Gemma Bissix on life in Thames Ditton, serious acting and shaking off a bad girl image
Actress Gemma Bissix will finally get the chance to shake off her bad girl image this Christmas when she plays Cinderella in panto at Croydon. In a frank interview, the Thames Ditton-based star – best known for her vixen-like roles in EastEnders and Hollyoaks – reveals how she’s turning her back on the soaps in a bid to become a ‘serious actress’, but why she’ll never lose sight of her Surrey roots...
Imagine her relief. After several panto seasons playing the wicked fairy, Gemma Bissix will finally get the chance to wear some nice frocks this Christmas when she appears as Cinderella at Fairfield’s Ashcroft Theatre in Croydon.
“On television, I prefer playing baddies because you get better storylines,” says the 27-year-old actress, best known for her roles in EastEnders and Hollyoaks. “But in panto, I tend to make children cry when I play villains. Last year, I came out and cackled, and a little boy had to be taken out of the theatre. I love children, so it was as much as I could do not to give him a big cuddle!”
This year’s panto promises to be a fun-filled treat for all the family, and will also feature legendary film actress Shirley Anne Field, who plays the fairy godmother, and Basil Brush as Buttons. In addition to the lavish sets, costumes and special effects, there will even be a crystal coach led by a team of real white Shetland ponies.
“They say never work with children and animals, but in this production I’ll be working with both!” laughs Gemma. “The Shetland ponies are gorgeous, though I’m sure there’ll be a few ‘little mistakes’ on stage. And my ballgowns are incredible. Even my rag dress, which has a tight bodice and skirt covered in big comedy patches, is rather fetching. And I can’t wait to be serenaded by Basil Brush, who falls madly in love with me!”
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Gemma, as you might have gathered, is somewhat different from the baddies she habitually plays on screen. Open and down-to-earth, with a winning line in self-deprecation, she rattles through the interview without pausing for breath. No subject appears to be off limits, whether it’s her decision to pose seductively for a men’s magazine some years ago or her stint as a bra fitter in Kingston’s Marks & Spencer store.
But perhaps it’s no surprise that Gemma, the eldest of five children, is unfazed by media attention because she’s lived in the spotlight virtually all her life. She was just nine when she landed the role of Clare Tyler in EastEnders, cast as the daughter of Debbie (played by Nicola Duffett) and step-father Nigel (Paul Bradley).
For seven years, she dutifully brought Nigel mugs of tea while looking suitably angelic. Then, when Paul quit the soap in 1998, her exit swiftly followed – until her dramatic return, all grown up, ten years later. In the interim, butter-wouldn’t-melt Clare had morphed into a money-grabbing, man-eating vixen, complete with knee-high boots and plunging necklines.
Along the way, she also enjoyed two hugely successful stints in Hollyoaks playing villainous Clare Devine, a vengeful con woman who tried to kill her husband Max Cunningham and did murder arch enemy Warren Fox. Her storylines captured the public imagination and viewers voted her ‘Villain of the Year’ at the 2007 British Soap Awards, which led to her show-stopping comeback in EastEnders.
But in recent years Gemma has taken a step back from the soaps, in a bid, as she puts it, to reinvent herself as a ‘serious actress’. Not that she will ever lose sight of her Surrey roots, she insists.
“I never want to leave Surrey because it’s where I grew up,” she says passionately. “I’m happier now, living back with my mum in our modest three-bedroom house in Thames Ditton, than I’ve ever been. All the people around here have known me since I was little and I don’t get judged.”
Down on the farm
Gemma’s parents split up when she was young, but she also remains close to her dad, who owns a farm in Cobham where our pictures were taken. No stranger to the Surrey social scene, she is a familiar sight at Red, the wine bar and restaurant in Weybridge, owned by her father and uncle. In fact, she comes from something of an entrepreneurial family because her eldest brother, Sam, also runs successful local businesses, too.
But although she frequently helps out when an extra pair of hands is needed, acting will always be her first love. It all started when her mum enrolled her for drama classes at her village school when she was a child. Spotted in the end-of-year play by a talent agency, she was appearing in an ad for Ambrosia custard before she knew it, and EastEnders swiftly followed.
