‘A lot of people have grown up with me’ – The career of Bonnie Langford

She is 59 and has been our screens for six decades, so naturally Bonnie Langford turns heads in public. “Some people stop me and say, ‘I’m trying to think who you are’, and when I say ‘I’m Bonnie Langford’, they say ‘No’. I think I know my own name!”

Bonnie laughs heartily and adds, “Once I asked, ‘Well who do you think I am?’, and they said ‘Julia Roberts’! I thought, I’ll have that!”

Quite. At 5ft 9, head-turning Hollywood star Julia is a good eight inches taller than our red-haired pocket-rocket.

Today Bonnie is wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the slogan ‘Don’t speak to me’. She’s not being anti-social; it’s a souvenir from her 2021 stint on ITV’s The Masked Dancer. She has a picture of her, as Squirrel, with series winner Carwash (Louis Smith) and Zip (Take That’s Howard Donald).

“I didn’t have any idea who they really were when it was taken, none of us knew until we were unmasked.

“One night, I was watching Tom Jones on Celebrity Gogglebox watching me as the squirrel not knowing it was me…it was the most wonderful, surreal moment.”

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Langford’s entire TV career has a slightly surreal feel, spanning everything from soap to Monty Python’s Spamalot!

“A lot of people have grown up with me. I get ‘My mum really likes you’ a lot, and that’s okay, but when it’s ‘My grandma really likes you’…oh! I can generally tell how old people are by what they ask me about. The older ones ask about Just William or Bugsy Malone, the middle-aged tend to ask about musical theatre, and for younger ones it’s EastEnders” – she played Carmel Kazemi from 2015 to 2018.

And those like me who remember you on Opportunity Knocks? “You’re from the Ark,” she laughs.

Langford was six when she won the ITV talent show in 1970 and ten when she appeared in the 1974 Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne’s Gypsy: A Musical Fable, loosely based on the memoir of Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque entertainer who turned striptease into an artform.

That show, starring Angela Lansbury, is the reason Bonnie has joined the cast of Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends which opens on 21st September at London’s Gielgud Theatre.

The stellar line-up includes Broadway legends Bernadette Peters and Lea Salonga, British musical theatre stars Bradley Jaden and Gavin Lee, Australia’s Damian Humbley and more.

“The cast and show are phenomenal,” says Bonnie, her eyes on full-sparkle. “It’s not a concert, it’s an event celebrating the life and music of Stephen Sondheim, and what makes it unique is that the cast must all have an association with Stephen Sondheim. We have a 12-piece orchestra, it’s going to sound beautiful.”

Sondheim, the genius songwriter who reinvented American musical theatre, died in 2021 leaving a rich legacy of classic numbers like Maria, America, Send In The Clowns and Everything’s Coming Up Roses. He either wrote or co-wrote unforgettable musicals like West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music and the aforementioned Gypsy.

Bonny was eight when she joined the London cast as Baby June; Angela Lansbury starred. “The following year we did a 14-city nationwide tour of the USA and then a season on Broadway,” she recalls.

“My mother came to America with me for almost a year, she’d never been abroad before, it was a huge challenge. She missed my father and my sisters terribly, but Angela Lansbury was wonderful; she really looked out for her – and us. She talked to the kids in the show as if we were adults.”

When the show moved to Los Angeles for a run, Lansbury paid for them all to have a guided tour of Disneyland. “It was like a fairytale,” says Bonnie.

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She was born Bonita Melody Lysette Langford in Hampton Court, Surrey, but says “only two people in the world call me Bonita now – one is Dexter Fletcher, who I was in Bugsy Malone with when I was nine, and the other is Russell T Davies”.

Bonnie played Doctor Who’s time-travelling assistant Melanie Bush, a companion of the sixth and seventh doctors (Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy) and returns as her in new series – run and written by Russell T.

“The new Doctor is fabulous, risky and exciting,” she enthuses.

Not everyone loved young Bonnie. A year after winning Opportunity Knocks (singing on The Good Ship Lollipop), she played Scarlett O’Hara’s daughter in a West End production of Gone With The Wind. An unimpressed Noel Coward sniped, “They should cut the second act – and that child’s throat.”

At 12, she played speech-impediment-afflicted Violet Elizabeth Bott in ITV’s Just William, and terrorised William’s schoolboy gang by threatening to “thcweam and thcweam until I’m thick”.

The following year, she had her own Lena & Bonnie TV show with ill-fated Lena Zavaroni.

Suburban family life kept her grounded. She and her two older sisters, who also trained as dancers, grew up in humble semi in Twickenham, southwest London. Wherever Bonnie worked either her mother Babette or her late father Donald would accompany her.

She wasn’t forced into showbiz, she says. “You can’t make a kid do something they don’t want to do, and you don’t keep doing it for 50 years if you don’t want to do it.”

Her supportive sisters now work behind the scenes. The family performance gene began with a great-aunt who toured with the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova before founding a dance school which Bonnie’s mother later ran.

Like her parents, Bonnie values the profession over the pursuit of fame. EastEnders dramatically raised her profile however. “I still get called Carmel a lot, especially by young people. I was Kush’s mum; Davood Ghadami was lovely in real life.”

Both her soap sons were slaughtered. Kush was pushed under a tube train, Shakil (Shaheen Jafargholi) was stabbed. “I’m lucky I’m still alive,” she laughs.

“It touched people. They’d come up and console me on the streets and then pour out their hearts to me. I felt honoured. The knife crime storyline was poignant and beautifully done.”

Bonnie had her difficult real-life period in her mid-20s. “I was working hard and going out too much. I needed to be perfect and then I allowed myself not to be perfect and the world still turned.”

There were times when money dried up. But she says. “We’ve all had that. You learn quickly that ‘rich’ and ‘famous’ don’t always go together.”

In 2015, she divorced actor husband Paul Grunert after a 20-year marriage. Now she’s happy spending time with her daughter Bibi, 22, and walking her three-year-old dog Poppy.

“I walked her this morning; that’s how I relax. I take my work seriously, but not myself. You’ve got to see the funny side of life.”

She’s still fit, her slim body honed by decades of dancing and dedication. “You can’t be the cherry on the cake without the cake,” she says.

Bonnie is in the second week of rehearsals for the Sondheim spectacular which one twerp has already suggested celebrates “the music of Steven Spielberg. That would be a very different show,” she laughs. “Open with Jaws, a bit of Close Encounters…”

It will run for four months. “After this, I might lie down in a dark room,” says Bonnie. “My head is spinning. There’s so much music and lyrics, it’s beautifully layered but quite complicated. It’ll be an event.

“Stephen Sondheim looked at the imperfections of people and our vulnerability and our craziness. We’re all a bit bonkers, and thank God for that.”

She has no game-plan for 2024. “I’ve never had a bucket list and there are lots of things I’ve done in my career that wouldn’t have been on my bucket list, but were interesting and challenging. Not what I’d planned, but what I needed at the time.”

  • Bonnie stars alongside a whole array of Broadway and West End legends in Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends at London’s Gielgud Theatre from 21st September for 16 weeks only.

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