From The Desk Of The High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan: The TV Writers

It might seem unusual, at first: British folk/pop auteur Sean O’Hagan padding Here Come The Rattling Trees—his latest outing as bandleader of the High Llamas—with several breezy musical snippets that work as either introductions or codas to delicate, fully realized songs. But in fact, the project first coalesced as a narrative the singer scripted about his South London neighborhood of Peckham, where a local working-class recreation center was being threatened by snooty gentrification. But it quickly morphed into a full-scale production that he staged at a Covent Garden theater—hence the inclusion of rising and descending motifs. O’Hagan will be guest editing all week. Read our new High Llamas feature.


O’Hagan: In post-war Britain, there were a number of composers who emerged from their rolls as conscripted musicians to become ’50s big-band leaders and later TV music writers. Among them was Edwin Astley. Though his name is relatively unknown, Astley’s tunes are embedded in the memories of millions as he wrote the themes to a host of iconic ’60s TV shows including The Saint, Danger Man, Department S, Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) and many more. He worked mainly for ITC a company set up to provide programs for ITV, the independent channel set up to compete with the BBC.

What was remarkable about Astley and other composers who followed the same career path was their willingness to embrace experimentation in sound and composition. These chaps had been playing swing during the war and arranging for radio orchestras, and suddenly with the explosion of independent TV, they were tasked with creating new music, brave music, which was piped straight into the homes and consciousness of an audience who could not get enough. Household television arrived in the U.K. much later than it did in the U.S. Amazingly, there was so much ambition within the TV executives. Everything had to be new and challenging. There was no appetite for caution. What is striking was the composers commitment to electronic music and tape manipulation. This had been the preserve of academia and the electronic modernist/concrete composers. Astley and his contemporaries, Basil Kirchin, Barry Gray, John Baker, Delia Derbyshire and Laurie Johnson were able to write tonal and non-tonal composition as well as create sound design (not a known concept in the ’60s).

Astley’s work on The Saint, especially his cue list, was extraordinary. He managed to reflect the tonal modernist chamber string writing of Arnold Bax and Britten but also respond to the zeitgeist typified by John Barry and Bernard Herman before him. What excites me most about this group of composers was their ability to demonstrate a maturity in writing but also maintain a desire to experiment. They were also relatively anonymous.