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Dearden, Basil (1911-1971)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Dearden, Basil (1911-1971)

Basil Dearden was born Basil Dear in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex on 1 January 1911. He left school early to work as an office boy in a London underwriting and insurance company. Experience in amateur dramatics led to work with the Ben Greet Company and to his appointment as assistant stage manager at the Grand Theatre, Fulham. In 1931 he became a general stage manager for the theatrical enterprises of the impresario Basil Dean. By the mid-30s, Dearden had shifted from theatre to film, working at the Ealing studios of Associated Talking Pictures, where Dean was Head of Production, as writer, script editor, dialogue director, and assistant director. In an attempt to avoid the confusions that resulted from the similarity between their names, Dear changed his surname to Dearden.

When Dean was superseded by Michael Balcon, Dearden stayed on at Ealing, progressing to associate producer on three George Formby films, and co-directing three films with the studio's other top comedy star, Will Hay. He made his solo directorial debut with The Bells Go Down (1943), which - like Humphrey Jennings' Fires Were Started (1943) - celebrates the heroism of those who worked in the Auxiliary Fire Service during the blitz. The art director on the film was Michael Relph, who was to form a fruitful creative partnership with Dearden which was to last nearly thirty years. Relph shared a background in the theatre, but in set and production design. By the end of the war, with Dearden directing and Relph as associate producer, script collaborator and sometimes production designer, they had completed The Halfway House (1944) and They Came to a City (1944) and were preparing Ealing's first post-war feature, The Captive Heart (1946).

Jeffrey Richards has argued that Dearden "conformed absolutely to both the structure and ethos of Ealing". As a team, Dearden and Relph became the studio's most prolific filmmakers and, unlike most of their contemporaries at Ealing, seemed to thrive on a rapid turnover of production projects requiring flexibility and planning, which they delivered to budget and on schedule. Their films made a distinctive contribution to Ealing's search for a new direction as it sought to negotiate and adjust to the changed realities of postwar Britain. In particular, they carried forward and extended the mix of social purpose, fictional realism and preoccupation with a nation of united communities and public service that had become the wartime hallmark of Ealing. But they also began to probe into the social issues that now confronted social stability and the establishment of the promised peacetime consensus. Dearden and Relph made several social problem films that confronted audiences with ethical and moral dilemmas relating to the interplay between communities and institutions adjusting to changing social circumstances. Sometimes condemned for their middle-class, liberal point of view, with its touching faith in national institutions and public service, the films often seek to link, within the conventions of the crime/melodrama genre, private problems with public issues.

Their first social problem film, Frieda (1947), explores issues of prejudice and reconciliation in the aftermath of the war, as a young German woman marries into the heart of an English community. Less obvious outsiders or enemies were taken up to provide the thematic focus for The Blue Lamp (1950), I Believe in You (1952), and Violent Playground (1958), which all deal with problems associated with youth, criminality and delinquency. In a similar fashion, Sapphire (1959) takes a timely look at Britain's black community and confronts racism, while Victim (1961), made in the wake of the Wolfenden Report, focuses on the persecution of homosexuals.

These six feature films constitute the core of Dearden's explicit and self-conscious engagement with the social problem film. More tangential but also deserving serious consideration are The Gentle Gunman (1952), dealing with Irish nationalism, Life for Ruth (1962), which explores the conflict between modern medicine and fundamentalist religious belief, The Mindbenders (1963), with its themes of brainwashing and scientific responsibility, and the youth drama, A Place to Go (1963). Outside this area, Dearden and Relph's films include tragic melodramas of masculine adjustment, thrillers, comedies and the gloomy costume drama Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), Ealing's first Technicolor film. Cage of Gold (1950), Pool of London (1951), The Square Ring (1953) and The Rainbow Jacket (1954) are varied in tone and theme but they all deal with damaged, unsettled and insecure characters. Like a number of their films from the mid-50s onwards, they also focus on themes of masculine adjustment - in particular, how the experience and memories of wartime action resonate within the postwar present. In Out of the Clouds (1955), a former RAF pilot has to come to terms with a peacetime ground job. The Ship that Died of Shame (1955) unravels and juxtaposes the past and present of three sailors who have had a 'good' war but slip into sordid illegality in their attempt to recapture wartime thrills. The League of Gentlemen (1960), made after Dearden and Relph left Ealing, is more light-hearted in its treatment of a group of disillusioned ex-servicemen who reunite for robbery, but here too the contrast between the excitement of war and the dull disillusions of peace dominate.

Dearden returned to comedy to direct Benny Hill in Who Done It? (1956), the last comedy made at Ealing before the studio was sold to the BBC. It was much less memorable than his first independent feature, The Smallest Show on Earth (1957), which takes in familiar Ealing themes as bright young couple Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna mobilise aged eccentrics Peter Sellers, Bernard Miles and Margaret Rutherford in their battle to preserve a pre-war flea-pit against the might of a shiny, modern corporate cinema. Dearden also acted as producer on the three comedies directed by Michael Relph: Davy (1957), Rockets Galore (1958) and Desert Mice (1959). In 1959 Dearden and Relph joined Richard Attenborough, Bryan Forbes, Jack Hawkins and Guy Green to form Allied Film Makers, a production consortium with financial and distribution links with the Rank Organisation, under whose aegis they made The League of Gentlemen (1960) and Man in the Moon (1960), which were box-office successes, and the bold, location-shot Life for Ruth, which was not.

