May bank holiday weekend is traditionally when Birmingham city centre becomes one big party celebrating Pride, but this year organisers have made the wise decision to reschedule the festivities to September.
Under normal circumstances: drag queens would be donning teased wigs and sequins; Sonia would be ironing a frock in preparation for her annual trip out of the care home; pubs and bars would be stocked up, marquees and stages erected, rainbow bunting hung and banners unfurled outside each venue, promoting their line-up of entertainment.
Several years back, one such banner, hanging across the front of Eden, caught my attention, as it advertised actress/singer/dancer Bonnie Langford as headlining Saturday night.
I have got to know Bonnie a little from working with her on various personal appearances, so popped into the pub to find out details.
Eden’s matriarch, Maura, was behind the bar.
I inquired, “What time is Bonnie Langford appearing on stage?”
“Around eleven, I t’ink,” she told me.
“In the morning?”
Maura gave me that look Dorothy from The Golden Girls reserves for Rose when she says something particularly dumb, while I performed a mental facepalm.
“I’m sorry, of course she’s not going to be performing at eleven am,” I apologised, shamefully. They were hardly going to book her for breakfast cabaret.
I turned and headed for the door, feeling Maura’s pitying stare on the back of my neck as I skulked out.
Bonnie Langford, a veteran performer in her mid-50s, has suffered from the enduring stigma of all-singing/all-dancing stage-school starlet, an image seared on the nation’s consciousness by her childhood role in Just William, as precocious Violet Elizabeth Bott and her exuberant ‘teeth, tap and curls’ appearances on countless light entertainment productions in the 70s and 80s, but this is far removed from the grounded professional I have encountered.
Once, on stage with a colleague of mine, she modestly described herself as, “Just… an old turn.”
Deciding to conclude Bonnie’s appearance using her own words, but having misheard, this colleague announced, “Please put your hands together for ‘an old tart’…”
His face was a picture when, after waiting for the applause to subside, she politely explained that wasn’t actually what she had said.
In recent years, the public perception of Bonnie Langford has undergone a transformation, due to her portrayal of Carmel Kazemi on, BBC soap opera, EastEnders. A central storyline saw her character lose a son to knife crime, earning Bonnie the Best Newcomer gong at the British Soap Awards in 2016, an ironic victory for an ‘old pro’ of stage and screen who has been performing since the age of three. It only took fifty year to become an overnight success.
Back at Eden’s Canopied cabaret, Bonnie burst onto stage to an enthusiastic welcome from the crowd of inebriated Pride revellers and belted out a medley of show tunes and camp pop classics, closing with a remix of I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper, including soundbites from her time on Doctor Who, much to the delight of, the surprisingly numerous, sci-fi fans in the crowd.
I got to catch up with Bonnie afterwards.
As we chatted, several people approached for selfies and autographs, which prompted me to ask, “After your appearance on The Catherine Tate Show (where closet case, Derek Faye, inevitably gives her one of his infamous rants after she casually mentioned that she has many “gay fans”) has anyone at the stage door had the audacity to tell you to ‘Shut up and sign, Ginger!’ (A quote from the conclusion of the sketch)?”
“No, not that,” she laughed, “but there was this one young man at a train station…”
Bonnie went on to tell me how, when she had asked the booking clerk for a ticket, he responded, “Who, dear? Me, dear? Gay, dear?”
She didn’t pick up on the reference to Catherine Tate’s character and went into a panic, spluttering, “B…b…but, I didn’t say you were gay.”
“He just kept it going,” Bonnie told me. “It was awful. I felt myself go all hot and cold at the same time. All I could think was, How has this happened, I only asked for a return to Nottingham?!”
She explained, “You film these things so far in advance and never know when they are going to be shown. It wasn’t until he said, “How very daaaaare you?”, that the penny finally dropped, and I felt a wave of relief. Apparently, the episode had been broadcast the night before.”
Several months later, I was working with Bonnie again in a church hall in West London (The glamour of showbiz!). She walked into the kitchen where I was washing mugs, so I cheekily nodded at the tea towel and suggested, “I’ll wash, you dry.”
“I don’t do dishes at home,” she replied, “I’m not starting here.”
I mentioned her appearance at Birmingham Pride.
“What an insane night that was,” she recalled. “I finished a show in the West End, jumped in the car, drove up to Birmingham, where I practically stepped straight onto stage, performed this gig for a fabulous crowd that had been drinking all day, caught my breath, then got back in the car and drove home. I just sat behind the wheel, driving down the M1, thinking, Did that really just happen?”
Well, yes it did… and a ‘bonnie’ wee night was had by all.
Come back to Brum soon. X
I am looking forward to learning what old turns will be performing at this year’s Birmingham Pride… and old tarts for that matter. I am sure there will be plenty of both.