The world was watching, it was a new millennium, and Australia was enjoying one of its proudest moments as it hosted the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Near the end of the closing ceremony five floats boasted the country's most iconic figures around the stadium. Such highly selected celebrities in the pantheon of Aussie culture included singer Kylie Minogue, model Elle Macpherson, golfer Greg Norman, Crocodile Dundee’s Paul Hogan, and, of course, the perpetually joyful and oversized Bananas in Pajamas — or Pyjamas according to the local spelling of the cozy garments.
The adoration was so immense that following their appearance, stars Kenneth Radley (otherwise known as B1) and Nicholas Opolski (B2), who played the Bananas for 10 years, remember being asked for autographs by some of the world’s most prominent athletes. Gold medals were great, but it appears meeting two of the most famous fruits in the world was priceless. It was a moment in time that encapsulated the sheer love fans had for the characters. “We took the Bananas suits off and steam was coming off of our heads. We were just drinking water and trying to recover, and these 30 or 40 athletes from all over the world were right in front of us wanting our autograph,” Radley recalls over Facetime, as he sits in his car in the countryside, a half dozen kangaroos hopping around him.
Somehow, this bizzare and warmhearted children's show, that premiered on Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) 25 years ago, had conquered the hearts and giggles of a generation at home and abroad. “The world was ready for the fruit,” jokes Radley when asked about why he thinks the Bananas became a global phenomenon. “Children love absurdity,” he adds. Few things are more amusingly absurd than a pair of potassium-filled characters always comfortably dressed.
Adapted from a song by British author Carey Blyton, which was first included in his 1972 book Bananas in Pyjamas: A Book of Nonsense with Words and Music and was then used on the long-standing Australian preschool program Playhouse, the Bananas in Pajamas are a pair of goofy twins who live on Cuddles Avenue next door to three teddy bears: Amy (Sandie Lillingston/Mary-Ann Henshaw), Morgan (Jeremy Scrivener), and Lulu (Taylor Owynns).
They own a two story home, thus they come down the stairs every morning as the song claims, and use their time, when not involved in misadventures, to patrol the nearby beach. “They were not stupid but they were not bright. They had a simple life those bananas," says co-creator and producer Helena Harris, who was integral in making their presence ubiquitous in their heyday through merchandise and live-shows. Harris holds Blyton's book as she speaks during an hour-long interview via Skype, her face lighting up at every mention of Bananas.
Harris named two of the teddies after her children, Amy and Morgan, who were unconsciously influential to the series as their mother took everyday problems in her childrens' lives to inform the plot on screen. It could even be said that the conflicts in Bananas in Pajamas were often based on real events. “I thought they were universal themes and that all children around the world would actually have similar small struggles in their lives.”
The five-minute episodes, of which there are hundreds, were the perfect bite-size content to entertain children in the same age group as her own kids. Unlike other TV shows aimed at that young demographic, the Bananas did not include an educational component — it was laughs they were after.
According to Harris, Budget was always tight on the show, and that was often the source of arguments between her and the higher-ups. However, one element of the show posed an even bigger problem: the fact that two seemingly male bananas shared a bedroom.
“The board of the ABC had heard that I was doing a show where I had two bananas and that they were sleeping in the same room. They were both boys and they slept in the same room," she says. "This was the early '90s. People were a bit more concerned about that than they are now. I had to actually justify it, which I could quite easily because they were twin boys. The moment I said they were twin brothers and they slept in the same room all was fine, but up until then the idea a couple of bananas sharing a room they didn’t seem to like.”
Bananas in Pajamas was eventually sold to over 100 countries and dubbed into dozens of languages. “The mouths didn’t move, therefore dubbing into another language was very simple,” explains Harris about the practicality of the suits’ permanent smiles in terms of international marketability.
Harris knew the characters had transcended mere curiosity the first time they made a live appearance outside the studio at an event with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Battling heavy rain at a park, around 195,000 people, mostly parents and children, showered the Bananas with their excitement as soon as they took the stage.
“It was a career highlight. It’s probably what I’m going to be remembered for when I depart this Earth,” says Radley about his time under B1’s peel. Both he and Opolski knew each other years before taking on the roles as students at The National Institute of Dramatic Arts, the premier acting school in Australia. There, the two became well versed in Chekhov and delved into Stanislavski, but it was their very physical performances in those 8‘6 banana suits that marked their careers. “We are classically trained bananas,” Radley candidly says, who most recently appeared on Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.
To ripen into their roles, both Bananas had to learn about the physicality required to make the suits live. “Prior to shooting the pilot episodes we had a little bit of training from a suit character in Australia called Humphrey B. Bear, who taught us how to cry in a suit.” Of course, the impossibly hot and uncomfortable costumes didn’t have interchangeable facial expressions, but relied on the actor’s ability to create emotion through movement and voice. The suits had a tiny microphone inside the head to record their dialogue, but since the quality was very low, they would rerecord their lines in a studio later. With no lip-synching issues it was an easy fix.
“We were so hot in the costumes that the air-conditioning in the studio was set to Arctic cold. The poor crew members were the real heroes. They had to dress in thick coats, scarves and gloves, and we'd be sweating away inside our big banana suits,” remembers Opolski about the practical intricacies of shooting the show. Today he finds ironic beauty in the fact that his face is not visible on his most recognizable credit as an actor. “Did it change my life? Yes. When you're dressed as a large piece of fruit, you can't take yourself too seriously, and that means you have a lot more fun in life.”
