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Billy Bishop Goes to War

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Billy Bishop Goes to War
Director and Producer Jimmy Walters discusses his musical celebration of WW1 Canadian Flying Ace, Billy Bishop, as it flies into London's Jermyn Street Theatre from October 31 to November 24.
Published on October 18, 2018
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Jimmy Walters Jimmy Walters, Producer and Director of Billy Bishop Goes to War

Thank you for talking with us Jimmy. As we approach the centenary commemorations of the First World War, this is an ideal time to reflect on those who fought in the conflict. Could you tell us a little about Billy Bishop, the central figure in your upcoming play at the Jermyn Street Theatre?

Billy was a complete rebel. He constantly went against the grain and at school was always failing exams. He's I suppose what you would call a reluctant hero. He came to England to fight in the army during the First World War but after spotting a single seater plane overhead, he became the greatest Canadian fighter pilot of all time. He's chequered and flawed which makes him interesting and isn't your standard golden boy superhero. He was an alcoholic and makes bad choices but is very relatable and universal.

Billy Bishop Goes to War premiered in Canada in 1978 - why did you choose this book to bring to the London stage, and why did you want to tell this particular story?

Tom Littler, Artistic Director of the Jermyn Street Theatre, sent me the script and I fell in love with it. At the time we wanted to revisit a story in the same vein as Mrs Orwell, which we staged last year, in that we wanted to explore a real life character in a story with plenty of heart, which Billy has.

The production is a musical telling of the life of Billy; as Director, how do you balance the emotions of the piece through the music?

The music holds the heart of the story and some of these songs are real tear jerkers for sure. It's important to sit there as a viewer and ask yourself when you are engaged and when you switch off. You have to constantly look at the forest, not the tree, and keep reminding yourself of the bigger picture.

Have you made many changes to the book for this production?

No, we didn't make any changes at all. We have in our interpretation an older Billy watching his younger self which I find a very powerful image. I saw a production recently where an older man watched his first romance played by a younger actor and it struck a chord in me.

During your research, did you find anything out about Billy that changed your perception of WW1 or his life?

I suppose it just reiterated to me how pointless this war was and unnecessary in comparison to the Second World War where we didn't have a choice. Canada joined the war only because they were under the dominion of the British Empire, so they were a subservient to British foreign policy.

How can theater contribute to the legacy of stories like Billy's, especially during important moments in time like this year's November commemorations?

I think it's incumbent on story tellers to honour these unknown stories and relay them onto the next generation. It certainly feels that with the last survivor of World War One passing away four years ago, the duty on theatre practitioners to keep that flame alive is stronger than ever.

Finally, what do you hope visitors to Billy Bishop Goes to War take away from watching the production?

I hope they see the life of a man in all his human form, good, bad and ugly. I find the performances deeply moving to watch and it takes you from laughter to tears throughout. We also explore how for many people this war didn't end on 11 November 1918. It had a traumatic effect on soldiers and their families and changed their mentality forever.

Billy Bishop Goes To War, the story of Canada's First World War Flying Ace, will be stage at the Jermyn Street Theatre from October 31 through to November 24. Tickets can be purchased via the Jermyn Street Website, at www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/show/billy-bishop-goes-to-war.

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