived to be but … this is the world of theatre and film, where everything is possible. So yes, there could be another chapter,” Peterson said in an interview at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival, where Billy Bishop Goes to War screened.
“I’m actually secretly practising with a walker, you know, and a wheelchair,” the former “Corner Gas” star added with a cackle. “I’m sure that we could do something with this.”
“He wants a trap door (that) opens and flames come out,” interjected Gray.
“And we come out from hell to enact the story of my life,” replied Peterson in jest.
“Who knows, eh? Who knows? Or maybe we’ll just be like the two old guys sitting in the audience going, ’I love this play! We were in it once, you know!’ … I don’t want to give up the notion that there’s some future production of it.”
British Columbia native Barbara Willis-Sweete directs the feature film version of the story, written and composed by Gray and Peterson.
Shot in summer 2010, the film is set in an empty theatre, on a stage designed to look like an attic. A pyjama-clad Bishop (Peterson) reminisces about his life while Gray provides the music.
Surrounded by model airplanes, war medals and an old projector, Bishop describes how he came to enlist in the military and went into war at age 20. He wasn’t keen to join the fight but when he got a chance to fly, he felt like a king.
“I think for him (flying) made war more palatable because it’s abstract up there and you don’t actually face the blood and the guts,” said Willis-Sweete, who’s seen all the incarnations of Billy Bishop Goes to War over the years.
“But he was transformed completely when he actually saw someone die — when he actually saw the results of what he was doing.”
By the end of the war, Bishop had become a pacifist, she added. Later in his life, he was plagued by alcoholism.
“The film is a very, very small capsule of the intensity of the time that formed him and how he looks back on it so many years later,” said Willis-Sweete.
“I think gives it kind of a resonance, you know, you just feel the callowness of youth and then the sadness of old age juxtaposed.”
Peterson slips into several other roles throughout the performance, including that of a socialite who befriends Bishop.
He and Gray say the show’s long-running success has come as a surprise to them.
“I never would have thought (that), and again, I don’t want to think that it actually is the end of it somehow,” said Peterson.
“Maybe there will be another incarnation of it. It’s certainly going to be around as a play I think for as long as there’s Canadians.”