Interviewed by Vanessa Bergman, Autumn 1989
Originally printed in the Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) Appreciation Society Newsletter No. 3 - Spring 1990
Reproduced and revised by kind permission

 
Edwin Astley, a soft-spoken Lancashire man, was born in Warrington on 12th April 1922. The son of a builder, Edwin became the first and only member of a musically-minded family to actually take up music as a profession. His memorable theme and incidental scores for Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) were just one part of an impressive body of work which spanned five decades. He worked on many other television series including several ITC produced shows, as well as feature films and advertising and travelogue films. He also arranged music for some of the big bands and even played backing for the legendary British rock band, The Who. He died on 19th May 1998, aged 76. Three years later, his work was championed by fellow musician Jools Holland in the BBC documentary, Astley's Way.
 

 

When I interviewed Edwin Astley in 1989, I ventured deep into the heart of the Oxfordshire countryside to find the home he then shared with his wife and two cats. I found a man who liked nothing better than to potter around in his very own recording studio which he had installed on the premises.

It was in this Aladdin's cave that I found him when I visited him one early Autumn afternoon. The sight of a myriad of buttons, switches and wires on an incredible range of mixers, synthesisers and a whole host of sound recording equipment was in stark contrast to the tranquil view from the window where, just yards away, small yachts and houseboats cruised peacefully along the River Thames, which lapped gently against their bows.

We settled down and began our discussion in these idyllic surroundings.

So, Edwin, how did you first become involved in writing music for television?

"It was in 1953, when I was working for Francis, Day and Hunter as an arranger. The Danziger Brothers wanted music for short films they were making, and offered me a job."

The first compositions that Edwin did for television date back to 1954, when he worked on the anthology series The Vise, and soon afterwards, Fabian of the Yard. Within a year, he was engaged by Fountain Films to score a production called Colonel March of Scotland Yard, a vehicle for horror legend Boris Karloff, cast as the eponymous, eye-patched hero.

In 1957, he composed his first score for ITC. This was for a Sapphire Films production, made for ITC, the renowned The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Richard Greene. In the coming years, ITC would provide much work for the talented composer, and in this time he would find himself tasked with coming up with both theme music and incidental scores.

Were you under contract to ITC at this time?

"No, I've never worked under a contract. I've always been freelance. I was employed by independent producers for their shows and they happened to be for ITC a lot of the time."

In 1960, Edwin worked on a western series called Whiplash which was shot in Australia and financed by ITC. And in 1962, he found himself working on The Saint, and his catchy theme tune for this series became famous worldwide.

Did you enjoy working on The Saint?

"Oh yes, very much so. I've always liked this kind of work and count myself lucky that I can earn a living from something I enjoy doing."

It was fortunate that he worked freelance, because at around the same time, Edwin was asked to compose a complete score, to include operatic pieces, for the Hammer Horror film The Phantom of the Opera (1962). The engagement was a successful one, and Hammer went on to utilise his talents in several of their subsequent productions. At around the same time, he also agreed to work on a series for the BBC, Zero One, which consisted of stories involving airport security police.

In 1964, Edwin worked on another ITC series, Gideon's Way, which was based on John Creasey's bestselling Inspector Gideon novels. These adaptations proved very popular with viewers, and when ITC set about producing another series based on Creasey's works, The Baron, Edwin was asked to deliver another distinctive theme tune and incidental music for thirty episodes.

Two years later, Dennis Spooner created his well-remembered series The Champions for ITC. Tony Hatch was given the task of writing the theme music and the post of musical director was given to Robert Farnon for the series pilot. It was then handed to Albert Elms, who oversaw the next two episodes, before Edwin was finally called in to fill the role for the remaining twenty-seven episodes of the series.

Do you recall why you were called in, and whether the producers were dissatisfied with the work of Farnon and Elms?

"Well, they came to me and said would I take over, for some reason. I don't know why."

