First encounters


MICHAEL TWOMEY is an actor, writer and theatre director most famous as Miah, half of the Cork comedy duo Cha (played by Frank Duggan) and Miah. He recently starred in The Sunshine Boys, a play about a comedy duo who have grown to hate each other, at the Everyman Palace in Cork. He and his wife, Marie live in Cork.

‘I WAS WORKING in an insurance firm when Frank and I met, but I’d been acting since I was 11. My mother was born in Belfast and was beginning to find she didn’t understand my Cork accent, so she sent me to elocution lessons when I was about nine or 10. Two years later, I got a part in a play and that’s how I started.

“Frank was an accomplished accompanist and musical director and we’d done cabarets together for the Insurance Institute. Then in 1969, Bill O’Herlihy was doing a vox pop on the South Mall on the dangers of smoking for Frank Hall’s RTÉ show Newsbeat. Frank, a friend of Bill’s, happened to be passing and said ‘wouldn’t it be an idea to get a fella to take the mickey out of this?’ Bill said yes, but who’ll do it? Frank said I know a fella who works over there and he does a bit of stage work and he’ll do it cheap.

“So I borrowed the building porter’s cap and coat, got a butt of a cigarette. Bill asked ‘d’you think smoking’s having any affect on you?’ ‘Not at all I said’ and it went on from there. There was a tremendous reaction, not because we were uproariously funny but because people discovered the Cork accent. Then Frank Hall asked for more. We had to invent a second character, that’s how Frank arrived on the scene. We picked what we considered to be typical Cork names, Charles and Jeremiah.

“The idea was we’d be two typical Cork guys, sitting in a pub, discussing matters of national and international importance. Now and again, Miah is wrong. Cha loves that. We never planned the characters. As it turned out, Miah was married with 17 children and Cha had been doing a line for 20 years with Flossie.

“There’s nothing of Miah in me, I wouldn’t think so. He’s just another character that as an actor I performed. People do recognise us, even still, in Cork. We were travelling all over the country to concerts and cabarets, travelled so many thousands of miles together that if we didn’t get on it would have been impossible.

“Frank and I have been a duo for 43 years. I can never remember having a quarrel or an argument at the most, perhaps a mild disagreement when we were doing a postmortem on a show. I retired from insurance in 2002 and devoted all my energy to theatre.

“I was involved in writing and directing the annual panto in the Opera House for 30 years and later became very involved with the Everyman Palace Theatre.

“Frank’s greatest gift is helping me to keep both feet on the ground.

“Sometimes I’ll think I’ve written a brilliant script, read it to Frank and realise it’s not as good as I thought it was.”

FRANK DUGGAN is a pianist and accompanist in Cork and by day, was an insurance official until he retired at 60. He played Cha in the comedy duo Cha and Miah. He lives in Cork with his wife, Anne.

‘WE BOTH WORKED on the South Mall in Cork, both for insurance companies. We met in shows put on by the Insurance Institute, did a cabaret spot at the annual dinner. I played the piano, my mother had insisted that I take lessons. Michael and I have worked together for over 43 years, are both in our mid to late seventies.

“Because of some quirk in the licensing laws, the old Cork Opera House was the only place you could get a drink on a Sunday night, so no matter what you put on, you were guaranteed a full house. Anyone who could string two notes together was roped in and that’s how I started in showbusiness.

“The very first time I’d played in public was in an upstairs theatre in Cork. I was 25 and playing piano for a guy called Chris. You had to sit with your back to the audience. I don’t read music but Chris was nervous and said, take it, so without looking at what I was doing I put the music up on the stand. At the end, an old lady hobbled over to me in front of the audience and said, little boy, you’ve the music upside down.

“Bill O’Herlihy was an old butty of mine; he had a year’s contract working with Frank Hall on a programme called Newsbeat. I had started to try my hand at writing material for it. And then as Michael explained, Cha and Miah were born. We’d no idea, none at all, that the act was going to last for 40-odd years. The Cork accent was a huge bonus for us. It’s the uppy/down element, it’s funny.

“After that, we were on TV every week once a week, for 14 years, from around 1969 to 1981: it started out as Newsbeat and became Hall’s Pictorial Weekly around 1971.

“Are we like Cha and Miah in real life? I hope not. Miah is worldly wise, very knowledgeable; my character, Cha, is hugely impressed. In real life, our friendship has been maintained for over 40 years although we go our separate ways. We live within five minutes of each other in the Blackrock area and each have our own circle of friends. That was better for us. We’ve got on very well down the years, we’re very placid.

“I retired from my job at the age of 60 and then theatre took over. I never thought of leaving Cork. And I never thought of acting full time. I was never tempted, I must say, and my father would have been appalled if I had ever raised it.

“Did we change? We got older. I’ve been an accompanist although now I’m robbed of that by a form of arthritis that makes my fingers curve. I’ve had to turn down a fair few offers of work, but there you are.

“The best thing about Michael is he’s a very stable personality. And we can be very honest with each other, absolutely.”

In conversation with FRANCES O'ROURKE