The BIG Interview: Doctor Who’s Bonnie Langford

Doctor Who: Ncuti Gatwa as the Doctor and Bonnie Langford as Mel

by Graham Kibble-White |
Updated on

As the actor and entertainer reprises her role of Melanie Bush, she tells us why her original run in the show was a bit ‘beige’, what drew her back now, how she finds working with Ncuti Gatwa… and why she’s recently become a Doctor Who novelist

Doctor Who: Bonnie Langford as Mel
Doctor Who: Bonnie Langford as Mel

You first appeared in Doctor Who in 1986 – what brought you back to the series four decades on?

Bonnie: Well, during lockdown, Russell T Davies [Doctor Who’s showrunner] found an old script he had written for the TV series when he was about 23, I think, on his very first typewriter [this was circa Bonnie’s original run in the show]. It was a story I think he'd sent off and had rejected. And that was for Colin [Baker, the Sixth Doctor] and me; ‘Sixie’ and Melanie. And so we recorded it [for audio company Big Finish], and had the most glorious time doing it. A few weeks later, I get this email from him – and a script [for David Tennant’s finale, The Giggle]. He said, ‘Do you fancy that?’ And of course, I did. Apart from anything else, the ending was so exciting. But for Mel to be involved and to have something substantial to contribute was just joyous. To think I could right the wrongs. She originally came into the show without a real storyline and sort of left with a bit of damp squib. It was all a bit unsure and a bit beige. And Russell writes so well, and so beautifully. I got very excited about it. And that's how it came about.

As you've alluded to, there wasn't a lot of meat on the bones of Mel’s character. Do you think Russell was more responding to you as a performer, rather than thinking, ‘Here's a character with promise’?

Bonnie:  I don't know. You'd have to ask him. He's created this company, if you will. He gave Mel a job, and she now works at UNIT. I mean, I might be wrong in saying it, but I think she brings a legacy of having travelled with the Doctor so much. And, yeah, maybe he felt she had something to bring. Also, what Russell does is, he combines the old and new very beautifully. He honours the past, and yet he loves the energy and the freshness of the future. I think that is what is special about this show – it’s very inclusive. What's great about sci fi shows  is you can go anywhere, but you do also need some kind of anchor. I mean, the Doctor doesn't have a home as such, apart from the TARDIS – and even that changes. I think Russell’s tried to create somewhere for the Doctor to stop off and go, ‘Help! I can't do this on my own, I need the support of people who are like-minded, who understand me, who are happy to see me.’ So it’s as near to a family as he ever gets.

With the career that you've had, we wouldn’t imagine your first stint in Doctor Who would have particularly stayed with you, or niggled you over the years.

Bonnie: No, I mean, I put it away – I put it away completely. It was like, ‘OK, that was a job’. As you do, actually, even with good, bad or indifferent. You do it, and that's the end of it. You're always having to look forward. I mean, the reason why I left was because I'd said I'd do it for two seasons. I didn't expect it to be any longer. When they came to, ‘Oh, you're leaving,’ I was thinking, ‘I don’t know. Am I leaving? I mean, I've got a contract for two seasons, nobodies asked me if I want to do more!’ Also, being young and flighty, I wanted to move on to the next thing. And I had only ever said I would do it for two summers, which was what I did. However, having come back to the Big Finish audios, which I love doing, I realised how much more there was to offer and to give – and I enjoyed doing that. It reintroduced me and allowed me to revisit not only Mel, but also the world of Doctor Who and the world of Whovians, the fans, and realise… it has a great part to play. It has a great importance. It's very beloved. And one should never dismiss that.

Obviously, the programme's got so much more production quality in it now. But are there parities with what you used to do in the show back in the Eighties? If you’re on set, having to ‘react’ to some monster that will be added in post, does that take you back?

