meet our king of satire. . . and panto
The year was 1969. The place was the South Mall in Cork. The man was a young RTE reporter by the name of Bill O'Herlihy who was there to do a vox pop on new revelations about the dangers of smoking, for a magazine programme called Newsbeat, and when a friend of his, Frank Duggan, passed by, the two of them cooked up a plan for a skit.
Duggan hurriedly recruited a friend who had an office nearby, got him to borrow an old coat and a cap from the caretaker in his building.
The fellow duly slouched towards O'Herlihy, pulling furiously on the butt of a cigarette, between hacking coughs.
"Do you think cigarettes are a danger to your health?" O'Herlihy asked him, on camera.
"I smoke 80 a day," the man wheezed, in a broad Cork accent, "and they've no effect whatsoever."
From such modest beginnings, an iconic Irish comedy act was born. Newsbeat was presented by Frank Hall, and Hall asked Duggan and his friend, Michael Twomey, to provide regular material for his programme.
They duly created a pair of unlikely philosophers, Cha and Miah, and each week would see the two characters, wrapped in worn overcoats and old scarves, seated on a bench by the Lee, pontificating on current affairs.
Hall started a satirical show, Hall's Pictorial Weekly, in 1971, and Cha and Miah joined him. Until the show ended, in 1980, they were an integral and hugely popular part of the line-up, contributing their segment each week, in a distinctive Cork idiom.
"We were suddenly plunged into the limelight," Twomey says, "but no- one was ever quite sure which was which. They were always calling me Cha, and Frank Miah." (The names, incidentally, are Cork abbreviations of Charles and Jeremiah.)
Hall's Pictorial Weekly was notorious for its lampooning of Liam Cosgrave's Fine Gael-Labour coalition government from 1973 to 1977, and was reputedly influential in the ultimate downfall of that government.
Cosgrave was portrayed as the "Minister for Hardship", while the Minister for Finance, Richie Ryan, was lampooned as "Richie Ruin".
In one sketch (available on YouTube), the Minister for Hardship, played by a droll Eamon Morrissey, announces a toll on O'Connell Bridge, and a plan to deal with complaints about the cost of living:
"I have instructed the minister concerned to re-open the workhouses and see to it that all mothers and children receive bowls of nourishing gruel. Men, of course, can look out for themselves. They have bummed off the country long enough."
Hall was "a genius", recalls Twomey, and Hall's Pictorial Weekly was "of tremendous significance".
"It was the first programme of its kind in Ireland, and there hasn't ever been another TV programme like it."
Scrap Saturday lived up to the precedent set by Hall's Pictorial Weekly, he says, but he can't think of anything since to have done so. "There isn't the same biting satirical comment today. But we need it.
"I'd love to see some good satirical writers arrive on the scene. Every day there's new material."
And, after a decade of boom that made for bland satire, he says, "there's a crowd of 'characters' back in government again."
Twomey first took to the stage aged 11, and has now been performing for "over 60 years".
On Sunday night, he is on stage again, as host of Sunday Night at the Palace, at the Everyman Palace Theatre in Cork.
This is a Christmas special of the Sunday Night series, a musical revue sprinkled with recitals and light comedy -- topical, but not satirical, he says -- and with a nostalgic tone. This Sunday's line-up features Mary Hegarty, Donal Ring Jnr, the Airport Singers with Ann Healy Mayes and Michael Casey on the piano.
For Twomey, this Sunday has a special resonance. A few hours before he takes to the Everyman stage as compere, his 11-year-old granddaughter, Julie, will perform on the same stage in the Everyman's panto, Aladdin.
Twomey himself started out on stage aged 11, "over 60 years ago," and is also a panto veteran. Curiously, that emerged from his career as a satirist.
In the early 1970s, Noel Pearson, as a young impresario, was producing the panto at the Cork Opera House, and Pearson asked "Cha and Miah" to play a pair of henchmen to that year's panto villain.
"We didn't fit in very well," recalls Twomey. "We were two laid-back comedians, whose routine was based on sitting back and talking quietly. Panto needs something more ... . robust."
But the following year, Pearson asked Twomey to direct the panto, and he did it every year for 30 years thereafter.
"I didn't cast myself," he says, "but I was always the stand-by in case someone was sick, and over the years I've played every part in panto. With the exception of the fairy queen."
The secret of panto, he says, is simple: never forget that panto is for children. "It's always good to include a couple of good lines for adults," he says, but never at the expense of holding the children's attention.
He's also a traditionalist. "I'm not keen on modernising pantos, with space-ships and that. I'm a great believer in the traditional fairytale.
"Panto has a moral purpose. It's about the conflict between good and evil, and children can identify with that."
A satirist might say that there's more than children, in Ireland, in need of a good dose of panto.
For information on Aladdin and Sunday Night at the Palace: Christmas Special see www.everymanpalace.com or call (021) 450 1673.