Dean, Basil Herbert (18881978), theatre producer, was born on 27 September 1888 in Croydon, Surrey, the second son and second of the four children of Harding Hewar Dean, cigarette manufacturer, of Sanderstead, near Croydon, and his wife, Elizabeth Mary Winton. He was educated at Whitgift Grammar School, Croydon. After leaving school he spent two years in the stock exchange and then joined the repertory company at Manchester run by Annie Horniman. After four years' training as an actor and playwright, in 1911 he directed an experimental theatre season in Liverpool. That year he became the first director of the Liverpool Repertory Theatre (later the Playhouse). In 1913 he became assistant stage director at His Majesty's, London.
On the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Dean joined the Cheshire regiment. By 1917 he had risen to the rank of captain and the directorship of the entertainment branch of the Navy and Army Canteen Board (later the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes), with control of fifteen theatres and ten touring companies. After the war he began operations in London as managing director of a syndicateReandean. With his partner, Alec Lionel Rea, he leased St Martin's Theatre. Under Reandean a series of notable productions was staged, including plays by John Galsworthy, W. Somerset Maugham, Sir James Barrie, and Clemence Dane. Dean had two particular successes: The Constant Nymph (1926) by Margaret Kennedy and Hassan (1923) by James Elroy Flecker, both of which Dean dramatized with the authors. For the latter, a spectacular oriental drama, he commissioned the music from Frederick Delius, the choreography from Léonide Massine, and the costumes from George Harris. The cast was also illustrious and the production lavish.
Dean was a perfectionist and, because he never learned to suffer fools gladly, he made many enemies. He was meticulous about detail and had a high respect for his technical staff, the importance of whose contribution to a production he always generously acknowledged. He was less loved by actors because of his dictatorial methods as a director. He was a pioneer in the use of stage lighting, importing new equipment from Germany and the United States, as well as devising equipment of his own.
In 1924 he was employed as joint managing director of Drury Lane Theatre in an attempt to revitalize it. In the press he spoke of making Drury Lane a site for a permanent national theatre, but his remarks were greeted with derision, and the idea of a state subsidy for theatre was ignored. Dean, however, was one of the first advocates of a national theatre and for a permanent ensemble of actors as outlined by Harley Granville-Barker. There is always better work accomplished, he said in an interview in 1958, when it is possible to have corporate effort and a corporate spirit. It is like a football team, the closer and longer you are together, the more goals will be scored.
Dean's estrangement from Alec Rea led to the breakup of Reandean in 1929. In that year he became first chairman and joint managing director of Associated Talking Pictures, which he had founded (this later became ). During the 1930s Dean's career fluctuated between film and theatre: Gracie Fields always felt indebted to him for making her into a real film star. His first love remained theatre, and in the late 1930s Ealing Studios, feeling that the theatre was claiming too much of his time, forced his resignation. J. B. Priestley at once offered him a lifeline by inviting him to go into management in order to produce mainly Priestley plays, of which three were done: When we are Married (1938), Johnson over Jordan (1939), and An Inspector Calls (1946).
At the approach of the Second World War, Dean wrote pamphlets outlining what could be done by the entertainments industry to sustain national morale not only among the armed services but also among factory workers and the civilian population. When war broke out he became director of entertainments for the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes and put forward the name ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association). During six and a half years more than 80 per cent of the entertainments industry gave it service in innumerable performances of plays, revues, and concerts before 3 million people in the services and industry. Richard Llewellyn, Dean's assistant at the time, described him as a monolith, a kindlysometimestyrant, a bully … But his was the influence, the hand on the wheel, that never faltered.
After the war Dean directed a Priestley play for the Old Vic Company in the West End, organized the first British Repertory Theatre Festival in 1948, and directed revivals of Hassan and other plays in various countries. He also wrote a good deal, including an official history of ENSA and two volumes of autobiography.
Dean was thrice married. In 1914 he married Esther, daughter of Albert Henry Van Gruisen, of Oxton, Cheshire; they had three sons. This marriage was dissolved in 1925, the year in which he married Lady Mercy Greville (the actress Nancie Parsons), daughter of Francis Richard Charles Guy Greville, fifth earl of Warwick, MP; they had one daughter. This marriage was dissolved in 1933 and in 1934 Dean married Victoria, daughter of Matthew Garfield Hopper, of Dunston-on-Tyne. This marriage was dissolved in 1948. Dean died at his home, Flat 102, Dorset House, Gloucester Place, London, on 22 April 1978.
James Roose-Evans, rev.
B. Dean, Seven ages: an autobiography 18881927 (1970) · B. Dean, Mind's eye: an autobiography 19271972 (1973) · B. Dean, The theatre at war (1956) · R. Fawkes, Fighting for a laugh: entertaining the British and American armed forces, 19391946 (1978) · The Times (24 April 1978) · personal knowledge (1986)
BFI, corresp. and papers
JRL, corresp. and papers | Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Monckton
BFINA, documentary footage
BL NSA, documentary recordings
BL NSA, oral history interview
BL NSA, performance recordings
H. Coster, photographs, NPG
Wealth at death
£114,942: probate, 7 July 1978, CGPLA Eng. & Wales