Carey Blyton was the composer behind the toddlers’ popular song Bananas in Pyjamas. A nephew of Enid Blyton, he created the nonsense verse while singing his son Matthew to sleep. But Blyton was also a serious musician, and after a long career concerned with the publication of other composers’ music, his own works have recently been recorded, ensuring that he will be remembered as an exceptional composer of English song.
Bananas in Pyjamas is a 30-second ditty for children contained in a book of that name published by Faber & Faber in 1972. It was taken up by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in 1973 and used in several children’s television programmes. Twenty years later the bananas were given names, personalities and their own programme on the ABC. After spawning a stage show and a series of films, the Bananas in Pyjamas merchandising machine began to boom. For Blyton the fruit of his labour was occasionally hard to see. Although he owned the copyright of the music, and was duly rewarded when it was broadcast, the copyright of the characters belongs to the ABC. Unfortunately, some elements of the British media slipped on this particular banana skin and at least one national newspaper was forced to print an apology after suggesting that Blyton was being short-changed by the Australian broadcasting giant.
Carey Blyton was born in Beckenham, Kent. His early education was at the Beckenham and Penge Grammar School, and he averred that he was not drawn in the direction of music until he was struck by polio in 1947. Determined not to allow disablement to defeat him, he used his two-year convalescence to learn to play the piano. Soon his innate musicianship came to the fore. He began to compose songs and some chamber music, and in 1950 entered London University College, where he became a founder member of a group of similarly minded young artists known as the Beckenham Salon. Their president was Sir Arthur Bliss, who became Master of the Queen’s Musick in 1953. That year Blyton entered Trinity College of Music, where he studied with William Lovelock. He won the Granville Bantock Prize for Composition in 1954, and three years later was awarded a Winston Churchill Endowment Fund Scholarship to study at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, where he worked with Jørgen Jersild, with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship and mutual appreciation.
Returning to England in 1958, Blyton became an editor at Mills Music, where his responsibilities included overseeing the works of Richard Rodney Bennett and Roberto Gerhard. From 1963 he was a freelance arranger and editor, working at Faber Music from 1964. There he edited works by Gustav Holst and became associated with the publishing of many of Benjamin Britten’s scores, from Curlew River to Owen Wingrave. From 1963 he spent a decade on the professional staff of the Trinity College of Music and from 1972 another decade as Professor of Composition for Film, Television and Radio at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
During this time he continued to produce his own original works, many of which are published. At Faber Music he collaborated with Donald Mitchell to produce The Faber Book of Nursery Songs. He also composed several scores for film and televisions shows, including music for three episodes of Doctor Who. Blyton’s orchestral and instrumental works, many of which are published by Fand Music, include his Cinque Ports and Overture: The Hobbit as well as music for solo guitar, A Catch for Wind Instruments and some exceptional vocal works, including Lachrymae—In Memoriam John Dowland and Lyrics from the Chinese, which have recently been recorded by Ian Partridge with the Britten Sinfonia under Nicholas Cleobury for the Upbeat label.
In 1997 a clear-out of Blyton’s drawers, his first for more than 30 years, revealed that his famous aunt had suffered more than 500 rejections from publishers when she first started writing. In a letter to her nephew she wrote: “You don’t put me off with the talk of your disappointments—such a tale is quite usual.” In later years Blyton and his wife, Mary, moved to the Suffolk town of Woodbridge, where he relished the beauty and atmosphere and was filled with plans before his health declined.
He is survived by his wife and two sons, and a legacy of music and writing that looks destined to give pleasure for many years to come.
A week after the above obituary was published, it was followed up by a letter from a reader:
Carey Blyton was highly regarded and popular with generations of Open University students attending the Arts Foundation summer schools held at Westfield College, Hampstead, in the 1980s. Despite his severe physical disabilities he devoted himself apparently tirelessly to his music students and never confined himself merely to the set course work. In the evenings he held court at his informal musical entertainments, which became one of the highlights of the extra-curricular enjoyments.
At the formal summer school concerts he performed his own witty musical compositions and in addition regularly recruited impromptu choirs. His company was always delightful, amusing and infectious, and sometimes naughty. He created happy occasions for everyone.
—Frank Hakney, The Times, letters, 24th July 2002