It was shortly afterwards when Dennis Spooner devised that remarkable series Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and Edwin was invited this time to compose a suitable theme.

How did you approach scoring the series and what did you do to make the music so 'hauntingly' different?

"It's a matter of using something so distinctive so that if you have the television on in the next room, you'd know that the programme had started. It has to be something distinctive in the orchestration or in the tune and I suppose that's why I used the harpsichord, because in those days it was a very distinctive sound. There's no mistaking the harpsichord, is there? I mean, I love the sound of strings but it's not a unique sound by any means. And the idea of using the minor key was obviously because of the 'death' part of it.

"But then again, I didn't want it to be too miserable, so I wrote a tune which you could remember. I think I wrote a tune which you could remember! But against it was always the producer wanting a hit. And I would say, if you could get a hit, when the series was out a second time, it dates it very, very quickly because a hit can only last a matter of weeks, whereas a TV series could last a number of years. It' s rather like cold tea coming up a second time round, so I think that tune had to have a bit of profundity about it to last.

"But the aim is always for something you'll remember. That was the main reason behind writing any type of music really, so that people could say 'Ah, that's so-and-so coming on'. I mean, Wagner did this donkeys years ago in his operas. He wrote the music so that if you were sitting in the back row on the upper balcony in an opera house, miles away from the stage, he always had a particular music for the figure entering the stage, so that you'd know who it was. It was called the leitmotif - a theme for the character on entering the stage, or in this case, the series."

Did you use a theme for individual characters in the series, as Wagner had done in his operas?

"No. Now and again, like with The Saint, you'd put the theme on the main character, but then it was quite coincidental. Because of this re-use of music, we didn't want to limit, we didn't want to use it too much so that the music editor could use a piece of music when the Saint wasn't on the screen."

Edwin meets Patrick McGoohan at Shepperton Studios in the mid-Sixties

In 1960, Edwin composed the music for the first series of Danger Man, which started off as a half-hour show. Later, from 1964, the series returned in a one-hour format and built on its initial success, making its star, Patrick McGoohan, a household name.

As you again supplied the music for the revived Danger Man, why then did you not work on McGoohan's next series, The Prisoner?

"I was approached by Patrick McGoohan to work on The Prisoner. I went over to MGM a couple of times to see him, but the trouble was he was so involved. He was on stage all the time and you'd get into conversation with him, then there'd be calls of 'Mr McGoohan, you're wanted on set,' and he'd have to go. And he was so involved at night, writing the next script, that we never really got down to serious talk about it, so I couldn't really get out what he was driving at. And if you're writing music for any producer, he wants you to write the kind of music that he wants. I couldn't have any way of finding out what Pat wanted, although I was as near to him as anyone. I was very busy at the time on another series, so I just let it go. I was sorry, really. It was a memorable series because it was so different. I had some ideas on it but I wanted to find out what he wanted. It was very difficult to find out anything really, under those conditions, and you had to do an awful lot of reading between the lines to find out what any producer wanted. I think that it's a major part of any film composer's worth, whether you can provide what the producer or the director is looking for."

Would you have liked to have worked on a show like The Avengers?

"I suppose so, but the trouble was The Avengers was running at more or less the same time as The Saint and you can't do everything. They never asked me anyway, but I would have had my work cut out."

Did the producers of a series approach you about the music, or did you ordinarily have to approach them?

"I never had to look for work at all. I was very lucky that way. I would be highly suspicious of anyone who telephoned me, touting for work, if I was a film producer. I mean, one job leads to another and if you're any good and bring it in on time, that spreads very quickly, that word of mouth, in this business. I never had to wine and dine anybody to get work."

Indeed, at the time of this interview, Edwin's career had already spanned three decades. He had been much sought after to work on feature films such as To Paris With Love (1954), which starred Alec Guinness, The Mouse That Roared (1959) with Peter Sellers, The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1960), The Phantom of the Opera (1962) and Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World (1973).

