Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Don Harron

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Don Harron

Don Harron has spent more than seven decades performing for Canadian, American and British crowds in the theatre, as well as working in radio, television and film (including a five year stint as the host of CBC's Morningside). This year sees the publication of his memoir, My Double Life: Sexty Yeers of Farquharson Around with Don Harn (Dundurn Press), a memoir focused on his beloved alter ego, Charlie Farquharson.

We talk to Don about how it feels to have written his fifteenth book, the benefits of an alter ego and his plans for the future.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, My Double Life.

Don Harron:

My Double Life is an attempt at a biography, covering my seventy-seven years as a professional performer in radio, television, theater and film. It also involves contributions from my comic character Charlie Farquharson, created in 1952 and used as an alter-ego on stage, radio and television for sixty years. Perhaps I should have called the book My Double Double Life since it also involves my drag queen character, Valerie Rosedale, Charlie's rich-bitch city cousin, although her actual contribution to the body of the book is fairly minor.


What was the genesis of your alter ego, Charlie Farquharson? And what freedom did he provide for you as a performer?


Charlie has a rural Ontario accent that I first encountered when I worked on a farm the summer of 1942. Its roots are lowland Scotland and northern Irish distilled through several generations of existence in Canada. I didn't actually play Charlie until ten years later, but in the meantime I used the accent that I learned that summer in serious rural dramas on CBC radio shows like Summer Fallow, and once on stage in 1949 in a Harry J. Boyle play The Macdonald’s of Oak Valley. I also used the accent for comic effect as the M.C. of a 1949 country music radio series, Bobby Gimby's Hoedown where my character was called Harry Shorthorn.

In 1950 I went to England for two years, working in radio and theater, hearing that same rural accent from some Canadians living in London. On my return to Canada I was asked to appear once again in a topical revue called Spring Thaw '52, an annual show I had appeared in before as a political satirist without much success. The star of the show, Jane Mallett, gave me some very wise advice: "People think you're a smartass for criticizing the government, because you're so young. What you need is a mask. Pretend to be an older person, and they'll accept your jokes against the government." I took her advice and Charlie Farquharson was born on stage on April Fool's Day, 1952. Charlie has never received a hate letter. During my five-year stint on Morningside, I expressed some of his political opinions in my own words and I got plenty of hate letters!


Why did you decide to write this book now? What did you hope to get out of the project?


This book is my farewell gesture as a live performer, because I now have as many years on me as there are keys to a piano. It's my 15th book, but my hopes are limited due to the current state of the book publishing business.


You've performed on Broadway and in London's West End. How does Toronto compare to these international theatre communities? What are some of our strengths and weaknesses?


When I have been to opening nights in London I feel that the audience is there to see the show, but in New York my feeling is that they are there to be seen rather than to see others, much less some doings on a stage. In Toronto, the feeling is one of mutual relief that a lot of people came out to support our still-fledgling live theater.


What are some books or shows you would recommend to aspiring performers?


I have had two mentors during my 77 year career, both geniuses in their own field. One is Northrop Frye, and the other, Tyrone Guthrie, both, alas, deceased. I would recommend to any would-be performer Tony Guthrie's A Life in the Theater and for playwrights and directors, In Various Directions.

Northrop Frye was my favorite teacher at Victoria College and he has written many masterpieces of literary criticism. For candidates for the Stratford Festival company I would recommend two books: Fools of Time, Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy, and A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance.


What are you working on now?


The last time I saw my much beloved friend Norman Campbell in May 2003, he handed me a copy of our second musical, The Adventures of Private Turvey. It was performed twice at the Confederation Centre of the Arts Charlottetown’s Festival, first in 1966 and again in 1970. His death-bed request to was "Get it on!"

This is my project for 2014, the fiftieth anniversary of our first musical, Anne of Green Gables. I also intend to present as a project for that fiftieth season, our third musical, The Wonder Of It All, the story of B.C. painter Emily Carr.

After that, I will start to work on the film version of Anne of Green Gables.

Don Harron's career is one of the most distinguished in Canadian entertainment history. Most famous for his alter ago Charlie Farquharson, he has also appeared in many stage, television, and film productions, and has also written plays and screenplays. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada. Harron lives in Toronto.

For more information about My Double Life please visit the Dundurn website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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