Joanna Lumley pays tribute to method acting forerunner Ellen Terry

<span>Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA</span>
Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

She was a superstar in her day: mobbed by fans, paid a fortune and one of the finest stage performers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries with a technique that was a forerunner to method acting. But mention the name Ellen Terry to young actors and they’ll look at you with a blank expression, Joanna Lumley has said.

“Younger actors now don’t even know who Peter O’Toole is,” Lumley said. “I’m absolutely shocked. They literally don’t know who Christopher Lee is, they don’t know who some of the giants of our day are. I get so … I have to hush my mouth.

“If you are interested in things you learn about them,” she said. Some people just “could not give a toss … it means nothing to them. A chunk of this magic party of life which we attend is lost to them. They’ve walked past because they are too stupid to open the door and have a look.”

Lumley was speaking as the new patron of the Barn Theatre, a tiny but atmospheric theatre space created in 1929 at Terry’s country home, Smallhythe Place in Kent, by her daughter after her death.

The house, looked after since 1939 by the National Trust, is a shrine to Terry with costumes and memorabilia from one of her most acclaimed roles going on display together for the first time from Wednesday.

“You can almost see her standing there,” said Lumley, mesmerised by one of Terry’s stunning gold velvet costumes from the 1882 production of Much Ado About Nothing. “This is a living actress there, that could be Helen Mirren.”

Terry was the leading actress of her generation, a star in the US as well as Britain. “She was talented, popular, a huge celebrity,” said Susannah Mayor, Smallhythe’s senior steward.

Smallhythe Place in Kent, built on Ellen Terry’s land.
Smallhythe Place in Kent, built on Ellen Terry’s land. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

“At the height of her career she was earning the equivalent of £24,000 a week, a huge amount for a woman at that time to earn.”

Terry was successful because she was so naturally talented, said Mayor. “She was an instinctive, emotional actress … bringing a truth and depth long before method acting was recognised as a technique.”

Lumley said Terry, according to her contemporaries, made Shakespeare alive and accessible. “This is a great gift. Quite often Shakespeare was taught to be declaimed and ‘tum-ti-tum’ but she managed to break through that. She spoke it I think in such a way that put the audience on the edge of their seat.”

The three costumes going on display are from Henry Irving’s spectacularly lavish production of Much Ado at London’s Lyceum Theatre at which no expense was spared. As well as the actors there was an orchestra, choir, military band, organ and scores of perfectly costumed extras. The elaborate set for the play’s church wedding scene brought gasps from the audience.

The costumes have gone through about a year of conservation and are being displayed alongside memorabilia from the show including Terry’s heavily annotated script and an original programme.

Lumley has been a fan of Terry since she was eight. She recalled staying with friends in Tenterden, the nearest town, and being in a Pied Piper pageant as a rat or waif while her sister was a burgher’s wife and got her costume from a local lady – Maud Gibson, Terry’s dresser. “It is just extraordinary that I have had since I was eight this weird link.”

Terry also had an interesting private life, married three times, had numerous affairs and was not married to the father of her three children. “I quite like her cavalier attitude to men,” said Lumley. “She was complicated in a way we are complicated in today’s world.”

Lumley follows John Gielgud and Donald Sinden as patron of Barn Theatre, a space which plays host to around 30 productions a year. The 70 seat auditorium is always sold out.

She was speaking at Smallhythe on Tuesday wearing a necklace she bought at auction which once belonged to Terry. After her it was worn and owned by Vivien Leigh and the opera singer Joan Sutherland.

“And now I’m wearing it and at some stage when I get much older and grander I shall bestow it on another young actress and it will go on being passed down.”

• Smallhythe Place reopens to the public after its winter closure on 4 March.