While he was working on The Champions, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and Department S, Edwin also found time to work on Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark, a sprawling arts series for the BBC which documented the history of western art since the Dark Ages, and which is now seen as a landmark in television documentary film making.

Edwin kept a complete list of all the many films and television shows that he worked on. Unfortunately, he noted down many of them using only the working titles of the productions, and therefore building a comprehensive screenography has proven problematic, since he was unable to definitively identify the actual productions in later life.

As well as television and film work, he also composed music for advertising 'shorts' for such organisations as the British Travel
Association and Pathé, and films for the Gas Board and the Government's Central Office of Information.

"Television series were at the fore, I suppose, but at the same time I was doing lots of cinema stuff, you know, lots of documentaries, and I was also doing son et lumière for Philips. They were the original producers of son et lumière in France."

These productions were for all parts of the globe, from the West Indies to Jordan.

"I never went to these places, of course. I never had the time, and it wasn't part of the job in any case."

We talked about incidental and special compositions required for films and television series, which were quite commonplace. Edwin scored in excess of two hundred pieces of music for Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) spanning nine episodes, each comprising something in the region of twenty-five individual music cues. These recorded cues were then recycled from stock by the music editor to build music tracks for the remaining seventeen episodes.

Sometimes playbacks were necessary - for instance, a nightclub scene with a band playing. Edwin would record a piece of appropriate music, but stand-in musicians would mime to the music on each shot, so that in scenes which did not show the band, the music could be synchronised to whichever shots were used.

"It was difficult to explain this sometimes to directors, because lots of them had not experienced playbacks or film synchronisation before. Some of them said, 'Oh well, it's alright. I'll shoot it with live musicians'. And I said, 'Well you can't, because the acoustics on the stage are not meant for live musicians'. They're huge places, sound stages, and there's so much noise going on, doors banging and things, that you'd never get a good recording anyway.

"In any case, it would cost more to use good session musicians for that length of time, so it was usually done with 'dummies' as they call them, who mimed to the music. They were usually musicians, but they weren't up to the standard of the session men."

Did you ever provide incidental or opening music for shows which were never used?

"I made [music for] several pilot films which never saw the light of day."

It could take a week or longer to write a theme and background music for a television episode.

"Although I have done one in two days!"

Although Edwin provided the music for Department S, it was fellow composer Laurie Johnson who worked on the sequel, Jason King.

Was there any particular reason for the change?

"Again, I wasn't asked, and I was probably busy with other things and I couldn't do it anyway. Laurie Johnson did a marvellous job, though. I mean, The Avengers was marvellous too."

Did you ever think that, on hearing someone else's composition of a theme, you could perhaps have improved on it?

"I don't know, because you really don't know how restricted they were. Having worked in the business for so many years, you realise that nothing is straightforward. You could have been restricted by a producer laying down the law about something, saying I want you to do this, I want you to do that. Having experienced all this, I would hesitate to make a judgement like that. I really don't know."

What about your own compositions? When listening to them today, do you think you could have done better?

"Oh yes. I think so, because it's natural. If anyone is honest with themselves, they would say the same thing. There's no such thing as perfection and we're always striving for something better. It wouldn't do to be satisfied with what you've done, otherwise you wouldn't do anything else, would you?"

Have you met any of the cast from the ITC shows you worked on?

"I didn't see much of Peter Wyngarde at all. I saw much more of Roger Moore because we had a lot of interests in common. He was quite musical. In the early days, he was married to Dorothy Squires. I've worked with her, too. I met Kenneth Cope in his restaurant which he used to have in Watlington. I did know Dennis Spooner, but we rarely discussed music or scripts. Monty Berman I got on well with. I think he was a pretty astute producer."

In cinema features, Edwin never got the chance to get to know them anyway, because by the time he was required, the actors and the director had gone, and he'd just be left with the producer and the editor.

Were you at any time required to go on the set?

