Actress Bonnie Langford on wintery walks, fairy dust and the West End
She may be approaching her 50th birthday but Bonnie Langford doesn’t seem to have aged a day. As the Surrey-born star prepares to play the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud, here she chats to Angela Wintle about staying in shape, her return to London’s West End and what she’ll be doing on Christmas Day
This Christmas, panto comes full circle for Bonnie Langford. In 1978, she starred as Cinderella in her very first panto at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, aged just 14. And this year she returns to the stage where it all began to play Fairy Snow (alias the Fairy Godmother) to ensure that Cinders does indeed go to the ball.
“I’ve graduated,” laughs Bonnie. “I’m no longer going to the ball – I’m organising it. I’m a wedding planner!”
Mind you, Kit Hesketh-Harvey (best known from the singing duo Kit & The Widow) and Eagle Radio’s Peter Gordon will be doing their best to hamper her efforts as the Ugly Sisters, guaranteeing audiences laugh, hiss and boo. And Robert Maskell (Baron Hardup), Jamie Brook (Buttons), Tom Senior (the Prince), Will Breckin (Dandini) and, last but not least, Alice Baker as Cinderella will be joining in the fun, magic and spectacle in true Guildford style.
Bonnie has appeared in countless pantos since her debut 35 years ago, but her enthusiasm for this great festive tradition shows no sign of abating, despite a few hiccups along the way. “I’ve flown into scenery, walked on stage with my bra snared on my dress, got my hair caught in Buttons’ buttons and been engulfed by dry ice while singing a soppy ballad,” she laughs.
“But as someone who often plays the principal boy, what amuses me most is children’s fascination when they spot I’m a woman playing a man. There was a scene in Aladdin at the Richmond Theatre a few years ago where the Princess greeted me with the words, ‘Oh, you’re the boy from the apple tree.’ Then a little voice came out of nowhere and reverberated round the auditorium: ‘Oh no, it’s not. It’s a girl.’ And the audience howled with laughter.
“Bernard Cribbins, who was playing Widow Twankey, thought, ‘I’ll save her from this,’ came running on, and said: ‘I know it’s a boy. I should know – I’m his mother!’ But as he was in drag, this only made matters worse!”
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Mind you, Bonnie is primed for almost any theatrical mishap because she’s a seasoned pro who made her first stage appearance aged just nine months at her mother’s dancing school in Richmond. “Mum is 83 now and still teaching in Middlesex – and she’s a total inspiration,” says Bonnie with pride. “When she carried me on to a round of applause, I apparently twinkled to the lights. I’ve been hooked ever since!”
A Surrey childhood
Bonnie spent a happy childhood on the Surrey border near Twickenham, so it’s not surprising that she was drawn back to the county after marrying fellow actor Paul Grunert, with whom she has a 13-year-old daughter, Biana. Although they have since moved back to the Surrey border to ease her West End commute, she has fond memories of life in Guildford, Burpham, Pyrford and West Byfleet, and the family often spend weekends unwinding in the Surrey countryside.
“We love Newlands Corner, where you can enjoy breathtaking views of the Surrey Hills, and often stroll along the beautiful banks of Pyrford Canal, where we like watching the barges glide past,” she says. “I also love clothes shopping in Guildford and always take our American friends to quaint little villages like Shere, which they go nuts about!”
Not that Bonnie has had much leisure time since recently reprising her role as the Lady of the Lake in the hit West End musical Spamalot, alongside Joe Pasquale as King Arthur. “I love Spamalot,” she smiles. “It’s fast, witty and a bit mad. I also relish my role as the slightly barking Lady of the Lake, which is a very big sing because I have to cover everything from jazz to gospel to opera.
“The show started on Broadway, but this is a slimmed-down British version, which adds to its charm. It’s more Pythonesque than the original in the sense that it has a revue feel and most of the boys in the cast play several parts – so it has that madcap element of a bloke dressed up as a woman, then a knight. I defy anyone to leave without a huge smile on their face.”
A landmark event
Bonnie will be 50 next year and admits matinee and evening performances can be exhausting, but she looks after herself as much as possible. “Thankfully, I don’t feel my age,” she says. “In fact, I don’t think age matters at all. It’s how you feel inside that counts. I’m a great admirer of my old friend Angela Lansbury, who, at 88, is still performing on Broadway. She says: ‘When I die, they’ll have to carry me off the stage,’ which I think is wonderful. If you’re doing something well, why stop?”
Bonnie, of course, has never known anything else. She shot to fame after winning the talent contest Opportunity Knocks when she was just six years old, and with her riot of red curls and precocious acting abilities became Britain’s definitive child star.
She became firmly embedded in the public consciousness with her portrayal of Violet Elizabeth Bott, who threatened to ‘scweam and scweam’ in the popular TV adaptation of Richmal Crompton’s Just William books. But it was such a convincing performance that the public confused her with the character and there was a time when Bonnie baiting became a national sport. After the opening of the West End musical Gone With the Wind, Noel Coward famously said: “Two things should be cut. The second act and that child’s throat.”
“Thankfully, I was blissfully ignorant at the time and I don’t think it damaged my career,” she says. “Besides, I loved playing Violet Elizabeth – she was hilarious. So it’s a double-edged sword because the fact people didn’t think I was acting was actually a huge compliment.”
Nevertheless, she is weary of her forever sunny and smiling persona. “It’s been said that I must get out of bed every morning and go cartwheeling down the road. Of course, it’s not true. I’m actually quite solitary and don’t particularly like socialising. My only addictions are chocolate, shopping and family.”
Christmas on the run
But Bonnie will get little time with her loved ones this season because she has just one day off during the festivities – Christmas Day. “My husband is touring in Singing in the Rain, so he’ll be driving back from Cardiff on Christmas Eve. And I’ll be heading back from panto in Guildford. At this rate, our daughter will be cooking the turkey! Sometimes, it can be a bit harsh, though performing in panto in the run-up to Christmas is lovely because everyone is in such celebratory mood.”
As for the big day itself, she jokes that she plans to spend it vegging in front of the telly in her pyjamas. “I won’t, but it would be lovely,” she sighs. “To be honest, Christmas doesn’t do much for me because it has always been a time of absolute hard work. I loathe the excess and have to check myself when I’m rushing round the shops without any clear purpose.”
One thing she won’t be cutting back on, however, is performing. “It’s just a part of me,” she says, “and I have to do it.”
My Favourite Surrey...
Restaurant: Bill’s in Richmond, near the Thames. I love their fish finger sandwiches.
Pub: The Anchor at Pyrford Lock in Wisley. We often go there for a pub lunch.
Shop: Coco’s Chocolaterie in West Byfleet, which sells mouth-watering Belgian chocolates.
View: From Newlands Corner near Guildford. The Downland views are breathtaking.
Place to visit: Painshill Park near Cobham, one of the finest remaining examples of an 18th century English landscape garden. It’s the perfect spot for a family picnic.