Millions more people have heard something of Carey Blyton’s music than realise it. He wrote widely for television, film and advertising, and his nonsense song Bananas in Pyjamas was taken up by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 1973 and eventually became a huge international success in The Great Banana Phenomenon, a series of some 200 five-minute TV shows each topped and tailed by Blyton’s song.
Bananas in Pyjamas came about on a long night-time drive home after visiting friends: “My wife, Mary, was driving, and I was in the back seat with Matthew [his four-year-old son], 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—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 heard. Matthew loved it, and I had to sing it over and over again.
When Matthew insisted on more funny songs, his father obliged and soon built up a collection, which was published by Faber & Faber in 1972. The ABC request for a licence for Bananas in Pyjamas, one of some 200 received for the songs in the anthology, turned out to be by far the most lucrative: by 1998 the ABC had made 75m Australian dollars—and that was before the US market had opened up. Some legal wrestling brought Blyton a small percentage of the ‘Bananas’ earnings, enough for him to be able to begin the recording of the rest of his output on CD—and he admitted that being able to fund the production of a life’s work with a 30-second nonsense song was itself nonsensical.
Blyton (the nephew of Enid Blyton) was a slow musical starter. He had a good treble voice which got him into the choir of St George’s, Beckenham, but he turned his back on the church with childhood umbrage when the caretaker wouldn’t let him remove a grate to retrieve a dropped sixpence. He hadn’t been allowed to touch the school piano at Beckenham and Penge Grammar, and so it wasn’t until wartime evacuation in 1944 (recalled in a charming autobiographical essay, Summer in the Country, published in Collected Short Stories and Summer in the Country, 2002) that he tried to pick out a few tunes on the keyboard. He determined to learn the instrument properly after he was stricken with polio in 1947, employing the enforced idleness of his two-year convalescence to demonstrate that the illness wouldn’t get the better of him.
He had begun to compose before spending a year (1950–51) studying Zoology at University College London. In his four years (1953–57) as a student at Trinity College of Music, he studied harmony, counterpoint, orchestration and music history, with William Lovelock as his main tutor, obtaining all three diplomas (Associate, Licentiate and Fellow) and a BMus. He was also awarded the Bantock Prize for Composition in 1954 (worth a princely £5) and the Churchill Endowment Fund Scholarship in 1957, which paid for a year at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. He chose Denmark because he hoped to rediscover an au pair he had fallen for, but neglected to take her address with him; his studies with the composer Jørgen Jersild brought him a consolation prize in the form of a friendship which would last until his death.
Back in Britain, he spent five years as an editor at Mills Music (with Roberto Gerhard and Richard Rodney Bennett among the composers whose works he looked after) before embarking on a freelance career that mixed composing, teaching, editing and lecturing. From 1963 to 1972 he was Professor of Harmony, Counterpoint and Orchestration at his Alma Mater, Trinity College, and from 1972 to 1983 Visiting Professor of Composition for Film, Television and Radio [at the Guildhall School of Music], offering the first academic course in the country to specialise in the subject. His editorial activities continued in parallel. He worked for Faber & Faber between 1963 and 1974, spending the first seven of those years as Benjamin Britten’s personal editor—dealing with scores that included Owen Wingrave and Curlew River, which sparked a considerable interest in the Orient in Blyton himself.
Blyton’s work in television and films began with a lucky break during his time at Mills Music. He and his wife had taken over a flat from Richard Rodney Bennett and, answering the telephone soon afterwards, he found himself talking to an advertising executive who needed a jingle within days. “So I then found a cellist and a clarinettist, husband and wife, and over the weekend cobbled together some 15-second tracks and went with them on Monday morning.” He got the job, and the jingle for Nimble bread was, like Bananas in Pyjamas, another snatch of music that became familiar to millions. Blyton didn’t believe in wasting music. His scores for a number of episodes of Doctor Who, as for other TV productions, were recycled into his large output for amateur and semi-professional musicians. As a self-confessed miniaturist, he was happy turning out well-crafted, often humorous, pieces – for piano, guitar, saxophone, brass instruments, choirs – that may not have kept his name in the concert halls but took it to musicians of all ages and abilities up and down the land.
Three ‘Victorian melodramas’ to his own texts – Sweeney Todd the Barber (1977), Dracula! (1983) and Frankenstein! (1987) – enjoyed widespread popularity among the school performers and audiences they were intended for; a chamber opera, The Girl from Nogami (1976), went unpublished (he later discovered in a clear-out of old papers that his Aunt Enid had received over 500 rejection letters as she tried to interest publishers in her work).
Blyton admired the wit in Poulenc’s music, and it is reproduced in his own. His song The Flea, for example, consists of a 50-second introduction from the piano, full of exaggerated vitruoso gestures, after which the voice proclaims heroically: “Adam [pause] had ’em”—and that’s it. But we are not yet in a position to judge Blyton the composer. The first five CDs of his music, financed by his ‘Bananas’ income, largely present the craftsman-cum-clown. But the most recent, an anthology of early songs recalling Peter Warlock in their sympathetic response to their texts, suggests that the orchestral works yet to be heard may reveal a deeper voice at work. A CD of songs with string orchestra is scheduled for release by Upbeat in the autumn, and his Tolkien-inspired overture The Hobbit is in the pipeline in a disc of British overtures from ASV. In the meantime, what is left, as with the Cheshire cat, is the smile, which somehow managed to surmount the physical distress of his last years, when the inroads of cancer combined with the post-polio syndrome that had affected him since youth. The tenor Ian Partridge, who sang on both CDs of Blyton songs, recalled those sessions: “I loved his sense of humour—for a man in such pain, he was always joking and made the recording days at Snape such a pleasure. It was wonderful to see his face as he listened to music which in many cases hadn’t been performed for many years.”