The Librarians: articles

Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope

Kitchen table school of laughs

Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope met through their work; they had been cast to play married couple Karen and Darryl Kelly in an episode of Small Tales & True, which Butler co-wrote.

Two years later, they married. They have two daughters and together have written, directed and acted in the ABC comedies Very Small Business and The Librarians.

Butler plays head librarian Frances O'Brien, a repressed, passive-aggressive bully with minimal understanding of her multicultural, Muslim and gay staff. Hope plays her long-suffering husband, Terry.

ROBYN BUTLER: We met making a short comedy called Treading the Boards, about an amateur theatre group. I played a very anxious, shy housewife who was getting out into the world after having a child. Wayne played my husband but I didn't really know him. Stories from the Golf [a series of short films for SBS] was the first [produced] thing we did together.

We have a very similar outlook on life, we have a similar thing to say and a similar way to express it. We're drawn to the same things, the same things make us cross — small-mindedness, intolerance — which make us write characters like Don Angel [Hope's character in Very Small Business] or Frances O'Brien.

After my nanna died, we were driving home from Newcastle, where she lived, and we heard this story about an Islamic school in Camden. The locals were up in arms, they were being insane, saying things like, "They could have anything under those burkas, they could have AK-47s".

They were planting pigs' heads all over the site because it's meant to bring seven years' bad luck to Muslims. Listening to this vitriol was so disturbing and infuriating. I was ropeable.

We wrote this into the script of Librarians 2. It took a few drafts to stop being so angry.

We'd been playing with this passive-aggressive character for a while [but] she's always been the mother, or the neighbour or a visitor. When we first started writing Frances, she was just harsh — not necessarily passive-aggressive — and at some point, we realised it wasn't working.

We'd written a couple of episodes and had a read-through to see how it sounded. It didn't gel and I think it was at that point we thought, "What if she kept it inside more? What if we made her more [Butler inflects her voice] ‘Oh, you don't like that?' instead of just telling people off?" It suddenly became a lot more interesting.

It made us laugh. We saw it in members of our family or people we know. People saying things out of the corner of their mouths, unable to say what they think. I find it hilarious because it's ridiculous. It probably made me angry too but I tend to subvert anger into comedy.

Women generally aren't that harsh in real life because from very early on, they are taught not to be; they are taught to suppress what they feel because it would not be polite and that's, I think, why Frances resonates so strongly for people.

Wayne is hilarious with ideas. If I'm working on a scene, he'll go "What if this happens?" He sees things very visually, whereas I'll just write what happens.

The first stage of writing is either sitting in the kitchen or at the bench out front, maybe going for a walk and just talking ideas. One of us will have a pad and we'll start jotting things down. There might be a bit of dialogue that's hilarious and we'll jot it down. We start writing things on cards so we can bundle them up at the end of the day.

Last year, our kitchen caught fire [and] we were waiting out front for the fire brigade when Wayne realised the cards were on the kitchen table and there was no back-up.

Luckily, the fire brigade came and put everything out. I opened the oven at the end of it all and the muffins I had been baking were perfectly cooked, so I put them into a bag and the firemen took them back to the station.

And you know what's funny? They said, "Oh, this will turn up in your next series, won't it?" And sure enough, the series opens with the library burning down. That was already written though. That was art imitating life.

WAYNE HOPE: Robyn is brilliant at dialogue, at shaping the story. She's a hound on emotion and continues to go back to the same point of, "What's the feeling? What's the truth of this?". Whereas I tend to start giggling about Dawn (Heidi Arena) crashing one too many times into a bookshelf, Robyn is the first of the two of us to go, "Hang on, this is enjoyable but it's not getting us anywhere". I'll argue back for a while that it's fun but unless we agree on something, it's gone. She's great at that part of it. I wouldn't say she's got the sharper wit but she can definitely spell better.

Our creative differences are often along gender lines. I'll trust Robyn more now, despite the fact that I won't feel the same thing.

In this series, Christine (Roz Hammond) is pregnant and that brings a whole lot of mothering issues.

When we were writing, Robyn was like "Oh, this is an incredible moment" and I would think, "I don't know if that's going to work". And sure enough, you do a read-through and all the women are like, "Oh my god", having this incredible emotional response to it and me and [actor-writer] Bob Franklin are sitting there admiring the response but not really knowing what it's about. It's good now, because it's not as if we write extremes, gender-wise.

We always say if it doesn't fix itself around the kitchen table, it's not going to get any better, it will just chase us all the way to the editing suite.

I'm a bit more secure than I was 10 years ago. We got the opportunity to make a few things together and I sensed we would continue to work together.

When I was younger, I had a lot of trouble hearing that something wasn't working. It took me a long time to realise Robyn wasn't attacking me when she was critical.

Robyn was the one who pushed us to go with Stories from the Golf. We had several scripts that we'd written together but couldn't get up. It was out of frustration that Robyn said, "Come on, let's just make the whole thing".

Working together, the pace is much faster, the shorthand is so rich and you don't know you're drawing on it half the time. An idea ticks and we chase it very quickly. We agree on it and lock it in much quicker.

One of the most common things we are asked is, "How can you be married and work together?" The direct benefit is the shorthand we have.

It's when we're out eating somewhere and a family will walk in and we'll both notice them. Two of the children will be very overweight and we'll instantly look to the parents talking to them, and the way they're talking back to their parents, and with no words spoken our eyes will meet. I know that we've both chased the same thing and that the car ride home is going to be fun.

The first series of The Librarians was written at a time when there was a fair amount of unhappiness with the political situation. It was around the time of the children overboard and we were unhappy about lots of things like that. So Frances encapsulated a lot of that. It was easy for us to pop a lot of that in. It's not so overt in the material. It becomes personalised as her intolerance. We like being able to bring things like that to it.

It's fantastic when we all fire up. Recently we had a family holiday. I had to visit my estranged father in a home. He can no longer speak and it was very confronting. It was very sad. Automatically, because it's a very sad situation and very confronting, it's ripe for us kicking around as a way of dealing with it. We drove for about 10 days and around the 10-day mark we started impersonating him, the nurse …

Molly, our 14-year-old, started asking, "Why is this funny?" "Because you know what comedy is?" Robyn asked her. "It's tragedy plus time". She'd never heard that before.

By Paul Kalina
Photo: Simon Schluter
July 30, 2009
The Age