Basil Dean Archive

Scope and Content

The Basil Dean Archive contains over fourteen thousand items and covers most aspects of Dean's long and varied career, which spanned almost sixty years. It constitutes one of the most significant archives available for studies of the commercial theatre in Britain from the 1920s to the 1950s, for the development of the British talking picture industry in the 1930s, and for the history of E.N.S.A. during the Second World War. It is also important for broader twentieth-century literary and cultural studies.

Correspondence and related papers form the largest groupings (over 9600 items), divided into general correspondence (DEA/1), correspondence and papers relating to productions (DEA/2), general business correpondence (DEA/3), papers relating to film companies and productions (DEA/4), and personal letters and papers (DEA/13). The fact that copies of Basil Dean's replies to many of his correspondents are present in the collection is a most valuable feature, providing a more comprehensive view of particular events and relationships. Actors, actresses, authors and playwrights are, of course, well represented. Amongst the most substantial groupings are those concerning H.E. Bates, Arnold Bennett, Lilian Braithwaite, Noel Coward, Gracie Fields, John Galsworthy, Graham Greene, Sir Barry Jackson, Margaret Kennedy, Walter Macqueen-Pope, Flora Robson, Sir Godfrey Tearle and P.C. Wren. There are over 800 letters and papers concerning James Elroy Flecker's Hassan, which Basil Dean adapted for the stage; these include some 80 letters from Flecker's widow. Dean could not have achieved his success without the assistance of able associates. Of particular importance were: George W. Harris, his designer; Roger Ould, his personal assistant; E.P. (Ernest Paul) Clift, his business manager; and George Ansley, who gave him substantial financial backing. Together their correspondence comprises some 600 letters. There are also over 200 letters and papers relating to his association with Sir Alfred Butt in the 1920s.

There are over 750 items relating to Basil Dean's directorship of the Entertainments National Service Association (E.N.S.A.), constituting probably the single most important source available for studies of the entertainment provided for the armed forces during the Second World War (DEA/5). A number of items relate to Dean's tours overseas, including his visit to the Allied Armies in North Africa in 1943, during which he entered Tunis shortly after its capture, while other papers concern his tour of India and South East Asia Command in the winter of 1944-5. There is correspondence relating to E.N.S.A.'s role in Europe, and in particular to Dean's production of The Apple Cart for the troops in Occupied Germany in 1946.

Other important elements of the archive are the prompt books (DEA/6); scripts, principally by Basil Dean himself (DEA/7); set and costume designs, chiefly the work of George W. Harris (DEA/8); over a thousand photographs, loose and in albums, relating to his career, his productions and his work in E.N.S.A. (DEA/9); and almost seven hundred programmes (DEA/10). The volumes of press cuttings (DEA/11) in the collection are an essential source. They date from 1904, when Basil Dean was performing in amateur theatricals, to the last decade of his life, and contain, in addition to reviews of his productions, many interviews with him on a wide range of subjects related to stage and cinema, together with articles he wrote and speeches he made. Throughout his career Basil Dean addressed the public, giving lectures and broadcasts, and later appearing on television. Many of these texts have survived in the archive, together with others of his writings (DEA/12).

An unexpected element in the archive is a set of six hundred items of correspondence of the novelist and playwright Arnold Bennett, relating to the theatre (DEA/14). Letters from Basil Dean form only a small part of this correspondence, and it has not been possible to establish how the whole came to be included in this archive.

Administrative / Biographical History

Basil Herbert Dean was born on 27 September 1888 in Croydon, Surrey, the son of a cigarette manufacturer. After leaving grammar school he worked in the Stock Exchange for two years, before beginning his professional career as an actor in 1906 with a touring company. A year later he joined Miss Annie Horniman's newly-formed repertory company in Manchester. He moved to Liverpool in 1911, becoming the first Controller of the Liverpool Repertory Theatre, later to be called the Liverpool Playhouse. In 1913 he left Liverpool to become assistant stage director at His Majesty's Theatre, London, under Sir Herbert Tree. Thereafter he was based in the capital.

Basil Dean joined the Cheshire Regiment in 1914, and rose to the rank of captain and director of the entertainment branch of the Navy and Army Canteen Board, responsible for fifteen garrison theatres, seven cinemas and ten touring companies (DEA/5/7).

In 1919 Dean joined Alec Rea to form the ReandeaN Company Ltd, with the former serving as managing director. This successful partnership, which lasted ten years, made an outstanding contribution to the British theatre in the 1920s. Among its most notable successes were the adaptation for the stage of James Elroy Flecker's Hassan in 1923 (DEA/2/32), and The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy (DEA/2/13, 1926). Dean was a perfectionist with an obsessive attention to detail in every aspect of his productions. George W. Harris (1878-1929) was engaged to design sets and costumes (DEA/8), and Dean advanced the technology and innovative use of stage lighting. His domineering directing style did not endear him to actors, but he achieved considerable critical acclaim. In 1923 Basil Dean established with E.P. Clift the touring company Dee Cee Tours Ltd, which took its name from the first letters of their respective surnames, and in 1926 Dean set up his own production company, Basil Dean Productions Ltd.

Basil Dean was among the first to make British talking pictures, and in the 1930s his career combined both stage and films. In 1929 he founded, with Reginald Baker, Associated Talking Pictures Ltd (DEA/4/3), which later became the Ealing Studios. Dean served as the Chairman and Joint Managing Director of A.T.P. He was also associated with the American film studios Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation and R.K.O. (Radio Keith Orpheum).

In 1938 Dean resigned from A.T.P. to concentrate on theatre work. He produced a series of plays by J.B. Priestley in the years 1938-1946; the most successful was Johnson Over Jordan, for which Benjamin Britten wrote the score (DEA/2/37, 1939).

On the outbreak of the Second World War Basil Dean was instrumental in the formation of the Entertainments National Service Association (E.N.S.A.), under the auspices of the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (N.A.F.I.I.). He served as its Director General throughout the war (DEA/5). He was in effect continuing the work which he had pioneered in the First World War, the organization of the first proper entertainment for the army. These services were acknowledged by the award of a C.B.E. in 1947, although some expressed surprise that he did not receive a knighthood. The war over, he returned to the theatre, presenting new plays and reviving earlier successes such as Hassan. In 1948 Dean organized the first British Repertory Theatre Festival (DEA/2/8). From the 1920s onwards he campaigned for publicly subsidized theatre and after the war he continued to advocate a National Theatre. In 1956 his account of E.N.S.A., The Theatre at War, was published, followed in the 1970s by his two-volume autobiography. He was married and divorced three times, and died at his home in London on 22 April 1978.


Following its arrival at the John Rylands University Library, the Basil Dean Archive was examined in detail and found to be in considerable disarray; it was therefore decided that it should be rearranged, better to reflect the different aspects of Dean's life and work. The archive has been arranged into fourteen series thus:

  • DEA/1: General Correspondence, 4022 items, 1906-1972.
  • DEA/2: Correspondence and Papers relating to Productions and Projects, 4076 items, 1906-1971.
  • DEA/3: General Business Correspondence, 892 items, 1911-1965.
  • DEA/4: Papers re Film Companies and Productions, 308 items, 1928-1944, 1951.
  • DEA/5: Entertainments National Service Association (E.N.S.A.), 760 items, 1915-1964.
  • DEA/6: Prompt Books, 37 items, 1910-1957.
  • DEA/7: Scripts, 16 items, 1909-?1962.
  • DEA/8: Designs and Related Items, 126 items, 1912-1958.
  • DEA/9: Photographs, 904 items, c.1884-1976.
  • DEA/10: Programmes, 691 items, 1906-1971.
  • DEA/11: Press Cuttings, 63 items, 1904-1971.
  • DEA/12: Miscellaneous Writings, 184 items, c.1908-1975.
  • DEA/13: Personal Letters and Papers, 366 items, 1902-1972.
  • DEA/14: Arnold Bennett Correspondence, 601 items, 1900-1930.

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

The collection includes material which is subject to the Data Protection Act 1998. Under Section 33 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), The University of Manchester Library (UML) holds the right to process personal data for research purposes. The Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) Order 2000 enables the UML to process sensitive personal data for research purposes. In accordance with the DPA, UML has made every attempt to ensure that all personal and sensitive personal data has been processed fairly, lawfully and accurately. Users of the archive are expected to comply with the Data Protection Act 1998, and will be required to sign a form acknowledging that they will abide by the requirements of the Act in any further processing of the material by themselves.

Open parts of this collection, and the catalogue descriptions, may contain personal data about living individuals. Some items in this collection may be closed to public inspection in line with the requirements of the DPA. Restrictions/closures of specific items will be indicated in the catalogue.

Acquisition Information

The Basil Dean Archive was purchased by the John Rylands University Library from Bertram Rota Ltd, acting on behalf of Toronto Public Libraries, in July 1980, with the aid of a generous grant from the Arts Council.

Other Finding Aids

The hand-list of the Basil Dean Archive was orginally published in the Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, vol. 79, no. 2 (1997), pp. 103-230.

A card index of the programmes within DEA/10 may be consulted in the Library.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

Many items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Custodial History

The Basil Dean Archive remained in Dean's hands until the early 1970s when he sold it to Toronto Public Libraries. Little work appears to have been done on the archive while it resided in Canada, and since there was scant material of direct relevance to Canada, in 1978 the library decided to offer it for sale through the agency of Bertram Rota Ltd, the well-known London booksellers. Following negotiations the archive was purchased by the John Rylands University Library in July 1980.

Related Material

The British Film Institute, Special Collections, holds correspondence and papers of Basil Dean, including an album of photographs of Associated Radio Pictures studios, budgets for productions by Associated Talking Pictures, papers relating to the pre-war quota scheme for British films, papers relating to the Film Production Employers' Federation, and a press book for The Constant Nymph; ref.: Basil Dean Collection.

Oxford University, Bodleian Library, Special Collections and Western Manuscripts, holds correspondence between Basil Dean and Walter Monckton; ref.: Dep. Monckton.

The Imperial War Museum, Department of Documents, holds unofficial reports from Virginia Vernon to Basil Dean and correspondence between the two concerning the organization of entertainments provision by E.N.S.A.; ref.: VV/2/11-12. The Museum's Department of Printed Books (Library) also holds several volumes of press cuttings relating to E.N.S.A., which were donated by Basil Dean in 1957; ref.: ENSA newscuttings Collection.

The Jerwood Library of the Performing Arts, Mander and Mitchenson Theatre Collection, holds a folder on Basil Dean containing photographs, press cuttings, memorial service programmes, production programmes and a small amount of correspondence; ref.: MM-PP-AH. The St Martin's Theatre Collection contains copies of the ReandeaN newsheet, a magazine about the theatres managed by Basil Dean and Alec Rea, 1920s, and papers relating to productions with which Dean was associated, such as The Skin Game; ref.: MM-TL-STM. There is also some E.N.S.A. material in the War Collection; ref.: MM-TS-WAR.

Within the Annie Horniman Papers at the John Rylands University Library (GB 133 AEH) are newscuttings relating to the death of Basil Dean, 1978, and a letter from Annie Horniman to Dr Lawrence Garrod, discussing her acquaintance with Basil Dean and his career, 1935; refs: AEH/4/1/10/13 and AEH/4/3/4/32.


Basil Dean, The theatre at war (London: G.G. Harrap, 1956).

Basil Dean, Seven ages: an autobiography, 1888-1927 (London: Hutchinson, 1970).

Basil Dean, Mind's eye: an autobiography, 1927-1972 (London: Hutchinson, 1973).

James Roose-Evans, 'Dean, Basil Herbert (1888-1978)', Oxford dictionary of national biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Sue Harper, 'A note on Basil Dean, Sir Robert Vansittart and British historical films of the 1930s', Historical journal of film, radio and television, vol. 10, no. 1 (1990), pp. 81-7.