From the early '50s until the dawn of the '70s, Edwin Astley was one of England's busiest film and television composers. He may not have been as well known as Jerry Goldsmith or Mike Post in the America, but audiences on five continents were familiar with his theme music from such television shows as The Saint, and he almost single-handedly fostered a boom for the harpsichord with his theme music and scoring for the hour-long series Danger Man (aka Secret Agent). A clarinetist and saxophonist with a background in military and civilian dance bands, Astley played in dance orchestras after World War II and later formed his own band. He began his career in northern England playing in dance halls and occasionally appeared on the BBC (sometimes billed as "Ted Astley"). He later moved to London and began working as an arranger for music publishers, doing repertory work for Vera Lynn and Anne Shelton, among other singers of the era. He entered the field of film composing working for such low-budget producers as David Dent (usually with veteran director Maurice Elvey) and British-based American producers Edward J. Danziger and Harry Lee Danziger. It was principally through some of his early television scores that Astley's music was first heard in America, as series such as The Vise and Colonel March of Scotland Yard (starring Boris Karloff) were exported to the U.S. His first big TV success was The Adventures of Robin Hood (starring Richard Greene), which was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Although he didn't write the theme song, his music was heard throughout the run of the show. That and the Karloff series were productions of ITV, the company founded by Lew Grade. Astley became a mainstay of the company's music department, writing the scores and themes for such series as The Buccaneers (starring Robert Shaw), The Invisible Man, and Ivanhoe (starring Roger Moore).
Astley's film assignments during this period included work in numerous genres, from comedies to thrillers, most of which were not widely distributed (or seen at all) outside of England, such as Fun at St. Fanny's (1956). His straddling of the television and film worlds, and his experience with thrillers, made Astley a natural to compose the music for the satire The Case of the Mukkinese Battle Horn (1956), an offshoot of The Goon Show, starring Peter Sellers. It was the science fiction and horror titles he worked on, including the Danzigers' production Devil Girl From Mars (1954), The Woman Eater, and, most notably, The Giant Behemoth (both 1959), that were widely seen in America. In the latter movie, Astley used the prototypical brass and wind-dominated action and suspense themes that would later turn up in his music for such series as Danger Man and The Saint. That same year, he got his first major studio assignment when he was chosen to score Jack Arnold's satirical thriller The Mouse That Roared (1959), a Columbia Pictures release starring Peter Sellers. Astleycontinued writing for television and, in 1960, was assigned to score the half-hour program Danger Man, and two years later, The Saint. The television adaptation of Leslie Charteris' debonaire, modern-day Robin Hood, starring Roger Moore, was Astley's breakthrough, as the distinctive seven-note theme associated with Moore's Simon Templar was a prominent musical cue in each episode. Astley's title theme utilized musical material that Leslie Charteris had devised himself, and it became one of the most familiar television themes (almost more of a "cue" than a theme) of its era. In 1997, when the feature film of The Saint (starring Val Kilmer) was released, Astley's theme was reprised, and in that same year, the 75-year-old composer saw his Saint theme appear on the U.K. charts at number five, courtesy of Orbital.
When Danger Man was revived in 1964 as an hour-long series, Astley once more came up with a unique and distinctive touch, creating a theme that combined jazz influences with the sound of the harpsichord. Although his title theme was replaced in the show's opening credits by the Johnny Rivers song "Secret Agent Man" when the program was retitled Secret Agent for American distribution, the harpsichord theme remained in the opening of each episode and the instrument appeared in the main body of the score, as well. The popularity of the series resulted in a sudden boom of interest in the instrument in film and television scoring. Even 30 years later, veteran harpsichordists on both sides of the Atlantic were able to fondly remember that period in the mid-'60s when their services were suddenly in demand for highly lucrative soundtrack work, in addition to their usual Baroque music performances.
Astley also wrote the themes and music for such popular adventure series as The Baron, Department S, and The Champions, in addition to such serious programming as Civilisation. He retired from television work in the '70s and spent most of his time tinkering in his custom-built studio in Oxfordshire. His children remained connected to music, however: his son Jon Astley, first as a singer and later a producer, and his daughter Virginia Astley as a pianist, singer, and performer. His other daughter, Karen, married Pete Townshend of the Who. During the 1980s and '90s, Astley wrote and recorded big-scale orchestral arrangements of pop tunes, and orchestrated some of Townshend's work. Astley died in 1998 at the age of 76, living long enough to see the soundtracks of The Saint and Secret Agent/Danger Man reissued on compact disc.