“I thought that was him coming,” says Frank Duggan, who looks disappointed as he escorts my colleague and I into the sitting room of his home in Blackrock in Cork. “I was about to shut the door on him and say we weren’t buying anything.”
The funny thing about Michael and Frank is that they are as game for a laugh and just as funny as their alter egos, Cha and Miah, the legendary Cork comic pair who exit the stage next week. Frank’s home is the setting for a final rehearsal for the last performance of Cha and Miah.
“We’re getting a bit long in the tooth,” explains Frank. “It’s been great fun all the way but remembering lines is getting harder and there is only so much you can ad-lib. It’s time to go.”
They deserve a rest, having been trouping the boards and filling our TV screens with laughter for the best part of half a century.
Frank recalls how it all began. “It was in 1969 and Bill O’Herlihy was a young reporter with Telefís Éireann at the time and was doing a vox pop, interviewing people on the dangers of smoking.”
Michael finally pants in the door after running the gauntlet of Cork City traffic. Jim Queally, who is the Third Man in Cha and Miah, comes to attention: “All stand,” he orders, in mock salute to the tall, patrician thespian before us. “Mr Twomey has arrived.”
Mr T wags his finger in Jim’s direction, feigning a lapse of memory to put him in his place. “I know I know you from somewhere, but I cannot place you... Don’t tell me; it’ll come to me.”
He takes up the tale of the birth of Cha and Miah. “I roped Frank in and he wrote a short script for me, being very talented in that department. I then borrowed an old coat and cap and coughed my way through an interview with Bill O’Herlihy, telling him that smoking 80 fags a day had no effect on me whatsoever.”
He displays the tattered coat which had been in Cork Museum since their last ‘retirement’ four years ago.
The sheer madness of the interview and the thick Cork accent used caught on. Soon, Frank Hall, then one of Ireland’s best known broadcasters, came calling. “Frank asked me to do a spot on his programme, Newsbeat, so I got Duggan involved and that’s how Cha and Miah began. You could say we started at the top and have been working our way down rapidly.”
Jim, who plays the barman in Killinaskully, nods in agreement. A ‘straight man’ foil for the funnymen, his job is to pour the pints while the two lads philosophise about the state of the nation. “I designed the stage bar so they decided to put me behind it,” says Jim.
“Nobody’s perfect,” snorts Cha, which causes Jim to remind him of the kind of pints he’ll have to drink on stage this week. “They can’t be real, so we make them up with Coke and cream. They’re disgusting, the worst pints served anywhere in Cork and they have to drink them. It’s upsetting even to watch them drink the stuff although mind you, Michael actually likes it... makes you wonder.”
There are times when you don’t know whether you are talking to Cha and Miah or Michael and Frank. The banter comes thick and fast but, like the old pros they are, they know that is not enough to engage an audience. Each show is scripted, rewritten, worked on, and rehearsed. It is a collaborative effort both on and off the stage.
“Michael does most of the script,” explains Frank. “I throw in my tuppence worth, then we see how it goes. We might alter the structure of the script so the tagline comes at the end or change as we go along as some jokes go down better than others.”
Like Michael and Frank, Cha and Mia evolved over the years to become the comic duo we have come to know and love. Though their thick Cork accents are similar, the characters are quite distinct, as Frank explains: “Miah (played by Michael Twomey) is the pub philosopher, the know-all, while Cha hasn’t enough intelligence to realise that Miah, in fact, knows feck all. I am the eejit who comes out with the nuggets of wisdom.”
This dumb-and-dumber combination is popular with comics the world over. “In fact, English people who see the show have often said that we remind them of Dudley Cook and Peter Moore.”
Like any good ad-libber, Michael spots his opening and brings forth his alter ego, going for the jugular: “You got that one wrong, boy. It’s Dudley Moore and Peter Cooke, not Dudley Cooke and Peter Moore.”
Cha adjusts his thinking cap to scratch his head: “Are you sure?”
Miah gives him a look of paternal disdain. “Certain, boy. No doubt about it.”
I wonder if they have ever ‘died’ on stage. “Not really,” says Frank. “We might have the occasional bad night when the audience reaction is down a bit but, generally, we have been very lucky.”
They have also been very close, enjoying an amicable pairing and friendship throughout the years, with barely a skirmish. But as Michael recalls: “We had one major cross word and it was in the Stardust nightclub in Dublin in the 70s, long before the tragic fire there.
“We were top of the bill, with our name in lights and the place was jammed. Two knockabout comedians from England came on first and then we were announced. ‘Ladies and gentlemen... all the way from Cork and Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, Cha and Miah — and now chicken suppers are being served.’ There was an almighty racket.”
Amid the din, they could smell the fried chicken. Michael took umbrage. “After a while, I said to Frank to cut to the final gags and we finished up. Frank blew the ears off me for being unprofessional. We both sulked in the car on the way home and never even spoke until we got to Portlaoise.”
The prospect of literally dying came close in Clare, according to Frank. “It was in Kilkee or Kilrush. There was food upstairs in the kitchen after the show but there was a huge alsatian on the top step. Michael said: ‘Duggan, you must not show any fear because they can smell that. Remember, I am right behind you.’ The dog began to growl as we got closer. We suddenly both lost our appetites and made a run for it. We had our money, anyway.”
The days with RTÉ and Frank Hall have a particular fondness for them. As well as Cha and Miah, they also did a regular sketch with Duggan as the gormless TV interviewer and Twomey as Paddy Joe Canavan, the sage from Toreendohenybeg.
As much of the filming was a one-take operation, the trouble was in remembering their lines. “I had an old pair of shoes with the sole separated from the upper and I used to stick the script into that and read from it,” says Michael.
“Frank Hall copped on to it, though, and I had to stop. It was very handy, all the same for holding the script,” he recalls wistfully.
Cha spots his own opening and steals the last laugh. “Nowadays we could use velcro.”
“But it’s a rip-off.”
Exit, stage left.
* The Cha & Miah Farewell Laughter Show, presented by Patrick Talbot Productions, runs at the Everyman Palace Theatre in Cork from Jul 11 to Jul 21.