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Roger Payne and Lisa Harrow: Song of the Whales


Either one of these people would have been a worthy subject on their own. Together, they are an amazing and formidable couple. Lisa is former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company who has acted on stage, in film and on television with most of the greatest actors of her time. Roger is a marine biologist and environmental activist who's best known as the co-discoverer of whale song. More recently, he led a five-year research effort covering all the world's oceans, chronicled in the PBS series "Voyage of the Odyssey." Here's how they met in 1991, at a "Save the Whales" rally in Trafalgar Square.  

Harrow had never been much for political action. But on this particular occasion, she had just returned to London from the filming of The Last Days of Chez Nous. Her relationship with [actor Sam] Neill was ending, which left her feeling at loose ends. And on her desk landed an invitation from Greenpeace to be a celebrity speaker at a Save the Whales rally in Trafalgar Square. "And I thought, 'Trafalgar Square, that's a good stage! That's fun!' So that's why I did it.


"I had to read this piece they sent me, about long-range communication of whales. I had no idea. I'd never seen a whale. I didn't know anything about this." 


Payne was on the speakers' list as well. "I couldn't see her while she was speaking, but I heard this fantastically intelligent voice. I was doing a film at the time and I wanted somebody to read some Moby-Dick, and I'd wanted it to be a woman, not a man. And I thought, 'That's who I'll get to do Moby-Dick.'" 


After Harrow spoke, she walked off the speakers' platform. "She came down the steps," recalls Payne, "and I was waiting at the bottom. I was bowled over! I decided, 'This is the person I want to marry.'" 


 Harrow: "We spent three hours talking, during which time the demonstration ended and people were saying goodbye and [her son] Tim was milling around Trafalgar Square. We'd really connected in a profound way. And I had a friend over for dinner that night, and I said, 'I've met the man I'm going to marry!'" 


Payne, the master tactician, chose exactly the right approach to a single mother. That night, he called Harrow and asked if he could take her and Tim to the zoo. The next day, they went. "And Roger got us in behind the scenes at the aquarium," she recalls. "It was a kick in the head, it was great." 


Soon thereafter, Payne was off to Iceland to badger people at an IWC meeting. But, as he says, "I spent almost all my time writing a long letter to Lisa." 


"So I got this letter," adds Harrow, "which basically said we should get married." 

The rest of their story is in my book, including Payne's discovery of humpback whale song and the resultant 15 minutes of mass-market fame; and Harrow's journey from her New Zealand homeland to the Royal Shakespeare Company in London and the resultant stage, film, and television career. 
Read an excerpt from my interview with Payne and Harrow, in which they discuss their joint performance piece SeaChange: Reversing the Tide. It explores the ecological challenges we face, through a combination of scientific information and dramatic readings.  
Visit the SeaChange website to learn more.  

Contact me by e-mail at john (at) johnswalters (dot) com.