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An Obscure British Comedy Sketch Became a Hit in Germany

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The Popularity of Dinner for One

A British comedy sketch of uncertain provenance called Dinner for One became immensely popular in Germany as a television version. It is now the most frequently screened television program in history, anywhere in the world. Until recently, it was virtually unknown in the United Kingdom.

Freddy Frinton plays the butler and May Warden plays Miss Sophie.

Freddy Frinton plays the butler and May Warden plays Miss Sophie.

Dinner for One: The Plot

Aristocratic Miss Sophie celebrates her birthday with a formal dinner accompanied by four close lovers. However, Miss Sophie is now 90 years old and all her friends have died. Unperturbed by the missing guests, she has places set for them and requires her butler, James, to play the roles of Sir Toby, Admiral von Schneider, Mr. Pomeroy, and Mr. Winterbottom.

The dinner has four courses—Mulligatawny Soup, haddock, chicken, and fruit. Each course is accompanied by a suitable libation—sherry, white wine, champagne, and port.

As the dinner begins, James asks Miss Sophie “Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?” The catch-phrase reply comes back “Same procedure as every year James.”

This requires James to impersonate each of the absent diners while raising a toast at each course. After four glasses of sherry and four of white wine, James is noticeably squiffy, and there are two courses to come.

There's a running gag as James trips over head of a tiger-skin rug.

The sketch ends with a couple of lines dripping with innuendo as James escorts Miss Sophie up a staircase, we assume to her bedroom. James inquires “Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?” The affirmative answer is followed by James slurring through a lascivious smirk “I'll do my very best.”

One story has the sketch written the British actor Lauri Wylie for a 1934 review in London. Another claim is that it first appeared in British music halls in the 1920 and that its author is unknown.

Dinner for One Performance

After the 1934 (or 1920s) debut of the play, Dinner for One became a staple of British music halls. Comedians Freddy Frinton and May Warden started performing the sketch just after World War II. They presented the comedy piece in seaside pier variety shows, a tradition of British summer holidays.

Frinton and Warden performed the skit hundreds of times. On one occasion in 1962, the German producer Peter Frankenfeld and director Heinz Dunkhase watched a performance of the sketch in Blackpool and it struck them that the people of their country might enjoy it.

They invited Frinton and Warden to Hamburg to perform the sketch. It was recorded on the then new technology of videotape and was intended for a one-time broadcast in 1963. It proved to be mildly popular and was re-broadcast from time to time on German television.

Deutsche Welle tells us that “It was used as a New Year's Eve filler on the public television station NDRin Hamburg in 1972 and then quickly became a regular part of German New Year's Eve celebrations. The plot of the sketch has nothing to do with New Year's Eve.” It was even titled as Der 90. GeburtstagThe 90th Birthday, but always broadcast in English.

Today, a New Year's Eve celebration in Germany would not be complete without viewing Dinner for One, with some hardy souls matching James the butler's consumption of alcohol.

It is always shown in its original black and white form without dubbing or subtitles. For those unfortunate enough to be aloft on New Year's Eve, German airlines play the sketch on their in-flight screens.

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Newssky.com reports that, “According to the Hollywood Reporter, more than 17 million people—around 21% of the German population—tuned in to watch the sketch on 31 December 2016.”

“Dinner is served Miss Sophie.”

“Dinner is served Miss Sophie.”

The German Sense of Humour

It's a stereotype that Germans do not have a sense of humour; Mark Twain observed more than a century ago that “A German joke is no laughing matter.” A 2011 survey of 15 countries found that Germans are the “least funny nationality.”

The allegation is unfair. The German people do have a good sense of humour, but is does not work well in the English-speaking world.

The German language does not lend itself to humour that involves a play on words; a pun is almost impossible in German and irony doesn't work. A German verbal joke does not translate easily into another language; visual humour. of course, travels across all tongues.

Dinner for One is filled with visual humour and has almost no witty dialogue; this may explain why it tickles the funny bone of Germans to the degree it does.

The German post office issued a stamp to commemorate the skit.

The German post office issued a stamp to commemorate the skit.

The Popularity of Dinner for One Spreads

After Germans turned this silly bit of slapstick humour into a cult classic, other European countries started to take notice, but not the British. Austrian and Swiss people became big fans and the reach of Dinner for One spread into Scandinavia; but still not the United Kingdom.

It was banned in Sweden for a while; the puritanical authorities took a dim view of James's excessive drinking. However, popular demand led to a resurrection and it has returned to screens. It now plays in Australia and South Africa on New Year's Eve but is has only been broadcast once in the United States on HBO in the 1970s.

Finally, the Brits succumbed to the wave of popularity and aired the sketch in December 2018.

If you've made it this far through this bit of frippery you deserve a reward. Although some may find it a gift of dubious currency.

Here's the video of Dinner for One that causes German people to roll about in gales of laughter even though they've seen it a dozen or more times.

Bonus Factoids

  • Freddie Frinton, who plays the drunken butler, was a teetotaler.
  • A colorized version has been produced but viewers prefer to watch the original in black and white.
  • Austria has created a version using marionettes.

Sources

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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