170. Spaceport Fear
Behind the Scenes
OH BRING BACK MY Bonnie TO ME
After too long an absence from the Big Finish audio range, Bonnie Langford tells Paul Spragg how she feels about returning to the character of Mel
Hello Bonnie, and welcome back. You’ve been keeping us all fascinated with tales of your career in the green room today.
And it’s an astonishing career. How old were you when you started off in Doctor Who?
Oh God, I don’t know. Was I mid-twenties or something?
It would have been 1986.
Oh, don’t do that, you’re making me do maths now! Yes, I would be 22.
What’s amazing is that you were already a household name by then.
I know, I know! And I didn’t know that most people who did Doctor Who were not at that point. As far as I was concerned, it was another thing to do.
What brought you to it in the first place?
[Producer] John Nathan-Turner. I met him at a dinner and casually said, ‘Oh, that sounds fun, I’d love to do that,’ and little did I know I was signing myself up for an assistant job! I thought he would say, ‘Come and be a little guest in one episode’ or something.
You were in the unusual position of being a companion who bridged Doctors, working with both Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy.
Well, I knew them both previously, so it was interesting. Dear old Sylvester, I kind of feel like I… not helped him through, but I felt like I was there to support him when he first joined, because it was quite a step for him. I always felt that we were sort of the rep company and the guest stars would come in; we were like the hosts of a party, on the first day particularly, guiding people through. Tour guides, helping people through the world of Doctor Who and how it all madly starts!
Did you expect your Doctor Who experience to last this long?
Yes, I always knew. It’s the best story ever told really, isn’t it? It has no beginning, middle and end, it has no limits. So in that respect, as long as you’ve got your formula, which was that partnership and then good versus evil and the fact that good will always win through, however you dress that up is always going to be a recipe for success, really.
What they’ve proved now with the new series is that if you move with the times, and you put the budget behind it and the creative team behind it, then that’s gonna make it very saleable. Whereas at the time I was in it, it was sort of floundering.
What I didn’t know when I first joined the show was how massive it was globally. I had no idea. And that was quite daunting at the time as well. I was bemused by it all, quite frankly! And I think that’s what I tried to support Sylvester with, the fact this is like no other job, you will be asked questions that you never knew you had to think about and will constantly get that for ever more!
Yours has been one of the most requested characters for the audios.
How strange! How very flattering! How sweet!
You seem surprised.
Of course I am! It’s always surprising! It’s nice. Why is that?
I think it’s partly to do with the ‘Big Finish effect’. Colin’s said the audios have allowed his Doctor to become more than he was on screen, and I think the same’s true for Mel. She certainly spends less time screaming on audio!
It took me a long time to get back into it because I did Doctor Who and then that was done. Like most jobs you do. That’s done, now we go on to the next one. And you might get asked bits and pieces about them. With Doctor Who, it was always sort of there but I didn’t really talk about it because I didn’t feel that anyone really wanted to know.
Also, as you say, when I first started doing Big Finish, I didn’t want to just be screaming every thirty seconds and I think one of the reasons I didn’t stay with the TV show any longer was I felt there was really no purpose for me whatsoever and that I needed to get my teeth into something else professionally. I had no back-story, I had nothing to pick from. It was strange; whenever you play any kind of part, you know that there’s something, whatever your character. Mine was just carrot juice and living in a TARDIS; it’s all a little bizarre! There was nothing outside of that that one could pull upon that could perhaps beef it up a bit. So I found that quite limiting and just decided I didn’t want to do it any more. I was worried that the audios would be the same thing, I’d be a spare girlie part going, ‘But Doctor…’ And so it’s nice to do these because it gives me the opportunity to perhaps not be as stupid as I looked! There’s more to do and say and just to feel that it’s a positive input. It’s much nicer to be able to feel you can be more of a partner than a stupid sidekick.
You also got the strangest introduction of any companion on TV, just heading off with the Sixth Doctor at the end of The Trial of a Time Lord despite never having actually met him. All we really know is you’re a computer programmer from Pease Pottage.
The weird thing was, I never went near a computer! A person who is a computer programmer at that time would never have been away from some device. I think I pressed a couple of buttons on the TARDIS once but that was it. So to be honest, that in itself was pretty unrealistic, although when I first joined the show, I know I had lots of computer programmers contact me saying, ‘You should talk to me, because I’ll tell you about it all,’ and they were right because it was complete gobbledygook to me, I had no concept whatsoever! However, I could have pretended. It didn’t even get mentioned that I would use any kind of electronic device to zap any monster that was trailing me. All I would do was run like Fay Wray into King Kong’s arms. That was it for me. The times have moved so fast, much faster than at that point Doctor Who was able to keep up with.
