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How I survived 50 years in showbusiness

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2022-06-26 Sunday Times.jpg


Bonnie Langford shot to fame as a child star in Just William, and saw the dark side of TV. She talks about a lifetime in the spotlight, following her instincts and her role in Anything Goes

Bonnie Langford was thrilled to get an invitation to take part in the Platinum Jubilee parade. The only surprise was that she was allocated a place on the 1950s bus. Langford wasn't born until the following decade. But the former child star, aged 57, has been a constant on the British stage and screen for much of the Queen's reign, so the organisers might be forgiven for thinking she was of the same vintage as Cliff Richard. "He sang all the way, bless him, even though his mike wasn't working half the time," Langford says, chuckling at the memory.

She compares her Jubilee experience to a "bizarre school trip", sharing an open-top bus with the dancer Wayne Sleep, the DJ Paul Gambaccini and the boxer Chris Eubank, who stood at the front for the entire trip "not talking to a soul, just looking out like he was on a ship". After the bus parade, all the celebrities were herded on to a stage. Langford hung out at the back chatting to David Jason, Gary Lineker and Mo Farah, all wondering what they were supposed to be doing. "Then Ed Sheeran comes out and sings, so we all get our phones out to film him and suddenly this little lady pops out in a green coat, and we realise it's the Queen. It was very sweet."

I don't think much fazes Langford. The diminutive redhead made her first television appearance aged six when she won the talent show Opportunity Knocks. The next year she was playing Scarlett O'Hara's daughter in a West End musical version of Gone with the Wind and by the time she turned ten had crossed the Atlantic to tread the boards on Broadway in Gypsy alongside Angela Lansbury. Fifty years on, she's still singing and dancing, touring with a revival of the musical Anything Goes by Cole Porter and PG Wodehouse.

We meet in a Manchester hotel next to the Palace Theatre, where I saw the show the night before. She plays Evangeline Harcourt, a New York socialite on a mission to marry off her daughter. I was struck by the quality of her dancing (exiting the stage with a perpendicular kick worthy of a performer half her age) and the sheer physicality of her comedy as she tottered about in hats and high heels. There is something about Langford that belongs to another age of popular entertainment, a pre-Instagram era that has more to do with variety and music hall traditions than modern celebrity. Performers were expected to sing, dance, act and do comedy to a very high level, night after night, in towns and cities across Britain.

There's also something remarkably constant about her appearance. She still has long, red, curly hair and a tiny, almost childlike body honed by years of dancing. As a redhead of a similar age, I have a vivid memory of her appearances on children's afternoon TV playing Violet Elizabeth in Just William and singing duets with Lena Zavaroni on Junior Showtime.

Zavaroni, Langford's childhood friend and singing companion, struggled with depression and anorexia and died aged 35. How did Langford cope with the pressures of showbusiness? She attributes her resilience to her suburban upbringing in Twickenham, where her mother ran a dance school. She is the youngest of three sisters, all of whom trained as dancers, and one of her parents would always accompany her on tour. "My little suburban world didn't change once I started performing," she says. "Whereas Lena moved down from Scotland, far away from her family. She was living with her manager in this glamorous Park Lane flat while I was in a semi in Twickenham. Home was still home for me, whereas for Lena being far away from her family was hard."

Langford has showbiz in her blood. Her great-aunt toured with the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova and later founded the dance school run by her mother. "I feel lucky to have a family around me who were very normal, very grounded and didn't have stars in their eyes. They valued the business, but weren't that interested in fame."

She worked with Jimmy Savile a couple of times in her late teens and had a strong feeling she should "steer clear of him". She once performed a dance on Jim'll Fix It with three younger children and made sure they were also kept away.

"I remember someone coming in and telling us Jimmy wanted us to visit him in his changing room when we'd finished our number and I said no." Her protective instincts kicked in from a very early age. "I will clam up if I don't like someone and my parents were in tune with that." Soon after she won Opportunity Knocks aged six, her parents drove her into central London to meet a producer. "I was this tiny little thing and the door opened in these posh offices. They asked me to sing and I said I didn't know any songs, which was a lie because I knew every song going." Eventually, she sang Baa Baa Black Sheep deliberately out of tune. Driving home in the family's blue Hillman car, she told her parents that she didn't like the producer and that was that.

At 16 she left the Italia Conti stage school to become one of the original cast of Cats and hasn't looked back. Her CV includes a long list of musicals, pantos, one-woman shows and roles on EastEnders and Doctor Who. That she has been able to make a decent living as a performer for 50 years is a great achievement. "You have to keep falling in love with this industry as it can treat you quite badly. People think if you're not on telly you've disappeared, but I've always been doing stuff even if it's a panto in a small place. It's work. The key is to keep going. Sometimes people will say, 'Why did you choose to do that job?' and the honest answer is we have to pay the bills."

She's grateful not to be starting out now. Talking to younger members of the cast of Anything Goes, she's struck by how much easier it was for her to have a private life because there was no social media. "I think there's far more mental illness among young people these days. It's a different world. You could be in the business without wanting to be famous."

For years her agent tried to persuade her to go into the jungle and do I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of- Here!, but she refused. At that point, I thought, 'Who are these sad old celebrities eating worms?' Now I love watching the programme, but I didn't want to be in it." She kept turning down offers until Dancing on Ice came along in 2014 because it meant learning a new skill and she didn't have to live with a whole bunch of people she didn't know. She was a success, not being voted off until week five.

She's thrilled that Anything Goes is transferring to the Barbican for the summer because it means she can go home every night. She lives in west London with her daughter Bibi, 21, and a small white, fluffy dog called Poppy whom they acquired during lock-down. Poppy stays on her lap throughout our interview and accompanies her mistress to the theatre every evening. She tells me with some apprehension that Bibi, who is working front of house in a West End theatre, wants to follow her into the business, but won't accept any help from her mother. "I worry for her because it's such a tough business, particularly the last couple of years."

One of the reasons she wanted to do Anything Goes is the feelgood factor. "It's a blue-sky show. It never rains. There's a live 15-piece band and tap dancing... all those dancers thumping on stage. You feel the whole theatre vibrating and it's infectious. British audiences are normally quite reserved, but with this, they're up on their feet all the time." She thinks there are parallels between now and the early 1930s when the show was first performed. "It was created to be a tonic to get people back to Broadway after the Wall Street crash. It's a bit of pure escapism, which we need right now to get through. We need hope and laughter. Without it, we will all fall apart." Amen to that. It

Anything Goes is at the Barbican Theatre, London EC2, until Sep 3

Caption: Star power Bonnie Langford. Left: with Lena Zavaroni (in red) in 1978

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  • APA 6th ed.: Lang, Kirsty (2022-06-26). How I survived 50 years in showbusiness. The Sunday Times p. Culture, p. 6.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Lang, Kirsty. "How I survived 50 years in showbusiness." The Sunday Times [add city] 2022-06-26, Culture, p. 6. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Lang, Kirsty. "How I survived 50 years in showbusiness." The Sunday Times, edition, sec., 2022-06-26
  • Turabian: Lang, Kirsty. "How I survived 50 years in showbusiness." The Sunday Times, 2022-06-26, section, Culture, p. 6 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=How I survived 50 years in showbusiness | url= | work=The Sunday Times | pages=Culture, p. 6 | date=2022-06-26 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=28 September 2023 }}</ref>
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