The Canadian musical ‘Billy Bishop goes to War’ was written by John MacLachlan Gray in collaboration with actor Eric Peterson and premiered at ‘the Cultch’, East Vancouver Cultural Centre, Nov 3rd 1978, where I first saw it performed starring Peterson as Billy Bishop with Gray on the piano. It was a mesmerizing experience as they were both young as was I; we could really relate to the dare devil Bishop who made such a determined effort to go to war. Peterson was brilliant as Bishop; I still remember his performance; his aircraft sounds and movement and his tale of his conversation with Lady Hillier, the aristocrat who helped him eventually get into the Royal Flying Corp.
In 1998 the musical was presented at the Playhouse Theatre in Vancouver in a revised version with the older Bishop looking back on his wartime exploits, starring Peterson and Gray, now middle-aged. Members of the Billy were invited to attend and the Vancouver Morris Men to dance outside the theatre. We had a great time and it must have been especially nostalgic for those members who had served in wartime. I saw a new production of the original play with young actors at the Playhouse a few years ago and can attest that it will remain a favourite.
Gray and Peterson signed and presented a lovely image of the album cover that shows Bishop’s medals to the Billy and have attended the Branch after local productions. The image is located with our other Bishop memorabilia on the left wall as you look at the bar and to the right of the fireplace.
The questions raised by ‘The kid who couldn’t miss’, 1982, a docudrama by Paul Cowan, funded by the NFB with $514,007.00 of tax payers money
The first the Billy knew of this was when we were sent a copy of an article that had appeared in the Washington Post! The Post wondered why Canada was trashing its own real documented hero, perhaps because America supports its heroes unreservedly. Ron Crawley immediately went into action, viewing the offending docudrama and writing a critique to the NFB that pointed out 17 major inaccuracies or outright lies. Several Veterans leapt to Bishop’s defence and many organizations became involved.
The biggest upheaval was about Cowan’s suggestion that on Bishop’s famous raid behind enemy lines where he found himself over the Lufftwaffe airfield of Estourmel, Bishop did not destroy five enemy aircraft. Instead there was a strong implication made that Bishop landed, shot up his aircraft and returned to base falsely claiming his kills. Against these unfounded allegations are the following points:
- The British did not use the ‘Ace’ system, a French invention.
- To claim confirmed kills British fliers had to virtually “follow the downed plane, land beside them and ask the pilot if they were dead”, according to deceased member, Ted Greenhalgh DFC who served in WW2.
- To dismount and then remount the heavy Lewis Gun from Bishop’s aircraft in order to shoot up his plane would be impossible and evidence would remain if Bishop had actually achieved this impossible task even with massive assistance.
The British spent almost three months investigating Bishop’s story before recommending him for the Victoria Cross, the highest award for bravery in the British Empire. Subsequent German records confirm Bishop’s exploit.
Paul Cowan claimed artistic licence but the film was ultimately discredited and the NFB chastised for funding it. Perhaps one good thing that came out of the debacle was that far more Canadians got to know about Bishop than had known prior to a movie denigrating his accomplishments.
The Kid Who Couldn’t Miss also led Chicago native, and Bishop fan, Albert Lowe to create a website (www.billybishop.net) devoted to the fighter pilot. Lowe complained about the characterization of Bishop in the film, and commented that “That year Mr. Paul Cowan, with $514,007.00 of Canadian Taxpayer’s money, did one of the foulest deeds possible without committing some form of violence.”
Legion Magazine article by Bishop’s son, Arthur Bishop
Billy Bishop Home and Museum Owen Sound Ontario
“For he had that courage which Napoleon once said was the rarest — the courage of the early morning.”*