What do you remember about leaving the show?
I just went off to a supermarket in the sky with Tony Selby! I remember one thing I did say was, ‘Please don’t give me some kind of brain transplant’ but it was a bit Brief Encounter! It’s weird, isn’t it? Someone told me the other day that I was supposed to have stayed. The mere fact that John never asked me was by the by. But I never outstay my welcome if I can help it, and I had been contracted for two series, so I didn’t expect it to be any more than that. But apparently I was misinterpreting whatever vibes were being given out!
You started out as a child actor, so you must be very…
Well, that as well, yes! But I was actually going to ask how tricky it is to keep so much work coming in as the years go on.
Well, I like the job. It’s playtime, isn’t it? You do have to concentrate, but ultimately, it’s about enjoying it as much as possible. Even when you don’t feel like enjoying it, you find the way of enjoying it because that’s what makes you do a better job. And it’s what I do. I can’t think of doing anything else, I wouldn’t be employable to do anything else, and I’m just really fortunate that I’ve been able to keep going, really, and keep moving on and hopefully doing better and approaching things differently and better, and just growing. I am really lucky in this job that I have access to express myself in some respects. Even if it’s through the voice of whatever part I’m playing, to be able to have that creative outlet is quite levelling. The industry’s weird. Always has been. I do like it. And it still plays tricks on you and it’s a business and you have to get used to that. But ultimately you have a really fun time.
Did you always have a soft spot for Doctor Who or did you see it as just a job amongst a lot of other jobs?
I think it was a job amongst a lot of other jobs, except for the fact that it’s still there. It’s still very alive. And it’s amazing the interest other people have in it. And the fact that still, after all these years, it has such a soft spot for so many people in different countries, different levels, different generations – and it’s a TV show. And yet it’s more than that to so many people. So one has to feel quite humbled by the fact you’re part of that history, bizarre though that may be.
First, when I joined, it was a job. Absolutely. But it is more than that. It’s sort of a passport in some respects. It’s fascinating how it has a key to unlock many doors at times. Even if just to have a fun conversation with somebody. I spend a lot of time in the States and they know it there, they like it there. They find it eccentric and fun, and to think that in that huge country and in the grand scheme of how much television has been made, it still has a place.
Have you watched the new series?
I haven’t watched it for a long time, actually. My daughter used to watch it a lot and then she kind of got freaked by it. She’s in that phase of believing it all, because we did go through a phase of it being a bit freaky and then we used to watch the ‘making of’ straight after so she could work out that it wasn’t real. And then her imagination’s taken over again. She won’t even watch Harry Potter! She’ll watch the most mature and adult thing – she’s only eleven – but something like Doctor Who still gets to her. Isn’t that funny?
Meanwhile, I see you’re still keeping busy; I was channel hopping the other day and spotted you on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
I did alright on that! I won Weakest Link once as well. I’ve just done Pointless, which was so bizarre. I didn’t know the rules! They take a long time to record and we had to keep asking in between the different sections, ‘What are we supposed to be doing? What are the rules? So we can’t say that but we must say that…?’ It’s like, ‘Oh God, who ever thought of this game???’ But we won it! That’s one with Todd Carty, who I’m in [Monty Python-inspired stage play] Spamalot with at the moment.
My Mum recently saw Spamalot in Bristol; she said to tell you you were brilliant.
It’s so funny because we do this thing where they go, ‘You have to take this show all the way to…’ and we used to say wherever we were. And when we were in Bristol, the guy who plays the Knight of Ni said, ‘And you have to take it all the way to… Bristol!’ and normally the audience would go, ‘Oh!’ or laugh or something, but somebody went, ‘That’s where we are!’ Yes, that’s the point! That’s why we say that! They loved it in Bristol. They came dressed up as knights. It was very funny.
I’m coming to see it in a week.
Are you a Python fan? Do you know all the sketches?
You’ll be saying them with us.
I’ll give you a wave from halfway back in the auditorium.
I might not wave back. Just because it’s not appropriate; Lady of the Lake and all that. But you’ll know that I mean it in my heart.
Colin Baker and Ronald Pickup
Adrian Mackinder and Beth Chalmers