Bananas in Pyjamas is well-known to children (and former children!) the world over as a series of over 200 five-minute films made by the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC), with associated spin-off merchandise of all kinds. What’s much less well known is that the idea was dreamt up by Carey Blyton, and that the whole multi-million-dollar enterprise was invented on the spur of the moment, in the back of a car, in order to put a small boy to sleep.
What’s also not well known is the degree of difficulty faced by the innocent author of the idea, the words and the music of Bananas in Pyjamas in trying to get a modicum of remuneration out of the accumulating millions of dollars that his creation was earning for other people. The salutary tale of the invention and subsequent commercialisation of the idea is recalled by Carey himself in Composer Interviews no 1: Carey Blyton (published by Fand Music Press):
Somewhere around 1969 or 1970, my wife and I, with our first son, Matthew, aged around four, had visited friends for a meal and we had a long – and, as it turned out, tedious – car journey to get back home: at night. My wife, Mary, was driving, and I was in the back seat with Matthew, who would just not settle down to sleep. At that time, Donald Mitchell and I were working on The Faber Book of Nursery Songs – there are 91 in the book – so I had a lot of the tunes and the words in my head. For about an hour, I sang my way through a large number of songs, even those that Donald Mitchell and I were hoping to rescue from oblivion, like ‘Lazy sheep, pray tell me why’ – but nothing worked, and Matthew would not settle down. In sheer desperation, I made up a nonsense song, Bananas in Pyjamas, which sounds like the opening chorus of every bad musical you’ve ever heard. Matthew loved it, and I had to sing it over and over again. It worked; he went to sleep! We got back very late and I was about to go to bed when my wife insisted I went to my study and write Bananas in Pyjamas down. I protested. “You won’t remember it in the morning; write it down now,” she said. So I did. And then went to bed.
Matthew wanted more ‘funny songs’, so I made up more nonsense poems, with tunes – about six more – and another ten poems without music, to amuse him. So I really had a small volume, which I offered to Faber & Faber—I was Benjamin Britten’s Editor at the time, working for Faber Music, so it seemed a logical move to offer the book to F & F. One of the directors of Faber & Faber, Peter Crawley, loved it, though I believe he had a hard time getting it accepted. Anyway, the hardback edition was published in 1972 – the paperback edition came out in 1975 – and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation were on to the title-song the following year, 1973. Their permission to use was the third granted, in what, over the years, became about 200 such permissions to use – mostly for the title-song, Bananas in Pyjamas, though other poems were included in very many anthologies of ‘comic and curious verse’. The Children’s TV Department of the ABC used Bananas in Pyjamas in their ‘Playschool’ and ‘Kindergarten’ programmes. During the 1970s and 1980s, there was a limited amount of ABC-originated merchandising: a BIP sweatshirt; a BIP T-shirt and a little soft toy—a little banana wearing blue and white striped pyjamas.
Then, around the end of the ’80s, the ABC Children’s TV Department had the idea of putting actors and actresses into teddy bear and BIP costumes for a live show to tour schools throughout Australia. They gave the teddy bears names: Morgan, Amy and Lulu, and the bananas – B1 and B2 – were seven feet tall! The live show was a huge success, and I remember reading an article about BIP in the Saturday magazine of the Sun-Herald, in which the producer said: “I was outside in the school playground and I heard what sounded like ‘white noise’ coming from the school hall. I knew that this was the moment that the bananas had come on to the stage – and that the children had gone berserk, screaming and shouting. I also knew, at that moment, that we had something very special.”
A five-minute pilot film was made—and that was the start of the ‘Great Banana Phenomenon’. Over 200 such five-minute films have been made, with stories written by Australian writers, and these are now showing on TV in most countries, with compilations being sold as home videos all over the world also. My song is sung at the start of each little film, and used instrumentally over the end-credits: two bites of the cherry! There are now also over 300 licensed bits of merchandise on sale worldwide, from quilt covers to pencils, from children’s tableware to cushions. And the live show is finally touring the UK for two years, starting in Cardiff in October 1999.
