'I was innocent, naïve stupid…'06/11/2022
‘I was innocent, naïve… stupid’: She’s the epitome of the jolly West End hoofer, but as she marks 50 years in showbusiness, Bonnie Langford reveals she’s struggled with her darker side
- Bonnie Langford, 57, is touring the UK with Cole Porter’s Anything Goes
- The actress is celebrating 50 years as a West End performer, debuting aged 7
- She explains how growing up in the world of stardom was difficult to navigate
The stage is my happy place,’ beams Bonnie Langford. ‘It always has been, since I was a little girl.
‘So to get back out there after Covid in an uplifting, joyous production is a lovely thing. I feel like I’m back on my feet.’
Bonnie is touring the country with Cole Porter’s cheerful 1930s musical Anything Goes. At the age of 57, she’s playing the overbearing mother Evangeline Harcourt, with Kerry Ellis, Denis Lawson and Simon Callow in a star-studded cast.
She’s also celebrating 50 years as a West End performer, having made her debut at the age of seven as Scarlett O’Hara’s daughter in the musical adaptation of Gone With The Wind at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane back in 1972. This was quite a big deal.
Bonnie Langford, 57, (pictured) is touring the UK with Cole Porter’s Anything Goes musical. The actress is celebrating 50 years as a West End performer, debuting aged 7
‘Princess Anne came to the preview show and Sir Noël Coward was in the audience.’ She remembers his verdict, coupling the young girl’s performance with that of a horse who kept leaving a mess on the stage. ‘We can solve two problems at once: shove the child up the horse’s a***.’ Bonnie laughs. ‘That child was me!’
You’d expect her to smile about it because Bonnie’s been putting on the old razzle-dazzle in public since she won Opportunity Knocks aged six, before going on to star as Violet Elizabeth Bott in Just William. Today though, we get to see a different side.
‘Maybe in my past I’ve put my shoulders back and been jolly. That’s part of my job.
‘But you’re not just that,’ she says when we meet at a café near the Liverpool Empire.
‘Nobody’s just that. If they are, there’s something terrible going on behind the scenes as we’re not all jolly all the time.’
She’s been a leading lady on the West End stage for a long time now, with starring roles in Cats, Chicago and 42nd Street among other musicals. But Bonnie surprised people a few years ago with a gritty and moving performance as market inspector Carmel Kazemi in EastEnders.
‘I did this knife crime story, which was fabulous to do but people were saying, ‘Gosh, I didn’t know you could do that.’
Carmel was broken after losing two sons and won’t be coming back after moving to Dubai. Bonnie says she’s seen the show change.
‘To have shown her recovery might have been interesting, but it’s not sensationalist,’ she says. ‘They have to get the ratings.
‘They need a helicopter or bus to crash in the middle of Walford every now and then. Otherwise you’re not going to get the Soap Awards.’
This is a quiet, reflective Bonnie sitting here with her distinctive copper hair up, eating scrambled eggs on toast and looking back on her career. ‘A few weeks ago I was looking at press cuttings from years ago,’ she says.
‘I found it difficult, upsetting actually, because I know who I am as a person but I could see how I was portrayed. I could see how I fed into that.’
Bonnie was raised to perform by her mother Babette who ran her own dance school in Richmond – and still does at the age of 91.
Bonnie as Violet Elizabeth Bott in children’s programme Just William in 1978. She says that the world of light entertainment was a dangerous place to be as a young female in the 1970s
‘I remember being on stage at a young age with my older sisters on either side of me, holding my hands. I had them to support me.’
Auditioning for Opportunity Knocks with the Shirley Temple song On The Good Ship Lollipop in 1971 felt natural as she was due to sing it at her mum’s annual school show anyway.
‘I was not thrust into anything. My life didn’t change because everything was consistent when I went home.
‘My mother came with me to most things as I was underage and I needed a chaperone. There was no pressure on me.’
