Basil Dean is a paradoxical figure in British cinema. Representing a theatrical approach to film-making much despised by modern critics, he is also responsible as producer for some of the most domestically successful films of the 1930s, and for establishing British cinema's two biggest stars of the period, George Formby and Gracie Fields. He was born on 27 September 1888 in Croydon. Always primarily a man of the theatre, he joined Mrs Horniman's famous Manchester repertory company in 1907. He became the first director of Liverpool repertory theatre in 1911, and in 1918 he was awarded an MBE for his services to national entertainment during the First World War. In the next ten years he rose to be one of the most influential theatrical producers and directors in the country, and he was responsible for London and New York productions of new plays by John Galsworthy, Somerset Maugham, Noël Coward, Dodie Smith, Clemence Dane and J.B. Priestley.
In 1926 his adaptation of Margaret Kennedy's best selling novel The Constant Nymph was a major success, and Dean co-directed the screen version with Adrian Brunel for Gainsborough (1928). Dean's real involvement in the screen, however, came with the introduction of sound, which he saw as an opportunity to bring his style of theatrical drama to a wider audience. He founded Associated Talking Pictures in 1929, with the intention of producing cinematic adaptations of serious modern plays - a commitment to literary cinema expressed in ATP's letterhead, which lists productions by author, rather than by director. Brunel remembered Dean as a director with little understanding of the film medium, while Rachael Low suggests that the cinematic touches in many of his films are attributable to other members of the production personnel, Thorold Dickinson, Carol Reed and David Lean, working as uncredited co-directors.
Whatever his failings as a film director, there is little doubt that Dean was a film producer of considerable talent and drive. ATP's studios at Ealing were the first in Britain built for sound production and he was able to attract highly talented production personnel to his company. His serious adaptations failed to achieve the success he hoped for, but the fine casts and unusual reliance on location photography in Escape, Autumn Crocus and Lorna Doone have ensured their durability. Dean's commercial success came from his perspicacity in recognising the screen talents of Fields and Formby, bringing them to the screen in vehicles which enhanced their peculiarly local appeal. After directing Looking on the Bright Side, Sing As We Go and Look Up and Laugh, Dean handed over the direction to others - Monty Banks for Fields, Anthony Kimmins for Formby - but he ensured that they had well-crafted scripts (from the likes of J.B. Priestley and Walter Greenwood) and the films deserved their box-office success. These films can be understood as belonging to a wider studio tradition of modest representation of ordinary British life which Dean encouraged - the best example of which is perhaps Carol Reed's Penny Paradise (1938).
During the late 1930s Dean directed less, and began to return to his theatrical commitments. Eventually he was succeeded at Ealing by Michael Balcon, whose filmmaking strategy during and after the war owes much to the tradition which Dean established at ATP. During the Second World War, Dean founded and ran the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), remaining an influential figure in the theatre until shortly before his death from a heart attack on 22 April 1978.
Brunel, Adrian, Nice Work (London: Forbes Robertson Ltd, 1949)
Dean, Basil, Minds Eye (London: Hutchinson, 1973)
Low, Rachael, Film Making in 1930s Britain (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985)
Lawrence Napper, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors