OBITUARY : Anthony Mayer

Tony Mayer died at an English National Opera seminar at the British Museum, in London, at which he was talking on a project for holding music workshops for Muslim and Croatian children in the war-damaged Luka School in East Mostar, Bosnia.

The programme, which is henceforth to be known as "The Anthony Mayer Project", had a threefold aim: therapeutic, conciliatory, and - since, crucially, all was to be filmed by him - to publicise on a universal platform the town's tragedy. It is notable that Mayer died while in pursuit of perhaps his life's consistent preoccupation: the extension of human understanding.

Mayer only came to his ideal medium for this agenda - film - in his late thirties, while living in India. He had already expended three vocations. While still at the King's School, Macclesfield, he had acted in more than 30 plays for BBC radio. He was only deflected from this career by his then mentor, the novelist Richard Hughes. Regularly visiting Hughes on the Traeth Bach Estuary in Snowdonia, and induced by him - in line with Hughes's own mysterious view of childhood as an untamed subculture - to raid Portmeirion Hotel with local boys, Mayer was impressed by the writer's advice that the artistic sire is rather the dramatist or the director with acting the sequel. This was very much a catalyst.

After doing his National Service in the Royal Navy as a sub-lieutenant in minesweepers Mayer went on to train as a designer/illustrator at St Martin`s School of Art. It was a skill that had been initially directed by his father (Eric Mayer was Principal of Ipswich School of Art), and which Mayer took with him into journalism. For a decade until the mid-1960s he was a successful art director with newspapers and magazines - the Observer, the Times, the Tatler (for which he also modelled), and the Radio Times. He received a brief when Assistant Editor of the Daily Mail, and still in his twenties, to give the newspaper a new image. Characteristically vital friendships in journalism were drawn from this time on: Haro Hodson, Pearson Phillips, Ian Jack.

Mayer now moved into advertising, his livelihood at the time of his first marriage. This was a match sui generis (his wife being from a Punjabi princely family), and the beginning of a lifelong love-affair with India. He was settled from 1967 to 1970 in Alipore, near Calcutta, in a rambling palace of his father-in-law, the Maharajah of Burdwan. With typical paradoxicality, the patrician homelife went with employment in a Marxist co-operative. Thus as Creative Director of McCann Erickson Advertising, Calcutta, Mayer had an income pegged to the same level as every employee. Producing around 50 cinema commercials a year at McCann, Mayer began to work with the film- director Satyajit Ray, a connection that continued until Ray's death in 1992.

While still in India Mayer produced his first two documentaries. One, The Lollipop Tree, was a charming study of Dr Graham's Homes, a school mainly for Anglo-Indian orphans in Kalimpong, on the Sikkim border. After his dbut Mayer directed and produced in all around 60 documentaries, some dramatised, and many of which he also wrote. He was one of the first film-makers in the 1970s to carry out co-productions with the BBC, and his films have been released through many international networks. Most of his work was in the Third World, and he will perhaps be remembered primarily for his many intimate depictions of India. His most recent was Secrets of Calcutta, broadcast by the BBC in 1991 in celebration of Calcutta's tercentenary.

Two of Mayer's dramatised series were among the most challenging independent productions made for international television. The Crossroads of Civilisation (1978) was an eight-part history of the Ancient East which he produced with David Frost and which he also directed. Dramatised battles and sieges were on a Hollywood scale, but carried out on the remote original locations. This was a project that needed guts and panache as well as creativity. Mayer had both.

The Commanding Sea (1981) was a similarly large series of dramatised one-hour films about man's relationship with sea, produced and directed by Michael Gill, with presentation by Clare Francis and Laurence Olivier. Tony Mayer's directorial daring was memorably demonstrated when once he and his crew had been waiting for weeks to accompany the largest ever oil-rig on its one-way journey into the North Sea.

The dramatic moment came when the huge rig was to be tipped off its barge and allowed to slide on to its four feet on the sea-bed. Mayer had arranged to cover this in a wide view from a helicopter, but for the close-up he had Clare Francis on a barge describing exactly what she felt as the mountain of metal slid away into the sea. If she had fluffed her description there would have been no chance of a retake. It was a calculated risk, but much more dramatic than would have been a shot without Clare in it to give it scale and humanity. He trusted her ability and she responded.

Human scale and concern were what Tony Mayer's films were ultimately about.

Tony Mayer had good looks and great charm - he was tall, with a lot of wiry black hair that latterly went a distinguished silver, and, until some early warnings of heart trouble, a pipe that curled smoke before a fine and open face, writes Ian Jack. He always had some project or other on the go, in what became a precarious life as a freelance film-maker. For almost all the dozen or more years I knew him he was trying to make a feature film based on a novel by Gillian Tindall and set in Bombay. One week he would have found the money; the next week it would transpire that the money had not in fact been quite found.

He was never a man to yield easily to obstacles, and his enthusiasm was remarkably constant. India made its mark on him, and his open-ness to that country and his sense of grace towards the people he met there made him many friends in Calcutta, Bombay and Delhi. He was generous and, despite the set-backs and disappointments that must have come his way, completely without malice or great grievance.

He believed in getting people together for curries and had almost Forsterian ideas about friendships across races, and the need for different kinds of people to understand one another. At these meetings, one sentence was certain to be uttered: "I've been reading this book and I've had this marvellous idea for a film . . ."

Anthony Hugh Mayer, film- maker: born Manchester 30 September 1932; married 1967 Maharaj Kumari Jyotsna Devi of Burdwan (one son; marriage dissolved 1971), 1974 Sarah Hobson (marriage dissolved 1989); died London 12 February 1995.