Mick Csaky

Old Bedalian 1963

Mick Csáky (and his twin-brother John, who also attended Dunhurst and Bedales from 1951 - 1963) may have begun his Bedalian odyssey as a youngster fresh from a Shropshire farm, but his origins were in stark contrast to his own apparently bucolic upbringing. In pre-WW2 Hungary, his Jewish grandmother Olga had married a Hungarian count who was a Catholic. Nevertheless, with anti-Semitism growing in Central Europe, she moved from Hungary to England with her son Alex, who attended Claysmore School in Dorset.

Alex, Mick’s father, was a similarly exotic figure, an accomplished horseman and enthusiastic motorist who drove a cream-coloured Lagonda shooting brake and secured the task of running the Bedales school farm in 1951, when Mick was 6. Alex also became the school fencing master, driving an extraordinarily successful team around the country in his Lagonda, which he also used for taking school pigs to market in Petersfield.

Alex was accompanied by Mick’s English mother Mary, a friend of the headmaster of the day, Hector Jacks.  A botanist by training, Mary redesigned the school gardens and, with the encouragement of Hector Jacks, went on to invigorate what became known as Outdoor Work, sharing her love of plants with the pupils. Mick and his twin brother John’s early Bedalian days were therefore spent in a comfortably familiar environment.

“I remember Dunhurst as a womb-like place,” Mick chuckles. “The Good Ship Dunhurst, we were urged to call it. In fact, I seem to recall that while I was there, the headmistress adopted a duck at the Peter Scott Wildfowl trust down in Slimbridge, which was actually named ‘The Good Ship Dunhurst’! Clearly, the school was not without its eccentricities, but I found the environment there remarkably nurturing.”

Mick immediately embraced the Bedales ‘head and hand and heart’ ethos. “I think there was a general attitude that a day without making something was incomplete,” he reflects. “At Dunhurst, it was making tables, including the family dining table, with Mr Messingham and learning about crafts in the Barn that excited me most. When I got to Bedales, it was all about ‘Biff’ Barker, who was so precise in teaching us how to make things from metal and wood. I even wrote a piece about the right way to sharpen a pencil, which sprang from the rigour that Biff brought to everything he did and taught. I’ve sometimes thought that the creative urge embodied by Bedales is not unlike the devotional duties of the monks of old when they created illuminated manuscripts.”

Life was not all spent in the workshop and the Studio making things. One of Mick’s most vivid memories was being given a copy of Anthony Sampson’s newly published book ‘The Anatomy of Britain’. “It influenced me enormously. In fact, I went on to work with Anthony on a couple of major television series 20 years later,” he says.

Elsewhere at Bedales, there was sport, an area which Mick enjoyed but understood that the Bedalian way was to win without giving the appearance of great exertion. “I won the “Le Mans” cycle race at Bedales in my last year, which was an enormous thrill, not least getting a congratulatory kiss from Kate Slack, the then headmaster’s glamorous young wife! And 30 years later, in 1993, I was invited back to take part in another race, on the 100th anniversary of the school. I turned up in a fairly ridiculous get-up, without a crash helmet, in the expectation that the attitude would remain one of not trying too hard and realised that everything had changed – not least when I came a comfortable last.”

The development of Mick’s love of art, music and theatre, which were subsequently to play such a major role in his professional career, was another crucial aspect of his school days. “There was so much that was good about the place, not least the informality and ease of communication that fostered in me both great self-confidence and a healthy disregard for authority. The parents of my non-Bedalian friends always used to regard John and me as a terrifying liberal influence on their children, but it stood us both in good stead for life after school. I am very grateful to still have a few good friends from Bedales, whom I see regularly, and I retain enormous affection for the place.”

Such was the scope of Mick’s interests that it took him some time after leaving Bedales to decide on where his professional future would lie. “I was a bit of a perpetual student,” he admits happily of an eight-year period during which he spent two years at Farnham School of Art, three more at St Martin’s, studying graphic design animation and photography, and a final three years at the Royal College of Art, studying film and television production. “Luckily, Theo Crosby (father of OB Dido) used to pay me to do a fair bit of photography for his design company Pentagram while I was still a student in the late 60s and early 70s.”