From the mid-60s, Dearden and Relph worked on a number of large-scale international productions: Woman of Straw (1964), Masquerade (1965), Khartoum (1966), all for United Artists, Only When I Larf (1968) for Columbia, and The Assassination Bureau (1969) for Paramount. The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970), Dearden's final film, was a return to tragic melodrama, with its story of a quiet family man (played by Roger Moore) who dies in a car crash, only to unleash his charismatic alter ego. By a bizarre coincidence, Dearden himself died as a result of injuries sustained in a car accident on the M4, while returning home from Pinewood Studios on 23 March 1971. He was 60 years old and was survived by his wife, the actress Melissa Stribling, who had appeared in a number of his films, and their two children, Torquil and (the director) James Dearden.

Critical assessments of Dearden's work have generally been less than positive. The breadth, volume and variability of his work has counted against him, and while some critics have grudgingly acknowledged his technical, 'workhorse' professionalism, he has rarely been singled out for critical praise in stylistic, aesthetic or political terms. The critical agenda regarding his work was set in the early 1960s by writers for whom Dearden and Relph's films epitomised the stiltedness of British cinema. More recently, their achievements have been reassessed, their contribution to the Ealing ethos recognised, and their social problem films - particularly Victim and Sapphire - valued more highly. As film studies grope beyond auteurism towards a greater recognition of the importance of collaboration and versatility, the contribution of Basil Dearden and his collaborator Michael Relph might be more generously acknowledged.

Barr, Charles, Ealing Studios, 2nd edition (London: Studio Vista, 1993)
Burton, Alan, Tim O'Sullivan, and Paul Wells (eds), Liberal Directions: Basil Dearden and Postwar British Film Culture (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 1997)
Durgnat, Raymond, 'Dearden and Relph: Two on a Tandem', Films and Filming, July 1966, pp. 26-33
Durgnat, Raymond, A Mirror for England (London: Faber and Faber, 1970)
Hill, John, Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956-1963 (London: British Film Institute, 1986)
Landy, Marcia, British Genres: Cinema and Society, 1930-1960 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991)
McFarlane, Brian, An Autobiography of British Cinema (London: Methuen, 1997) (London: Routledge, 1989)

Tim O'Sullivan, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of All Night Long (1961)All Night Long (1961)

Shakespeare's Othello meets the early 1960s London jazz scene

Thumbnail image of Bells Go Down, The (1943)Bells Go Down, The (1943)

Stirring film about the Fire Services in Blitz-torn London

Thumbnail image of Blue Lamp, The (1949)Blue Lamp, The (1949)

Classic Ealing police drama that introduced PC George Dixon

Thumbnail image of Captive Heart, The (1946)Captive Heart, The (1946)

Ealing POW drama, made only a few months after the end of WWII

Thumbnail image of Dead of Night (1945)Dead of Night (1945)

Classic Ealing portmanteau film: five tales of the supernatural

Thumbnail image of Did You Ever See a Dream Talking? (1943)Did You Ever See a Dream Talking? (1943)

Daft short in which a spendthrift learns the importance of war savings

Thumbnail image of Frieda (1947)Frieda (1947)

Ealing social problem melodrama about postwar anti-German prejudice

Thumbnail image of Gentle Gunman, The (1952)Gentle Gunman, The (1952)

Muddled but intriguing Ealing IRA thriller

Thumbnail image of Goose Steps Out, The (1942)Goose Steps Out, The (1942)

WWII comedy with Will Hay dropped behind enemy lines

Thumbnail image of Green Man, The (1956)Green Man, The (1956)

Comedy thriller with Alastair Sim as an eccentric assassin

Thumbnail image of Halfway House, The (1944)Halfway House, The (1944)

Unusual cross between ghost story and WWII propaganda film

Thumbnail image of League of Gentlemen, The (1960)League of Gentlemen, The (1960)

Classic heist comedy with Jack Hawkins leading an all-star cast

Thumbnail image of Let George Do It! (1940)Let George Do It! (1940)

George Formby comedy that doubles as anti-Nazi propaganda

Thumbnail image of My Learned Friend (1943)My Learned Friend (1943)

Surprisingly dark Will Hay comedy about the law, blackmail and murder

Thumbnail image of Pool of London (1950)Pool of London (1950)

Two sailors on leave are caught up in a diamond smuggling racket

Thumbnail image of Sapphire (1959)Sapphire (1959)

The murder of a black girl in London reveals widespread racial tension

Thumbnail image of Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)

Ealing's first Technicolor film, an uncharacteristic period melodrama

Thumbnail image of Smallest Show on Earth, The (1957)Smallest Show on Earth, The (1957)

Nostalgic comedy about a couple who inherit a failing cinema

Thumbnail image of Spare a Copper (1940)Spare a Copper (1940)

George Formby comedy in which he foils a gang of saboteurs

Thumbnail image of Turned Out Nice Again (1941)Turned Out Nice Again (1941)

George Formby comedy about a ladies' underwear salesman

Thumbnail image of Victim (1961)Victim (1961)

Dirk Bogarde stars in the first serious British film about homosexuality

Thumbnail image of Violent Playground (1958)Violent Playground (1958)

Powerful drama with Stanley Baker as a juvenile liaison officer

Thumbnail image of Persuaders!, The (1971-72)Persuaders!, The (1971-72)

Adventure series about a US millionaire and an English lord

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Thumbnail image of Social Problem FilmsSocial Problem Films

British cinema and postwar social change

Thumbnail image of ThrillerThriller

Edge-of-seat excitement

Thumbnail image of Who's Who at EalingWho's Who at Ealing

Meet the team at 'the studio with team spirit'

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Clarke, T.E.B. (1907-1989)Clarke, T.E.B. (1907-1989)


Thumbnail image of Relph, Michael (1915-2004)Relph, Michael (1915-2004)

Producer, Director, Writer

Thumbnail image of Ealing Studios (1938-59)Ealing Studios (1938-59)

Film Studio, Production Company