The world of light entertainment was a dangerous place to be as a young female in the 1970s though, with Jimmy Savile and other abusers around. ‘It’s terrible, the stuff that went on.
‘As a child, I had a very strong instinct about people. I would clam up if I felt uncomfortable in a situation.’
Bonnie says she was also saved by the constant presence of her mother and her father Don, who backed that instinct.
‘I was well-protected, even if we didn’t know it at the time. My parents probably got a lot of flak in those days for just being there.’
They taught her to perform in the right places rather than to show off, and not to expect fame and fortune. ‘I’d have been rubbish on The X Factor,’ she says, surprisingly.
‘I couldn’t bear it. I do worry about the pressure put on these young people, and about the amazing lifestyle that’s sold to them.
Simon Callow, Kerry Ellis, Denis Lawson, and Bonnie Langford in Anything Goes
‘That doesn’t necessarily come with winning. And it doesn’t sustain either. That’s the hard bit, when you no longer have the machine behind you. You’re on your own.’
She was close friends with Lena Zavaroni, who’s often given as an example of how being a child star can crush you, having struggled with anorexia and depression and died at 35. But Bonnie has a different take.
‘They play her out to be a victim, but she wasn’t this sad little creature at all. She was great fun, strong and determined,’ she says.
‘I don’t like that she gets remembered for her illness over and above her talent, which was immeasurable.’
Growing up in public proved tricky for Bonnie. ‘I would say things that were absolute fodder for the press.
‘I was so honest, it was ridiculous. ‘Oh no, I haven’t got a boyfriend, I haven’t been kissed.’ Then it was on the front page. Why that was news, I have no idea.’
Maybe because Britain seemed obsessed with making little girls behave like adults: she’d already been on primetime telly at the age of ten singing I’m Just A Girl Who Can’t Say No.
‘It’s terrifying, isn’t it? I had no idea. Innocent, sweet, naive, stupid. Not completely – I was savvy too – but I gave away too much.’
Her twenties were a struggle, and not only because she was playing the companion Melanie Bush in the dying days of Doctor Who’s first incarnation, when the sets were wobbly and the scripts were terrible.
‘It was all a bit Crossroads,’ she says, although Bonnie still plays Mel in audio adventures. ‘I’ve been able to give her a back story,’ she says.
Her own problems went deeper. ‘I needed to let go of what I’d been.
‘I felt stuck. I was expected to be this performing creature, always reliable, dependable, professional.
‘I wanted to be that, but I was physically going through a lot,’ she says. ‘I’d worked my body too hard and never given myself time to just fall apart and rest.’
Her love life was also plagued by doubt. ‘Is somebody with you because they want to be, or because Bonnie Langford is in the papers?
‘When do you give your real self away?’ I wonder if she still feels the same?
‘Yeah. It’s tricky to trust… I’m comfy with being on my own, but you get lonely as well. There’s no one to ask, ‘Are you all right?’
She married fellow actor Paul Grunert in 1995, having met him when they were both in a musical; they divorced in 2015 with Bonnie citing his ‘unreasonable behaviour’. ‘I was married for 20 years.
‘I gave it my best shot. I had my daughter as well, which was glorious,’ she says.
Bonnie and her grown-up girl Biana live together in London. ‘I’ve done my best and I’m very proud of her.’
Covid slowed things down, but now Bonnie’s back with Anything Goes, looking forward to a summer residency at London’s Barbican. ‘It’s a proper musical comedy, they don’t get done much these days.
‘A lot of the modern shows are sung-through or intense whereas this one does what it was meant to do in 1934: get people back to the theatre and uplift them after the Great Depression. It was topical then and still is now.’
She’s shown her deeper side today, but as Bonnie celebrates 50 years in her happy place – on stage – she’s determined to share the joy.
‘Anything Goes is light-hearted fun. It’s important to help people get away from the doom and gloom. Let’s go to the theatre and escape for a couple of hours!’
- Anything Goes is touring now. For dates and tickets, visit anythinggoesmusical.co.uk
Source: Read Full Article