When you think about Christmas, it is most certainly the idea of minced pies, mulled wine, and Christmas carols which flash through your mind.

But the tradition that really makes Christmas in the UK a festive season like no other is the quirky audience participation musical comedy we all know as panto.

And luckily for all theatre lovers, a special panto production will add some extra magic to Christmas in Clacton.

Jack and the Beanstalk, which will be taking over the Princes Theatre, will see a top line-up of artists, including 2014 X-Factor winner Ben Haenow, former Hollyoaks and EastEnders actress Gemma Bissix, TV presenter Dave Benson and actor and writer Jamie Riding.

What makes the production even more special is the costumes featured have been worn by great pantomime dame John Inman, who was most famous for starring in the BBC sitcom Are You Being Served?

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Jamie Riding will be the third generation actor to wear the popular outfits after John Inman and current top UK dame Malcolm Lord, who donated them to Jamie earlier this year.

The aspiring actor has recently completed a summer season at Butlins Skegness in its popular pantomime The Little Mermaid, where he played Octavia, the evil Sea Witch.

The 21-year-old talent, who is training at the Jellicoe Theatre at Bournemouth and Poole College, is now more than thrilled to take to Clacton’s stage as Dame Daisy Trott while wearing costumes belonging to one of the biggest panto legends.

Jamie said: “These are probably some of the most famous costumes from the history of pantomime.

“I feel more than honoured to be carrying that heritage on my shoulders.

Dame - Jamie Riding will be wearing John Inman’s outfits PICTURE: Anton Benson Production

Dame - Jamie Riding will be wearing John Inman’s outfits PICTURE: Anton Benson Production

“I will have about 11 costume changes in the show – every single entrance I am on stage I have a different one – from wig, shoes and jewellery and gloves.

“And one of them I need to put on from top to toe for about 30 seconds.”

Playing the dame is no easy gig. When everyone else is having a quick break or catch up behind the scenes, Jamie is constantly busy. But this is all part of the panto magic.

He added: “To be working in an industry I love so dearly is just so special to me.

“And I know if you captivate the audience, especially the children, they will come back to the theatre for life.

“Panto is the only platform in the world that can allow a one-year-old and a 101-year-old to laugh at the same thing – it is so special for our country

“Christmas isn’t Christmas without panto – I live and breathe it and everything I do is for panto.”

This passion for the panto resonated through each member of the cast.

It is indeed so strong that former X-factor winner Ben Haenow stepped out of his comfort zone and dived into acting.

The songwriter released his first single in 2014 - a cover of One Direction’s Something I Need which got to number one in the UK charts.

Following the show, Ben released his self-titled debut album in 2015, followed by his second album Alive in 2018.

During lockdown, he even wrote a special song called If You’re Lonely, the profits of which were donated to the mental health charity Mind.



Ben is now looking forward to his next adventure as Jack, the main role in Clacton’s Jack and the Beanstalk production.

He said: “This is my second time doing panto and it is great to get advice from the rest of the cast.

“I guess I am out of my comfort zone, it feels quite scary, but exciting at the same time.

“Me and my family used to go to panto every year until I was 14, so for me it really marks up the run up to Christmas.

“And it actually opened my eyes to something else I really enjoy doing now.”

For Ben, the best thing about panto is the power it holds to make young and old alike laugh from the bottom of their hearts.

The lucky charm of panto is also what turns any actor’s stage fever into a strength.

Ben added: “If you don’t get nervous, you are not passionate enough about it.

“There has to be a little bit of nerves there to help so that you can use that excitement and give it to the crowd.

“Having missed 18 months of being able to go out, people are crying out for entertainment, pantomime and music.

“We have had a lot of time to rehearse and our show is coming together really well.”

Gemma Bissix agrees.

The renowned actress, who is well known for playing two Clares on TV, will now be taking over Clacton as the fairy in the show.

Soap - Gemma Bissix is a former Hollyoaks star She has also starred in EastEnders

Soap - Gemma Bissix is a former Hollyoaks star She has also starred in EastEnders

The two-time British Soap Award-winner was just nine years old when she was cast as Clare Tyler in the BBC soap EastEnders.

She was featured in more than 200 episodes between 1993 and 2008, before briefly she reappeared on the show in 2013.

Soap lovers can also be familiar with the actress for playing Clare Cunningham in Hollyoaks between 2006 and 2013.

But Gemma’s love for acting extends beyond the popular soaps - she has starred in 11 pantos so far, and cannot wait to make Jack and the Beanstalk her twelfth.

“I always play baddies in pantos as well so this time it is really nice to be the one that the kids are hopefully going to like,” she laughs.

“For some children a panto will be their first experience in the theatre, so we as actors want to show them what our legacy is because we want them to keep performing panto as they grow up.

“Seeing a panto can define someone’s career – we could be the reason a child decides to go on stage.”

Having had plenty of experience both behind cameras and live, Gemma says it is the theatre she prefers the most.

She said: “I feel like you get that instant reaction. When you do TV, you film an episode and it is not on screen for weeks or even months.

“So then people come to you saying ‘I really loved that bit that you did’, but you feel like it was a year ago.

“At least with theatre you get an automatic instant appreciation.”

Gemma and her panto colleagues will also stage a special Jack and the Beanstalk performance, where panto lovers will be able to meet the cast at the Princes Theatre after the performance on December 19 at 2pm.

Gemma said: “Just come and have fun after the two years we have had of being stuck indoors.

“There is nothing more amazing and British than coming to see a pantomime.

“You will come out belly laughing with endorphins coming through your body you never knew you really had.

“Everybody seems friendly in Clacton and it looks like an area up for panto.

“I am looking forward to meeting the audiences and seeing how loud they are.

“Come and see us and we won’t disappoint you.”

For further dates and tickets, visit princestheatre.co.uk