Bonnie Langford gets her panto onBy Jacky Byrne
December 01, 2011
SHE looks like a child-woman, with her tiny frame and her elfin face, but when she speaks it’s clear Bonnie Langford is all grown up.
The former child star, who will play Fairy Fuchsia in the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre’s panto production of Jack and the Beanstalk has been in showbusiness virtually all her life.
The casualties of child stardom are many – her friend Lena Zavaroni was one – but it seems only to have made Bonnie stronger. She’s a complete professional, with a ready store of anecdotes.
The singer/dancer/actress, who has a home in West Byfleet but lives part of the time in New York, began her career aged six, when a family friend who worked in a TV studio suggested she enter the talent show Opportunity Knocks.
She won, and it led her to early fame as Violet Elizabeth Bott in the television series Just William and a role in the 1976 hit film Bugsy Malone, among many others. Bonnie’s mother ran a dance school and her sisters were ballerinas.
“Dance was very much the family job but it was only by chance that I got into showbusiness so young,” she says. “I was actually a quiet child but when I went on stage it felt like coming home. I was committed to it as a career but it wasn’t going to change my life; I never wanted to be famous. I like programmes like X-Factor but they are selling a lifestyle not a career.”
At seven Bonnie was performing in a West End musical and by the age of 10, she had made her Broadway debut, playing opposite Angela Lansbury in the revival of Gypsy.
Angela made a huge impression on the little girl and the veteran actress remains one of Bonnie’s idols. “She’s warm and she’s real,” she says. “I’ve kept in touch with her over the years and she has been a sort of template that I’ve tried to base myself on.”
Back on Broadway recently Bonnie’s portrayal of Roxie Hart in Chicago gained her rave reviews. She and her husband Paul Grunert, a graduate of Guildford School of Acting and their 10-year old daughter have been living in the US for the past two years but are back in the UK for various projects. “I like different elements of both countries,” she says.
Bonnie’s continued success is probably due to her versatility - she has stints on Dr Who and in Dancing on Ice on her CV alongside countless roles in musicals, cabaret performances and two solo albums. But she also attributes it to “always looking forward, learning and listening”.
She seems completely at ease with her panto co-stars. “It’s a lovely supportive community,” she says. “Most people who have had longer careers in showbusiness are actually quite balanced. I’ve never been in rehab and have no addictions except cappuccinos and chocolate. Sometimes I think I am too sensible. My job has an overlap with my private life but I’m not interested in living the fantasy.”
Lena Zavaroni, who Bonnie met at London’s Italia Conti Academy stage school and appeared with on the TV special Lena and Bonnie, was not so grounded.
She blamed the pressures of fame partly for the anorexia nervosa which led to her death at the age of 35 in 1999.
Bonnie’s face clouds as she talks of Lena, and recalls how the Scottish singer and TV presenter would make arrangements to meet her for coffee but then call it off.
“It’s sad people remember her for her illness, not her singing talent. There are casualties in this job and there isn’t a helpline for famous people. Perhaps Esther Rantzen should start one, they could call it ‘Celebrity Helpline’,” she jokes.
The interface between the public and private lives of a performer is a subject she returns to, lamenting that it is ‘the picture you don’t look great in that always sells’.
She is puzzled by celebrities who chart their every move on Twitter. “Why would you want to do that?” she asks incredulously.
Bonnie loves panto for the fun it offers families. Her first panto appearance in Guildford was when she was 14, and more than 30 years later she’s keen to don Fairy Fuchsia’s wings in December. “How can I describe her? She’s very pink. She’s fun, she’s not going to be boring. She’ll show a bit of leg and she’ll be very magical ...”
She’s also pleased that cast members of Jack and the Beanstalk had the chance to switch on Guildford’s Christmas lights and raise money for charity. “I’ve never really had to put up with much in my life and to me the true heroes are those who overcome suffering. The work of the people who help them do so is much more important than singing and dancing. But if as performers we can support them with our work, it’s worthwhile.”
Jack and the Beanstalk opens today (Friday). Book tickets by calling 01483 440000 or by visiting www.yvonne-arnaud.co.uk.