"Rarely. The main reason I went on the set was to do a shoot which required a playback. There was one interesting thing done in Department S where they had to get into some secret place and they had to use a keyboard to get into the entrance of this place and play a particular phrase to open the door. So I had to devise something so that you see a hand coming to play this phrase. And they used my hand! My hand, made up, and I wore his jacket! I played 'The British Grenadiers' or something like that, and that opened this door. And that was a day's work!"

If someone decided to make a new series of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), as was recently done with The Saint, and you were required once again to score the project, would you use the same music, harpsichord and all?

"I think it would be silly to use anything else but the original tracks. That's why I think they were silly - not because it's my music - to not use The Saint theme on the recent re-make. On the trailers, they did."

At this point in the interview, we were provided with more tea and hot buttered buns by Edwin's daughter, Virginia. As we munched away, we discussed how it was possible to create a whole orchestra by use of electronic synthesisers. Edwin had four of these. His first experience at creating electronic sounds for feature films had come with Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World, and he still retained the original synthesiser which he had used for that film.

"It's still a good thing to have around, the old synthesiser, because you can make all sorts of noises which are quite extraordinary, but you have to spend hours creating them. I've done complete films, orchestral-wise, with it as well, but it takes ages and ages."

When Edwin finished his work on Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), he was kept busy for the next few years with tourist and travel documentaries focusing on places like the Bahamas, Hong Kong, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Austria, and, not forgetting somewhere a little nearer home, Wales. He also worked on travel films for Pan Am and BOAC, the forerunner to British Airways. He also did a short piece for a film on the composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, that went by the curious title Back to Bach, and which ended with Edwin's rendition of Bach on the synthesiser.

The Stock Exchange required Edwin to compose something suitable as an introduction for an educational film they were making, and his experience was required for a Tommy Trinder travelogue entitled This Must Be London. Next followed a documentary on tennis player Stan Smith, and then came further travelogues for various countries.

Did you find working on these travelogues to be an enjoyable experience?

"Oh yes, I liked them because these were the kind of producers who used to say to me, 'Well, there's the picture. You write whatever you like for it'. And I used to enjoy myself, just writing what I wanted. You found that in the documentary world, the kind of people who employed you were quite different from film makers for the more commercial market. It was a different atmosphere - quite different from a TV series."

Although some producers would leave him to his own devices, others had set ideas on what they wanted. Generally speaking, if Edwin was working on many different projects all at once, he preferred to be given ideas to work on, rather than it being left completely up to him.

"It was quicker for me, whereas before, I had to work out my own ideas. It's rather like being a commercial artist - you know, give the customer what they want, as against writing my own ideas."

Would you have liked to have worked on series like Return of the Saint, or the more recent LWT re-make of The Saint with Simon Dutton as Simon Templar?

"No, I don't think so. I think I'd had enough of them, and I was going on to other things."

Although he did confess that, had he been given the chance, he would probably have continued with his original Saint theme for both of these productions.

Would the size of the orchestra engaged vary depending upon whether you were recording for a title theme or incidentals?

"For title music, it would be between twenty and thirty musicians. For ordinary background stuff, it would never be more than twenty."

Deciding which instrument would enhance the music came naturally to Edwin. As an arranger by profession, he knew instinctively which instruments gave the desired effect. Edwin himself played the violin and piano, although at the time of the interview, he hadn't played either for quite some time. Asked if he had a favourite instrument, he decided that he didn't - he loved them all.

Have you ever worked under a pseudonym?

"Yes, I did for a while but I can't remember what it was. I don't know why I did it at the time. There must have been some reason for it. For a while, I was known as Ted Astley, because I was employed spasmodically to do arts programmes for BBC2. I don't think they ever realised that Ted Astley and Edwin Astley were the same, and I didn't enlighten them, because I thought one would kill the other. I was doing quite different work for them. I was wearing a different hat altogether."

Were tracks recorded at the studios?

