HONORARY Freeman of Cork and one half of the legendary comedy duo Cha and Miah that dominated our stages and screens for more than 40 years, Frank Duggan shows no sign of slowing down.
The fit and healthy 80-something- year-old bounded ahead of me as we chatted and walked around the Lough at a safe distance a few weeks ago. And, in response to my invitation to meet again for another chat in the future, he suggested: “Okay. But next time, we might up the pace!”
His indefatigable spirit was born in Gardiner’s Hill, where he was raised alongside his two brothers. The Duggans loved listening to the radio and Frank recalls many afternoons and evenings spent gathered en famille to listen to Question Time with Joe Linnane or Hospitals Requests on Raidio Éireann.
But it was to the BBC that they turned for their light entertainment and Frank recalls feasting on the verbal brilliance of comedians like Eric Barker, Tommy Handley, Frankie Howerd and The Goons, and unconsciously absorbing the essential elements of comedy that were to stand him in good stead decades later.
“The thing about comedy on the radio,” says Duggan, “is that there is obviously no visual element. So to get your laughs, you were entirely dependent on the strength of your material, your delivery, and comic timing.”
Despite his interest in comedy, however, it was as a pianist that he cut his teeth in the entertainment world. In the 1950s, Corkonians were spoiled for choice on Sunday nights with popular variety concerts staged in halls and theatres all over the city from the AOH, CCYMS Hall, and Fr Mathew Hall to the Opera House.
Frank was a brilliant, but oft times reluctant, accompanist and very much in demand. He could play anything by ear. The only drawback was that he couldn’t actually read music.
At one particular concert early in his accompanying career, the popular baritone Chris Sheehan was to open the second half of the concert. Backstage, he informed Frank he was going to sing When The Sergeant Major’s On Parade then handed Frank the sheet music.
“Dreading this would happen,” Duggan continues, “I explained to him that I didn’t read music but that I would play my own version of the song.”
As Chris had insisted he take the musical score, Frank nervously walked into the hall to the piano, which was situated close to the audience and facing towards the stage. With his back to the audience, he hurriedly placed the music on the stand, and “promptly began playing my own version of the song!”
Halfway through, he became aware of an elderly lady walking towards the piano. She tapped Frank on the shoulder and exclaimed: “Little boy, you have the music upside-down!”
Despite his dubious start as an accompanist, he played for many distinguished artists throughout his career. But he believes the pinnacle of his playing career was the celebrated Cork Late Late Show in May, 1982, during the course of which he played for Cork legends Joe Lynch, Chris Curran, Christy Morris, Donal Kenneally, David McInerney, Marie Twomey and Paddy Comerford.
So, ironically, it was as a musician that the path of Frank Duggan first crossed with Michael Twomey, in 1966. At the time, both were employed in different companies in the insurance industry and were brought together, along with a few other artists, to produce a little light entertainment for The Insurance Institute of Cork as part of their programme of events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. Michael was “an experienced actor and highly respected in theatrical circles,” Frank explains. “He devised the show, produced, directed and starred in it as well.” And Frank ended up not only playing in it but writing some of the sketches and starring in them too.
The show ran for four nights in the old Group Theatre on South Main Street, long-since disappeared.
So it was that the first seeds were sown of the magical partnership and dear friendship that was to last for more than four decades.
One evening, as they chatted on the South Mall after work, Frank spotted his friend Bill O’Herlihy, formerly of the Examiner, who was now a roving reporter on RTÉ TV’s hugely popular Newsbeat. A precursor of sorts to the present-day Nationwide, it was presented by Frank Hall and featured quirky stories from around the country.
Bill and cameraman Joe McCarthy were “conducting a vox pop in Cork city on the perils of smoking”, adds Duggan. As they chatted with him, Frank and Michael came up with the idea of punctuating the genuine interviews with a ‘spoof’ one. Bill thought it was a great idea and the two boys immediately dashed off and wrote a two-minute script based on the no-smoking theme.
