Obituary: Edwin Astley

Judy Astley
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:31

FOR A long time during the Sixties and early Seventies, hardly a night passed without the sound of a television theme tune written by Edwin Astley. From the trumpet fanfare heralding Robin Hood to the world- famous seven-note signature of The Saint, Astley's compositions conjure up an era of the best of television adventure series.

Edwin Thomas Astley was born in 1922 into a working-class Warrington family. His father was a builder, and he left school at 14 to start work in the office of Richmond's gas oven manufacturers.

Music was always an important factor in family life. There were traditional Sunday evening music sessions and his uncle gave him a violin. Ted Astley joined the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) band as a boy, playing clarinet and saxophone and by the age of 18 was arranging both military and dance band music.

In 1945 he married Hazel Balbirnie - whom he'd met across a crowded dance floor when the RASC band played in Hitchin - using his pounds 200 winnings from a songwriting contest. The song, "I Could Never Tell", was co-written with his friend Bill Hill-Bowen and recorded by both Richard Tauber and Vera Lynn.

After the war, having left the Army, Astley joined the Percy Pease dance band in Sale, Cheshire and later led his own band, the Ted Astley Orchestra, in a residency at the Sale Lido.

When the Lido was taken over by Mecca, Astley decided it was time to move to London and he found a job at Francis, Day and Hunter, music publishers, as an arranger for singers of the day including Vera Lynn and Anne Shelton.

In the late Fifties he was asked to write the incidental music for Robin Hood, including the nine-note trumpet fanfare which has often been used since to identify Robin Hood character - from a Morecambe and Wise sketch to advertisements for breakfast cereal and British Telecom.

More television work followed with The Buccaneers and then began the run of series: The Saint, Danger Man, The Persuaders, and Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased). Astley also composed the music for Kenneth Clark's 13-part series Civilization (1969). His film compositions included The Mouse That Roared (1959), starring Peter Sellers, Digby: the Biggest Dog in the World (1973) and the 1962 version of Phantom of the Opera, for which he composed an original operatic piece. He also found a niche composing music for son et lumiere performances, including ones at Southwark Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace, the Tower of London and the Cairo pyramids.

When the British film industry went into recession in the late 1970s, Astley and his family moved from London to Oxfordshire and he took up a life of early retirement with enthusiasm. He indulged a fondness for travel and for good wine, for golf and vegetable-growing and a series of building projects. His vegetable garden was of enviable design - long before such things became fashionable. He spent a summer constructing a swimming pool, and he built a summerhouse based on a design by his architect daughter Alison.

Astley's involvement in music did not end with country living. He converted his garage into a recording studio, acquired a number of state-of-the- art synthesisers and put together a successful music library. For his son-in-law the rock musician Pete Townshend he orchestrated several pieces of music, the best known being "Street in the City", an innovative track which appeared on the Rough Mix album which Townshend recorded with Ronnie Lane.

With his son Jon he worked on orchestrations and arrangements of tracks by the Who and the Rolling Stones, recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. Recently, he also arranged strings for his daughter Virginia's albums All Shall be Well and Hope in a Darkened Heart.

Ted Astley was a genial and generous host, enjoying most of all the company of his large family. His typical career advice was to encourage the pursuit of creative fulfilment rather than a safe salary and pension scheme. His last years were shadowed by increasingly debilitating illness which he fought with all the ammunition that conventional and alternative remedies could supply. He was around long enough to see The Saint theme tune taken to No 1 in the music charts by the rock band Orbital in 1997.

Edwin Thomas Astley, composer: born Warrington, Cheshire 12 April 1922; married 1945 Hazel Balbirnie (two sons, three daughters); died Goring, Oxfordshire 19 May 1998.

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