Bananas in Pyjamas are corrupt. Or at least they are the not-so-thin end of the commercialisation wedge at the ABC. The claim is made in Bloodbath, the memoir of Patricia Edgar, founder of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, which is to be published this week by Melbourne University Press.

It’s the kind of book that will have a lot of people looking up the index to see if they get a mention. But more significant than the gossip and paybacks to media magnates and their hangers-on are the insights about policy, and the ABC in particular.

Edgar claims that Bananas in Pyjamas was commissioned purely because of the merchandising opportunities it offered. The brief was for a program with suited characters with merchandising potential: “Character merchandising was the driving force; the underlying philosophy, consumerism.”

The Bananas elbowed aside the innovative and award-winning Lift-Off, even though, according to Edgar, it was ahead of anything being done overseas, was at the forefront of educational television for pre-schoolers and would have become “the new Sesame Street“.

“The ABC had no interest in a project with the broad ranging educational philosophy of Lift-Off because they did not own it… therefore the returns from all merchandising in Lift Off did not go to the ABC…with Bananas in Pyjamas and indeed with Play School, the ABC was the sole beneficiary.”

Particularly in Edgar’s sights is then head of children’s television, Claire Henderson – still at the ABC – whom she sees as having picked up the commercialisation agenda after the head of television Paddy Conroy was forced to leave after the controversy over commercially driven outsourcing partnerships in the 1990s.

There’s more. Edgar comments on the destructive influence of “the Play School mafia” who allegedly tried to kill off any competing television program, and there are hilarious accounts of Henderson and others objecting to things such as “arcs of pee” in the hugely successful television series Round the Twist.

Edgar’s memoir covers more than 40 years at the centre of media policy concerning children, advising the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal and its predecessor. Her memoir includes acerbic insights into people including Bruce Gyngell, Phillip Adams, children’s author Paul Jennings and the marriage of Robert and Janet Holmes a Court.

Edgar herself was not always the easiest person to get on with. Phillip Adams is quoted in the blurb, describing her as “a sort of human tank”. Nevertheless one can’t read this book without being made freshly aware of how commerce can drive all other considerations out of media policy. Broadcasters are licensed to use a limited public resource, but have shown little sense of the duty that implies.

The Friends of the ABC have in the past used the Bananas in Pyjamas in campaigns to argue for more government funding for the ABC. If Edgar’s account is correct, the fruit should be dropped as campaign figures. They are not Friends. They are the pioneers of the commercialisation of the ABC.

Peter Fray

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