"Yes, all those shows made at Elstree were done there. Danger Man was done at Shepperton, and the earlier [half-hour] ones at MGM. We usually had a music stage wherever the series was shot. It was usually part of the contract that we had to use the music stage."

Edwin had vivid memories of Elstree Studios in the 1960s.

"I should imagine the stages are still there, made up of about six or seven sound stages. It was a very big studio."

In fact, ABPC Elstree Studios housed the largest sound stages in Britain at the time of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)'s production.

Is there the possibility of recording a soundtrack album of all your famed ITC themes and incidentals?

"Oh yes, I think it would be a good idea. But would there be an interest in it? I put out a record in the States years ago, Secret Agent Meets The Saint. On one side were four tracks of The Saint and on the other side, four tracks of Danger Man [which went under the title Secret Agent in North America]. It wasn't issued here. But yes, I'll do it if they want."

I mentioned that the album had become much sought after and commanded high prices. This information was met with an enthusiastic reaction from Edwin, who had not been aware of this fact. Perhaps there was a market for his type of music after all?

At the time of the interview, Edwin's daughter Virginia was working on producing an album of nursery rhymes, with the help of her own two-year-old daughter, and his other daughter, Karen, was then married to Pete Townshend, guitarist with The Who. This association gave rise to my next question.

Have you ever worked with The Who?

"I've done backing for them, and Pete and I have just done some experimental tracks. Some of them are quite interesting. We did a series of sessions together. I took some of his compositions and I wrote string arrangements around them. He's put them together on a disc and it's out in the States at the moment."

Have you ever worked in the USA?

"No. I've been offered work in Hollywood, but again, I was wary of it because it meant disconnecting myself from all my contacts here. It would have meant stopping immediately what I was doing."

What would you like to have done had you not been successful in the music world?

A long and thoughtful pause.

"Well, as I said earlier on, I've always counted myself so lucky to be paid for doing the thing I like doing most. If everyone could do that in the world, it'd be a much happier place, wouldn't it?"

I suggested that perhaps he could have joined his father in the building trade, to which he nodded enthusiastically.

"Yes, I suppose that's where my interest lies. I love do-it-yourself kind of jobs."

To illustrate his point, he proudly indicated the summerhouse that he had built in the garden. He also mentioned to me that he had recently become interested in growing vegetables.

I asked Edwin whether he was working on any projects at the moment. He explained that there was nothing specific except that a friend who had just recently had a book published wanted him to write an inaugural piece of music. He had also been asked to work on further son et lumière productions in France and Holland.

When you aren't busy writing music or experimenting with electronic noises, do you have a favourite television programme that you can settle down to?

He thought long and hard and revealed that there was nothing which particularly interested him on television at that moment.

"The kind of things I watch are Columbo and serials like Inspector Morse, which I thought was very well done and very well acted."

It transpired that Edwin was quite a fan of actor John Thaw, and we spent ten minutes discussing the merits of Thaw, Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine!

Edwin's other main interest, outside of his work, rested with boats. This was hardly surprising with the River Thames flowing past the bottom of his garden, and Edwin naturally had his own boat. He told me that his next project, when he could find the time to devote to it, was to build his very own steam boat.

Do you ever think of one day trading in your recording studio for a boat yard, or your music stand for a bricklayer's hod?

"I really don't know," he said with a chuckle.

Mr Astley, your summerhouse is beautiful, but we love your music even more!

I would like to thank you on behalf of RAHDAS for sparing some of your invaluable time, and Virginia for supplying us with much appreciated refreshments!

Written by Vanessa Bergman
Revised for web presentation in 2013
Reprinted by kind permission

An impressive selection of Edwin Astley television soundtracks are available from Network.

With thanks to Jaz Wiseman for photographs of Edwin Astley in his studio and with Patrick McGoohan,
and to Sam Denham for his identification of Shepperton Studios as venue for the latter

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