Michael borrowed an old overcoat and cap and gave Bill a copy of the script so that he could ask him the appropriate questions off camera.
Recorded on the spot, Michael hilariously smoked, coughed and spluttered his way through the interview. Needless to say, the item was a massive hit, and what’s more, opened doors for the boys in RTÉ TV that resulted in a slot on Newsbeat, then latterly on the hugely popular Halls Pictorial Weekly, every week from September to May for 14 years.
The characters, Cha and Miah, dressed in old coats and caps with their ‘park-bench philosophies’, were born, and quickly became household names across Ireland. Their weekly TV appearances fed a constant demand for them to appear in concert and cabaret the length and breadth of the country. In fact, Frank says the only two counties they didn’t appear were Donegal and Monaghan. “So,” he adds with a smile “you at least have two counties with good taste!”
For more than 40 years, Miah ‘shared’ his superior knowledge with Cha and continually berated him on his lack of intelligence. Poor Cha, for his part, continued to be impressed by Miah’s ‘genius’ and lacked sufficient cop on to realise Miah was, quite often, talking through his proverbial hat.
Occasionally, Cha would come out with a genuine nugget of wisdom only to be chastised by Miah for his stupidity. According to Frank, “one of Miah’s inimitable put downs was ‘Cha, if you had any more brains, you’d be a half-wit!’”
Duggan adds: “So some of the best stories would be in the context of their contrasting personalities and their inability to understand and tolerate each other.”
One such story involved Miah explaining to Cha the terrible damage an oil spill caused to the sea life in the ‘Golf’ of Mexico. He concluded his account with a withering “not that you’d know anything about oil pollution, Cha!” To which Cha responded: “Let me tell you, Miah, I know all about oil pollution and the damage it does to the fishes. Only recent (sic), didn’t I buy a tin of sardines and when I opened the tin, it was half full of oil, and all the sardines were dead!”
Cha was confident he had made a valuable contribution to the debate and Miah gave up in disgust.
One of the best gimmicks Cha and Miah used over the years was the delayed reaction by Cha to one of Miah’s jokes.
Frank explains: “Usually the joke was one of the better ones and Miah would deliver the tag-line with great aplomb, much to the delight of the audience.”
As he was revelling in the fun of the moment, Miah would suddenly realise Cha wasn’t laughing along.
“I don’t folly that at all now,” Cha would insist. And despite his best efforts to break it down for Cha, Miah was met only with a blank expression, to which he would dismissively announce: “Forget about it, Cha. You’re just too tick!”
The sketch would move on and, after about five minutes, in the middle of an entirely different story, Cha would suddenly understand the joke he had missed earlier and burst out laughing. It was only when he repeated the tag line that Miah would realise what Cha was laughing at. These interactions had audiences in hysterics all over the country.
Perhaps no account of Cha and Miah is complete without reference to the sensational success of Summer Revels at the Cork Opera House, which ran during the entire month of August for 21 consecutive years.
A massively popular variety show, jam-packed with music, song, dance and comedy, it featured all the stalwarts of the Cork stage including the Montforts, Billa Connell, Paddy Comerford, Chris Sheehan, Dick Healy, Marie Twomey, Dave McInerney, and of course Cha and Miah. Once the run at the Opera House had concluded, the show would then tour to major towns in Cork and Kerry.
“From the point of view of everyone involved in the show,” Duggan adds, “it was very gratifying to have the same patrons come to the show year after year. Their consistent support was greatly appreciated.”
Meticulous planning, magnificent attention to detail, an incredible work ethic, combined with a keen ear for dialogue, a razor sharp instinct for a good story, and blistering comic timing, were just some of the elements that set Cha and Miah, aka Frank Duggan and Michael Twomey, apart from their contemporaries and earned them the justifiable accolade of Honorary Freemen of Cork.
Frank has replaced the excitement of touring the country as Cha with the occasional brisk run-walk around the Lough and maintains an unquenchable zest for life.