“It was very daunting at first,” she admits. “But I’ll never forget Steve McFadden, who plays Phil, coming up to me in the canteen on my second day and telling me to knock on his dressing room door if I ever needed help with my lines. Coming from one of the scariest characters on the show, it really influenced me.”
She also struck up a close bond with her screen step-dad, Paul Bradley. “We ended up becoming like father and daughter, and he taught me a lot of things. I was also good mates with Natalie Cassidy, who played Sonia, and we used to have sleepovers at each other’s houses.”
But when the axe eventually fell when she was 17, she had to adapt to life back on Civvie Street. Undaunted, she ran a pub in Thames Ditton, worked for her dad’s electrical wholesale business and, yes, even fitted bras in M&S for a while.
But she never gave up hope that one day she would return to acting.
“I was always going to auditions, even though it made it quite difficult to do normal jobs. And every year I considered whether I should quit. Dad, who just wanted the best for me, kept telling me to accept the fact that it wasn’t going to work out. But Mum never gave up.
“One year, when I couldn’t afford my Spotlight fee, she paid it for me. She said: ‘I’m not having you quit.’ If she hadn’t, things might have turned out very differently.”
When Hollyoaks threw her a lifeline, Gemma gave it her absolute best. “Originally, I’d been on a four-month contract, but I ended up staying two years and featured in some of their biggest storylines. Winning ‘Villain of the Year’ was a huge thrill.”
She left on a high and EastEnders quickly snapped her up, wondering why they had ever let her go.
“Returning to Albert Square was like going home because there were so many people I knew. But if you’re not part of the family, it can be very daunting. There’s no time for diva strops. You do 11-hour days, don’t get home until 8pm and have to leave for work again at six the next morning.”
After finally turning her back on the soaps, Gemma competed in BBC1’s Celebrity Masterchef last year, where she reached the quarter final, and ITV1’s Dancing On Ice, where she became the first female to be eliminated after losing the judges’ support in the skate off with Melinda Messenger.
She was subsequently invited to appear on Celebrity Big Brother, but decided to build up her acting experience instead by touring in regional theatre productions. She similarly turned down lucrative offers to pose in more men’s magazines, fearing it might do her career more harm than good.
“I’m very comfortable with my figure, and run and train at the gym every week,” she admits. “But if they want raunchy pictures, they’ll have to print the old ones!”
Despite her enviable looks, however, she admits it’s not easy finding a man. “I often get the cocky ones coming up to me, but it’s the nice ones I miss out on because they assume I won’t be interested. I’ve been seeing someone in the last couple of months, but before that I was single for a year-and-a-half. All I want is to be a mum, but I’m not in any rush. I want to meet the right person.”
Panto in Croydon
In the meantime, she’s very much looking forward to that serenade from Basil Brush...
“It will be great fun performing on my home turf and my family will be shouting the loudest,” she grins. “The last time I played Cinderella was ten years ago, when my little brother was six. When one of the Ugly Sisters threw me into a wicker basket, he shouted: ‘Let my sister out of the box,’ and had to be taken out of the theatre. He won’t want to be reminded of that this year.
“My family will be chanting louder than ever, but this time, they’ll probably be shouting: ‘Keep her in the box!’”
My Favourite Surrey...
Restaurant: Well, you’d expect me to say Red in Weybridge, wouldn’t you? I also like the Gaucho Grill in Richmond, where I went for my little brother’s birthday. They serve amazing steaks. Can I also mention my other brother’s fish and chip shop in Richmond? It’s called The Fishery Club.
Places to shop: River Island in Kingston. I also like Pie 5 at the Bentall Centre in Kingston. They sell lovely designer stuff, including �200 jeans. I have three pairs, which still look new even though they’re three years old.
View: The top of Box Hill. I used to go up there when I owned a motorbike. I’ve loved it ever since I first visited on a school trip.
Places to chill: Richmond Park or Bushy Park in the summer, with my own barbecue and a rug.
Place to visit: Claremont Landscape Garden in Esher, which borders my former school, Claremont Fan Court School. It’s owned by the National Trust and there’s a lot to see, including a lake, island, pavilion and grotto.