“The 60’s was such an exciting era in which to be young,” Mick continues. “I discovered the States in 1968, where I managed to get a design and film-making job, saw Hendrix at the Hollywood Bowl, met a few people in the film business and generally had my mind opened to all kinds of new experiences. The following year, I met my future wife (the screen writer Jeanne Du Pasquier) and not long afterwards, I made up my mind whether I was going to head down the design route or towards film and the increasingly popular medium of television.”

His short student graduation film, ‘Vox Pop’, made while he was absorbing a vast range of cultural influences, was ultimately the catalyst for his decision. “It just interviewed six people whom I really loved and admired, including my future wife, Theo Crosby, a jeweller and another fellow student, among others. If anything, it represented a pretty desperate attempt by a young man to get stuck into the real world,” he remembers. “As it happened, Dilys Powell, who was a terrific film critic of The Times, said some very nice things about it when it played at the BFI. As a result, I got interviewed by Russell Harty and in turn, was introduced to Humphrey Burton, who was presenting a revolutionary new arts programme on ITV at the time called “Aquarius”. He invited me to join the production team for the show and I realised then where I was meant to be; I recall telling my brother John (who was by now a budding architect and museum designer) that while he was happiest designing the stage, my great interest lay in what was actually happening on it.”

Burton, renowned both for his enthusiasm for his subject and an unstuffy attitude towards it, would prove to be a major influence, commissioning Mick’s first music film in 1972 about the Berber music of Morocco. However, Mick did not remain long with ‘Aquarius’; in an astonishing burst of productivity, he went to Belfast to take photographs of The Troubles and embarked on one of the projects of which he remains proudest, a book and a documentary film, entitled ‘How Does It Feel?’, in which he explored the five senses with distinguished names from the arts and sciences, including David Hockney, Joseph Beuys, Michael Tippett, RL Gregory and RD Laing. “It was another attempt to make sense of the world in which we live, I suppose,” Mick suggests. 

With a Bedalian spirit of enterprise and self-reliance, he now established the first of the five vastly successful independent film and television production companies with which he has been associated during his career (see the website of his company Antelope: www.antelope.co.uk). Over the past four decades, the breadth of Mick’s film and television output has been startling. Human stories, the arts and modern history have been the three strands which connect the majority of his work, but their settings have ranged across eras and every corner of the world, focusing on everyone from gospel singers to heroin addicts, ballet dancers to geisha girls. He has tackled a number of modern society’s most abiding preoccupations, with films about the bombing of Hiroshima, The Cuban Missile Crisis and the fragility of the global economic system. It has been a Herculean logistical feat. 

“I am a bit of a control freak. I do adore keeping everything compartmentalised in different plastic files on my desk,” Mick confesses. “My wife is the laid-back one, much more temperamentally in tune with the 60s than me!”

Throughout his career, Mick has attempted to eschew the parochial and to emphasise the global consistency of the values that, he believes, hold society together. “American cultural domination is something I dislike intensely, and I continue to bang the drum for the many exquisite films that are being made elsewhere – in Europe, India and the Far East for example,” he observes. 

“I look back to a Channel 4 history series that I put together and directed in the early 1980s, presented by that remarkable historian Basil Davidson, which explored Africa from a wholly Afro-centric angle, and I wonder whether we are making enough of those kinds of films right now. Interestingly, 30 years on, that series will be played again this year at SOAS in London, and made available on the internet, which shows that people still have the appetite to watch programmes with a weighty theme. In Britain, we are still too prescriptive at times and it is so much harder for a young film-maker these days than it was when I was starting out. There are many super-talented young people around, but not so much risk-taking cash to back up their ambitions, sadly. I was unbelievably lucky to be a part of my generation.”

He’s now closer to 70 than 60, but Mick shows encouragingly few signs of slowing down. “The idea of doing nothing scares me witless,” he confides. Fat chance. In 2013, he conceived and directed the One World Media Festival, a two-day event at University College London, which attracted 1,000 people working in print, radio, film, television and the internet from around the world. This year, Mick is dividing his time between three different film projects, all while continuing to work with various industry committees and charitable trusts and lecturing at film schools, universities and film and television festivals worldwide. His zeal for life remains manifestly undimmed. “I can’t understand the concept of retirement,” he snorts. “I absolutely intend to die in harness.”

Mick Csáky was interviewed by James Fairweather in February 2014.