Bolt, Robert Oxton [Bob] (1924–1995), scriptwriter and playwright
by Colin Chambers

Bolt, Robert Oxton [Bob] (1924–1995), scriptwriter and playwright, was born on 15 August 1924 at Sale, Manchester, Lancashire, the second of the two children of Ralph Bolt and Leah Binyon. Ralph ran a glassware and furniture shop, and Leah, a socialist feminist, was a teacher. Theirs was a northern Methodist household, guided by a firm moral code but enlivened by the vigorous argument of nonconformist politics.

Robert followed Sydney, his elder brother by four years, from Sale prep school to Sale high school and Manchester grammar school but not to Cambridge University: Bob, as he was known, was a disappointment at school and was caught shoplifting. He left school aged sixteen for the rigours of office life, which he found so boring that he determined to cram for university entrance. In 1943 he entered Manchester University, where he studied economics and joined the Communist Party. Academic life was foreshortened by the call-up, to the Royal Air Force. In 1944 he transferred to the army and a commission as a lieutenant. He finished his training in South Africa and was sent to the Gold Coast as part of the Royal West African Frontier Force until 1946, when he was able to return to Manchester University. He switched to history and graduated BA in 1949 with upper second-class honours.

Bolt left the Communist Party in 1947 and dallied with various forms of mysticism. At the same time he began seeing Celia Ann Roberts (b. 1929), known as Jo, a student at the neighbouring Manchester School of Art who was later known as a novelist. She became pregnant and they married on 6 November 1948 in a Moss Side church. Their daughter Sally Virginia was born the following year; she was to die later in a car crash—Bolt believed it to be suicide, though other family members disagreed. After swapping the grimy north-west for rural Devon, when Bolt took up a teaching diploma course at Exeter University (1949–50), they had a son, Benedict (Ben), born in 1952, and another daughter, Joanna (known as JoJo), born in 1958. Bolt became a primary school teacher in the village of Bishopsteignton in Devon, and, two years later, in 1952, an English teacher at the public school Millfield in Somerset, where he stayed for six years. He had written since childhood but had not tried writing plays until in his first term at the village school he was asked to write a nativity play. He then turned to radio plays and children's stories for television, and subsequently to plays that were performed on stage.

The change in Bolt's fortune as a playwright came about when a BBC radio producer introduced him to a newly established play agent, Peggy Ramsay (1908–1991), who agreed to represent him and became his demanding mentor. She managed to sell to the Oxford Playhouse his play The Critic and the Heart, which he had modelled on Somerset Maugham's carefully crafted The Circle. Remarkably, before it had opened, she had sold his next and more imaginative play, Flowering Cherry, to the distinguished director Frith Banbury, who, at her persuasion, took the play to the most powerful theatrical management of the day, H. M. Tennent Ltd. The play, which drew on Bolt's office experiences, told of an insurance salesman who dreams of owning an orchard in the west country, and was an immediate West End hit. Its success proved crucial to both the survival of Ramsay's agency and Bolt's playwriting career: he won the 1957 Evening Standard award for most promising playwright, and left teaching to become a full-time writer.

In 1961 Bolt scored his greatest triumph in the theatre with A Man for All Seasons, which had begun life as a radio play and for which Bolt and Paul Scofield, who played Thomas More, won several prizes. Characteristically, the quarrel between Henry VIII and his chancellor More over the king's divorce not only provided meaty acting roles but, in an accommodation of certain Brechtian techniques, offered intellectual debate linking the personal to the political in accessible language that did not threaten the audience. This literate, epic style was to mark his later achievements in the cinema. On the strength of this play, Bolt was recommended to the film producer Sam Spiegel, who needed a speedy rewrite of a screenplay about T. E. Lawrence, which was being shot by David Lean.

Bolt spent a year on the film, and developed his taste for the high life aboard the movie mogul's luxury yacht. The celebrity of Lawrence of Arabia, which won seven Oscars, though not one for Bolt, came at a personal cost. Unpleasant wrangling over credit for Michael Wilson, the once blacklisted original screenwriter, was not satisfactorily resolved until after Wilson's death. Furthermore, production of the film itself was threatened when Bolt was arrested, along with two-thirds of the anti-nuclear Committee of 100 of which he was a founder, in a clumsy attempt by the police to thwart an impending demonstration. Bolt, like his comrades, refused to be bound over, and was sent to an open prison in Staffordshire. He ignored Spiegel's blandishments to recant until the producer drove to the prison in his Rolls-Royce and face to face persuaded Bolt to abandon gaol in order to finish the script. Bolt never forgave himself for this compromise—the very opposite of the steadfastness displayed by Thomas More—and found himself for ever thereafter uncomfortably caught between the moral and the material world.

