Olivier's treasures bought by British Library for £1m

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The private correspondence and papers of Laurence Olivier, the greatest actor of the last century, have been acquired from his family by the British Library for a sum believed to be around £1m.

For any student of theatre and film - or of some of the most glittering personalities of the century - the collection, spread across 152 boxes in the bowels of the library, is breathtaking. There was intense interest from the United States but Lady Olivier, the actress Joan Plowright, was determined that her late husband's papers should remain in in Britain.

Olivier, who died in 1989 aged 82, was an assiduous letter writer. A cursory glance reveals the aftermath of what must have been a bitter row with Noel Coward; a lament over bills left behind by Marilyn Monroe; and accounts of the setting up of the National Theatre from boardroom squabbles to replies to fans begging for tickets.

The wealth of material for biographers of any number of actors and actresses is immense. Olivier's own correspondence includes letters to and from his mother, and his second wife, Vivien Leigh, during their passionate and tempestuous marriage. Indeed, everywhere the eye falls there is something to treasure. A letter from the late Dame Peggy Ashcroft begins: "My darling Larry. It now actually is your birthday so I say to myself why not write that beloved fellow a birthday letter."

Among original manuscripts are Olivier's exhaustive notes for his aborted film of Macbeth; Terence Rattigan's The Sleeping Prince; and John Osborne's hand-written first draft of The Entertainer, apparently sent as a gift after Osborne disgraced himself at a party. The notebook reveals a fascinating piece of theatre history. In his cast list, Osborne had written Mick Rice, crossed out Mick and replaced it with Archie; one of the most famous names in stage history was nearly a lot less memorable.

The eye passes over photo album after photo album. There is Salvador Dali painting Olivier as Richard III; Vivien Leigh visiting him in 1952 on horseback on the film set of Richard III; Leigh and Olivier holding hands and gazing into one another's eyes.

There is a marvellously English letter from an executive at Rank Studios following Olivier's film with Marilyn Monroe of The Prince and the Showgirl. Monroe's bill for everything from clothes to hairdressing had come to $402,000. Some $42,000 was still outstanding. The executive said how much he hated to bother Olivier with such matters but added: "I can't bear the thought of their taking those monies out of your pocket."

A correspondence over several decades that seems worth a book in itself is Olivier's with Noel Coward. The letters are written in typical Coward idiom. Some are evocative blue Western Union telegrams. One from 1935 says: "My poor dear Onions. So terribly sorry. Love Noelie." But a lengthy letter dated in 1957 from Coward in Jamaica strikes a very different tone. It is heartfelt and clearly follows an argument. Coward says: "Darling Larryboy... Please wipe from your mind forever that I am 'contemptuous of the crummy little human urge to have children'."

At the National Theatre in the Sixties Olivier was an object lesson in politeness in replying to theatregoers. When Lady Katherine Farrell wrote to say that she could not hear all the actors, Olivier replied: "I will have another blitz on the company. They always look perplexed when it is told to them that they cannot be heard."

The British Library still has to raise £180,000 towards the purchase. There are no plans to exhibit the archive yet but it will unquestionably be one of the most sought after. Dr Brian Lang, chief executive of the British Library, said: "This archive is beyond compare and documents the life and career of one of the greatest and most influential figures of 20th-century theatre and film."

Anthea Case, director of the Heritage Lottery Fund which has contributed to the purchase, said: "The [fund] believes that archives play an important role in the nation's cultural heritage."