Eric Peterson revisits old friends in Dan For Mayor & Billy Bishop Goes To War

By Diane Wild of TV, eh?


When Eric Peterson guest stars on tonight’s Dan For Mayor, it isn’t just a Corner Gas reunion with Fred Ewanuick, it’s a time to sing along to “It’s a Small (Canadian TV) World After All.”

“(Co-creators) Mark Farrell, Kevin White, and Paul Mather were all writers on Corner Gas, too, and I have an incredible affection and total admiration for their abilities,” Peterson said.

Reaching back into Peterson’s career even further, he’s worked with many Dan For Mayor crew members including the camera operator, who was a camera assistant on Street Legal.

But the main attraction for Corner Gas fans will be the onscreen pairing of the former castmates, when Peterson plays a sculptor hired by Mayor Dan to attract tourists to an art fair.

“He’s so great as Dan,” Peterson said of Ewanuick. “It’s such a change for him, from the intellectually challenged Hank. I can say that as Oscar, the equally intellectually and emotionally challenged.”

“But he’s the star and I’m just a dayplayer now,” Peterson pointed out in his best Oscar grump. “How times have changed.”

Times have changed in other ways, too. At Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre, Peterson has reprised his role as the World War I fighter pilot in Billy Bishop Goes To War, which he cowrote with John MacLachlan Gray in the late 70s.

“We first did it when we were in our 30s, then we did it in our early 50s, and now we’re 64, so there have been different incarnations of it, from the young guy, middle aged guy, now old guy perspective,” Peterson explained. “It’s amazing how much it changes, yet the themes of the play are still as relevant as ever – colonialism, and aspects of the Canadian psyche.”

Peterson sees an even deeper relevance in today’s incarnation. “Billy is talking about his life in his early 20s. Now we’ve seen pictures of men and women of that age who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. It’s been interesting to tell Bishop’s story in a world war, with the whole country behind it, and compare it with this, where only a few people in this country have to carry the brunt of it: the personnel there and their families. The rest of us have carried on as if nothing is going on.”

He believes most people are coming to the revival out of nostalgia for the play rather than for its present-day resonance – people who have seen it before and want to share it with their children, for example – but acknowledges that many are coming to see the guy from Corner Gas. “And I’m very happy to be the jackass guy,” he laughed. “I wish that show could have continued longer.”

With another theatrical role on the horizon – he’ll be starring in The Test at Company Theatre in Toronto in the fall – Peterson seems focused on live theatre, but that’s not necessarily a conscious choice.

“TV becomes more problematic the older you get because you’re not marketable. If they can find a way to sell older audiences to advertisers, that will change, but that won’t happen in my lifetime.”

A deeper problem he sees is the lack of support for Canadian shows by the broadcasters who make them. He cited the amount of time between Dan For Mayor seasons as an example.

“We can’t even get on our own channels anymore – they spend all their money buying American programming. That’s gotten worse over the years. We have a situation in Canada where we make television but we don’t have a place for it, not even in our own country.”

He’s noticed among theatre audiences a deeper appreciation for plays such as Billy Bishop Goes To War “because it’s theirs. It’s the same with TV. These aren’t just businesses – this is our culture.”