Being a Banana was an opportunity to entertain and share happiness far and wide, even with children fighting terminal illnesses whose only dream was to meet B1 and B2. Their impact was palpable in the tiny faces of young fans. Radley holds back tears when discussing those meetings, which he considers an honor.
At their most outrageous popularity peak, the Bananas were invited to the White House Easter Egg Roll under Bill Clinton, they visited London, inspired fashion designers, got their portrait painted by artist Evert Ploeg, and in 1997 a giant inflatable Banana float sailed Sydney Harbor as a part of the Australia Day celebrations. They became part of pop culture with their innocent antics and endearing nonsense, so much that in the late '90s the idea of a feature film about the pair floated around, yet ultimately it never came to fruition.
Opolski notes that it was an episode of a popular American TV drama that made him realize the extent of the shows success. “There was an episode of ER where George Clooney said to a little kid, ‘I bet you’d rather be watching Bananas in Pajamas.’ That made the Australian newspapers.” People went bananas (pun totally intended) at the notion that the homegrown fruit had tapped into the zeitgeist at that level.
Both actors became recording artists, thanks to the show, and earned two gold records for the high sales of the Bananas in Pajamas albums. “I can't sing a note, and I've got two gold records in my hallway, fantastic,” confirms Opolski. The actor also confesses he is unable to throw away any Bananas memorabilia. His treasure chest of nostalgia-inducing artifacts is too precious to let go of even if he has no use for it now beyond their gleeful memories.
“One of the most marvelous things about that show was the brevity of it,” says Di Drew, one of two directors who were behind the largest amount of episodes. According to her, Bananas was as hilarious to rehearse and shoot as it was to watch. Her prolific career in film and television has provided plenty of satisfactions, but a show as peculiar as this stands alone above most. “I have a favorite photo which sits in my studio. It’s me in the arms of B1. He is all suited up and he is cradling me in his arms. It’s one of my favorite photos of my entire career,” Drew shares energetically.
For Sophia Turkiewicz, directing Bananas in Pajamas was her first job in television. She was trying to make the transition from the harsh feature film realm into a more reliable position. “It was a really important turning point in my life,” she explains. Her son was four-years-old when she started working on the show and was one of the first children to fall for the Bananas. Turkiewicz would bring rough cuts home after a day of shooting and noticed how engaged her boy was.
In the both of these filmmakers's careers, Bananas continue to be their most recognizable work and it rings true that there is nothing but fondness in the way they remember their time on Cuddles Avenue. “We had no idea how successful it was going to be. It was just amazing to see it take off and get that reputation around the world,” concludes Turkiewicz.
Writer and co-creator Simon Hopkinson, who has now made a career out children’s programs, considered himself solely a serious playwright. But when he found himself in need of work, he was serendipitously asked to help create the show. He formulated the framework for the characters and their relationships in the taxi ride from the ABC offices to his place based entirely on the original song. Hopkinson wrote the first three pilot scripts and went onto pen dozens episodes — his favorite being Amy’s Trombone directed by Tony Tilse.
He humorously mentions how the Bananas influence was so widespread, even government officials couldn’t escape it. “In Australia the terms B1 and B2 have become part of the vernacular. We had a primer minister called Bob Hawke, and he got married to a woman called Blanche d’Alpuget. The press always referred to them as B1 and B2.”
Now living and working in Amsterdam, Richard Tulloch, who coined the phrase “Are you thinking what I’m thinking, B1?” "I think I am, B2!" and was the other main writer, was behind 150 episodes out hundreds of others he pitched but where never approved for a variety of reasons. Tulloch once pitched an episode where the Bananas got lost in fog. Even on a limited budget fake fog was not unthinkable, but the concern was that it would take hours for it to clear the set and they needed to film scenes from several episodes in the same day.
Tulloch also remembers that after being introduced in the second series, the mischievous Rat in a Hat (Shane McNamara), became the writers’ favorite character because he could create conflict, but producers wanted to limit his appearance so that viewers wouldn’t miss their favorite companions. Why the Bananas become so beloved, nobody can be sure, but Tulloch offers his take: “Successful shows for kids often have something slightly offbeat about them.”
To celebrate the 25th anniversary the Australian mint has just released two coins, a 20-cent and a 5-cent coin engraved with the characters, and some years ago the post office issued a Bananas in Pajamas stamp. Back in 2011, ten years after the cancellation of the live-action iteration, an animated series was launched, while most of the original creators were not involved, the hope was to introduce the characters to new audiences.
Twenty-five years after they came down the stairs for the first time, these two yellow fellows who were lovers of munchy honey cakes and who wore extraordinary outfits galore (throughout the series they wore more than 100 dress-up costumes from fairies to astronauts!), haven’t lost their winning attitude and huggable nature. It's heartwarming, though not shocking, to hear the enthusiastic words and utter bliss with which all of these collaborators describe their experience crafting the fun show. Their accounts match the way countless children surely felt while watching it. The joyful moments the Bananas delivered will never spoil — all these years have simply enriched their sweetness.