Bonnie: Ha ha! I do sometimes have to do that!  But now the effects are so huge, you can barely imagine them. So there are times, yes, you think, ‘Oh, what will actually happen?’ The only panic is it feels like there’s more at stake now, if there’s all these explosions going on and major effects and you’ve got a line in the middle of it. ‘Don't forget your line! Because we can't reset!’ As for if it reminds me of how it used to be – only in the intention of it. Only in the storytelling. Only in the fact that every character and every person is there to do their best. So Melanie would never walk away from the Doctor in a million years. If he asked her to do something, she'd drop everything. She's more feisty now – a lot more feisty. Also there are times she'll turn around to the Doctor and say, ‘Get on with it!’ And although there she sort of did that before – [she adopts a whinny, as she parodies how Mel was written in the Eighties] ‘Doctor, get fit, blah, blah, blah!’ – it’s not in that respect. He's more vulnerable, now, he's more prepared to show his softer side, which is great. But then he needs someone to say, ‘Come on, you can do this!’ and sometimes Mel is that person.

Let's ask the plot question. Can you share what little details you're allowed to about The Legend of Ruby Sunday?

Bonnie: Well, Mel is working at UNIT. But she's on a bit of a covert mission – but it's not what any of them are thinking. She’s basically spying for UNIT to find out more information, because they think something is up. All these different strands come together, and it becomes quite desperate. There's a great sadness in the middle of it, then there's a great moment of… desperation. But, as I say, she would never leave the Doctor. She believes in him so much, she knows he's the only person who can fix this wrong.

What’s your take on Ncuti Gatwa?

Bonnie: I mean, from the minute he walked on the set of The Giggle, there was just this great spirit, this great energy. You know where he is on set. He and I, we bonded from the word go. There’s fun as well. Mel sees him, and he always picks her up! Ha ha! ‘Come on!’ She's so thrilled to see him – always thrilled to see him and then goes, ‘Right, now we have to get to work.’ You know, there's a lot of pressure for Ncuti. He has a lot of responsibility. And whenever anyone takes over in that role, it's a minefield, because no matter what, there will always be someone who says, ‘Oh, no, you're not my Doctor!’ And then afterwards they go, ‘Oh, but I really love you, you’re the best Doctor!’ And in this day and age, with there being so much more immediacy with social media, it is really tricky. But he's very dedicated. I mean, he gets up at 4.30am to do a workout for God's sake! Ha! But that’s why he looks so gorgeous!

In one of the trailers, there's a brilliant clip of you on a Vespa, with Ncuti…

Bonnie: Ha ha ha! Mel on her Vespa! I mean, it's fun. And it's camp. The story is beautiful. It's heartfelt, it's gorgeous. And it is just celebratory in some of the camp things that go on. There is no shying away from that, but I don't think anyone's trying to turn around and say, ‘Don't include that element of the show’. You have to! That part of the joy of it. it’s the madness. There has to be an element of abandon. And there is the integrity, but also there's the fun. We just saw Jinkx Monsoon, didn’t we, as Maestro. I mean… glorious! It is like sort of being a panto baddie, but there is something brilliant about that which has to be embraced. But it quite difficult to do on screen, where you’re also creepy. People want to be scared. We've all got our favourite monsters, and they need to be given new life – and new monsters need to come. The thing about Russell, you know, having watched the programme himself, it's so dear to his heart. He finds connections, and I love this about him. The way he will take a thread, and suddenly it will appear and you go, ‘Oh, my goodness, that's actually something that happened!’ And that's what I was able to say to Ncuti and Mille [Gibson, Ruby Sunday]. Much more than I expected, because I didn't think I knew anything about Doctor Who. But when we did certain things, there were times I was like, ‘Oh! That’s from so-and-so!’

You probably can’t answer this, but are you in series two? There have been hints that this new UNIT family, which Mel is a part of, will return.

Bonnie: The family returns! The UNIT family! But I’m not allowed to say. You have to wait and see what happens…

Lastly, Bonnie, you're writing a novel about Mel – Doctor Who: Death in the Stars!

Bonnie: It’s done!

Who would have thought? A Doctor Who novel!?

Bonnie: I know! It's just a fun idea. There's been part of my brain that has just gone to a weird place. And that's great. It's kind of evolved into something that’s quite an adventure. It did start in a different place. But, yes, it's just nice to revisit Mel. Who would have thought? Literally, Who would have thought?

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