Tales of Miss Terry in Petworth

My Dear Miss Terry brings to life the 'literary love letters' exchanged by Irish literary genius Bernard Shaw and English actress Dame Ellen Terry.

My Dear Miss Terry
My Dear Miss Terry

Jean Rogers, who lives at Eastergate and devised the show, will be joined by Paddy O’Keeffe as they explore the letters for this year’s Petfringe festival.

The letters are regarded by many as the greatest love letters ever written; you can judge for yourself and work out the relationship between the two at Leconfield Hall on Saturday, July 1 at 8pm.

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As Jean says, the letters span 30 years, and yet remarkably the two barely ever met.

“George Bernard Shaw was a prolific writer. He did have correspondence with lots of different actresses, but these letters are particularly interesting. At the time, in Victorian theatre, Ellen Terry was really one of the top liners. She had a partnership with Henry Irving at the Lyceum for nearly 20 years, but their problem was that they didn’t really move with the times.

“Shaw got involved by accident with her through the editor of a music magazine which he wrote for at that time. It started off in a very causal way, but he knew a lot about her, though she didn’t know a lot about him.

“He admired her tremendously. He felt that she had what he considered a very modern approach in the way that she played the parts. But he felt that she was wasting herself with Irving at the Lyceum because it was very much concentrating on Shakespeare and around parts that Irving felt showed himself off best.

“But Irving relied on her because she was the theatrical darling.”

The point was that Shaw’s star was rising as Ellen Terry’s was falling: “It’s certainly a conversation we still have today with actresses reaching a certain age. But this correspondence continued over about 30 years, except it changed once Shaw married Charlotte Payne-Townshend. But they hardly saw each other. It was a literary affair. People regard their letters as great love letters. It took Paddy and me quite some time to work out exactly what the relationship was.”

Jean, formerly Dolly Skilbeck in Yorkshire Television’s Emmerdale, enjoyed seasons with Sir Laurence Olivier’s Chichester Festival Theatre and was a founder member of his National Theatre Company. Ellen Terry has long been a figure who interested her.

“If I go back to my childhood when I started to get terribly interested in the theatre and acting by going to the pictures, I started looking at books about the theatre, and Ellen Terry was there with Henry Irving. She has hovered a long time at the back of my mind without it ever really being in detail. And then about three or four years ago, I came across Paddy.

“I was in Brighton. I go there regularly for Equity branch meetings, and he had done a one-man show about Shaw in the Brighton Fringe. We got chatting. I was quite intrigued about him doing this one-man show, and I said to him quite casually ‘Have you ever thought about doing the love letters between Shaw and Terry?’ I said to him I wondered whether they had ever been done. We decided that we would have a look at them. We took a year because we thought somebody else was going to do them, and then I began to realise that as nobody was going to do them, it had better be me. I started looking, and I became more and more intrigued as to what the relationship was all about…”

Tickets on www.petfringe.co.uk.

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