At first, the ABC was disinclined to allow me any proper attribution on the merchandising, or any financial share in the vast profits they were making out of my song: in 1995 they made Australian $43 million at retail; in 1998, this had risen to Australian $75 million at retail. I haven’t seen any later figures, but with the opening up of the vast US market, they are probably on the way to $100 million p.a. or more. So I had to have recourse to the law. I employed a top UK copyright lawyer, and the legal wrangle went on for two years. It cost a very great deal of money; in fact, all the mechanical royalties I was receiving on the sales of the home videos was going straight into the coffers of the lawyer’s firm! Finally, in October 1997, I signed a contract with the ABC giving me a microscopic percentage of their annual gross earnings on the sale of merchandise; also, a renegotiated music agreement with ABC Music Publishing, which gave me increased music royalties. I say ‘microscopic’ percentage of ABC’s annual gross earnings on the sale of merchandise—but it is enough to fund the issue on CD of most of the music I have written since 1949 on two small record labels, Upbeat Recordings and Apollo Sound. To date, UR have issued my saxophone quartet music, folksong arrangements and music for brass quintet and a little more saxophone quartet music (Sherlock Holmes meets Doctor Who); and AS have issued my complete piano music, solo and duet, and my complete music for one and two guitars. To come are CDs of early songs, choral music, woodwind music and mixed chamber music (with UR), and maybe library music and documentary film and TV play music (with AS). We might even be able to do a CD of orchestral music, if the banana plantation down-under carries on producing the necessary money.
So, as you say… ‘nonsensical’: a 30-second nonsense song funding the recording of a life’s work…
The TV version of Bananas in Pyjamas and its many items of spin-off merchandise have promoted a very simple, child-friendly and stylised image of bananas in blue-and-white-striped pyjamas. The original book, however, had some really excellent illustrations by Tom Barling that were far more characterful than the more modern, blander depictions, and featured bananas in red-and-white-striped pyjamas. Indeed, the original bananas were really quite menacing, and the fleeing teddies look suitably terrified!
Here are the illustrations from the original book, including the excitingly detailed front cover:
Bananas in Pyjamas: a book of nonsense (front cover of the original 1972 Faber & Faber hardback edition)
The classic original image of Bananas in Pyjamas chasing teddy bears down stairs (Who says B1 and B2 are the only bananas in pyjamas? There are three in this picture!)
Totally nonsensical and full of verbal wit.
—Elaine Moss, Children’s Books of the Year, 1972
The expressions on the faces of the children as they launched into Mr Blyton’s work showed clearly why he is gaining such popularity as a composer for young people. [Review of Schools Music Festival in Swanley, Kent, which included performances of Bananas in Pyjamas, Three Food Songs, Three Insect Songs and Three Bird Songs]
—T.G.G., Kentish Times, 23th March 1975
To see examples of ABC’s Bananas in Pyjamas, a good place to start is the official (Australian) site: www.BananasInPyjamas.com. This is a highly interactive site with lots to do, games to play and videos to watch, showing some of the latest animated adventures. There’s also a UK-specific site.
Meanwhile, searching YouTube reveals large numbers of episodes of both the animated series and the version with actors in costumes.
ABC Books republished Carey’s original book as a mass-market paperback entitled Bananas in Pyjamas And Other Nonsense in 1995, and it remained in print until 2011. However, although the music and poetry remained the same as in the original, Tom Barling’s highly distinctive original cartoons were replaced with new illustrations by Janice Bowles. These did at least cement the relationship between the book and the spin-off TV series by showing the bananas in the blue-and-white livery that was already familiar to viewers, rather than the original red. Admirers of the original illustrations (especially adults!) may regret their loss, however!
The covers of both versions of the book are shown here for easy comparison. Neither version is in print at present, but copies are not too hard to find by searching second-hand booksellers online.