International fame and the lifestyle that went with it also took its toll, and Jo told Bolt in 1964 that their marriage was over. In 1966 he began to live with the actress Sarah Miles (b. 1941), and history repeated itself. She became pregnant and they married, at Woking register office, on 25 February 1967; their one child, Thomas (after More, known as Tom), was born that October and was later, through drug addiction, another cause of unhappiness for Bolt the father. By the time Bolt and Miles separated in 1973, he had been the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, with four more films to his credit and two Academy awards: the Oscar-winning Doctor Zhivago (1965), directed by Lean, and A Man for All Seasons (1966), directed by Fred Zinnemann, Ryan's Daughter (1970), a reworking of Madame Bovary for Miles and directed by Lean again, and Lady Caroline Lamb (1972), which Bolt wrote for Miles but directed himself. He had kept up a presence in the theatre through his most experimental but flawed play Gentle Jack (1963), a children's play The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew (1965), Brother and Sister (1967; revised 1968), and Vivat! Vivat regina! (1970), another script written for Miles, this time playing Mary, queen of Scots. His last play to be staged was State of Revolution (1977, National Theatre).

Life as a tax exile took Bolt to Tahiti to work on a script about HMS Bounty for Lean, but in 1979 he suffered a heart attack, followed shortly by a triple bypass operation, a stroke, which left him paralysed down one side of his body, and yet another heart attack. Following a brief marriage on 31 May 1980 to an old friend, the actress Ann Zane (b. 1928/9), known also as Lady Queensberry, he eventually remarried Sarah Miles, on 27 February 1988. She looked after him as he learned to use new technology to overcome his disabilities, and he regained powers of speech, even if conversation was slow, tiring, and punctuated by expletives of exasperation that shook his sturdy frame. Earlier scripts, The Bounty (1984) and The Mission (1986), were filmed during this period, as well as a new television film, Thumbs up: the James Brady Story (1991), about Ronald Reagan's press secretary who was shot and had a stroke. In all Bolt wrote eighteen broadcast radio plays, nine performed stage plays, seven film scripts that were made, two uncredited screenplays, two television films, and numerous unrealized screen- and teleplays. He was made a CBE in 1972. He died at his home, Chithurst Manor, Chithurst, Trotton, Sussex, on 20 February 1995, and was buried in the grounds of the house three days later. Sarah Miles survived him.

COLIN CHAMBERS

Sources  

A. Turner, Robert Bolt: scenes from two lives (1998) · C. Chambers, Peggy: the life of Margaret Ramsay, play agent (1997) · S. Miles, A right royal bastard (1993) · S. Miles, Serves me right (1994) · S. Miles, Bolt from the blue (1996) · R. Hayman, Robert Bolt (1969) · C. Smith, ‘Robert Bolt’, International dictionary of theatre, 2: Playwrights (1994) · K. Brownlow, David Lean (1996) · A. Turner, The making of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1994) · C. Duff, The lost summer: the heyday of the West End (1995) · F. Zinnemann, An autobiography (1992) · P. Hall, Diaries: the story of a dramatic battle, ed. J. Goodwin (1983) · P. Hall, Making an exhibition of myself (1993) · S. Fay, Power play: the life and times of Peter Hall (1995) · A. Wesker, As much as I dare (1994) · K. Williams, Diaries, ed. R. Davies (1994) · K. Williams, Letters, ed. R. Davies (1995) · V. Redgrave, An autobiography (1992) · The Times (23 Feb 1995) · The Independent (23 Feb 1995) · personal knowledge (2004)

Archives  

BBC WAC, papers relating to radio plays · Millfield School, Somerset, corresp. · NRA, corresp. and literary papers · priv. coll., MSS |  Ted Turner Broadcasting Corporation, Atlanta, Georgia, MGM legal documents · U. Cal., Los Angeles, cinema and theater arts department, Michael Wilson papers · U. Reading, Barbara Cole collection of corresp. · U. Reading L., corresp. with Edward Thompson of Heinemann · U. Texas, Frith Banbury collection


Likenesses  

S. Hyde, photograph, 1985, NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

£673,345: probate, 14 June 1995, CGPLA Eng. & Wales


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Robert Oxton Bolt (1924–1995): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/59804