No matter what you do on New Year's Eve in Germany: melting lead, lighting fireworks, or simply knocking back champagne, there is one thing that nearly all Silvester parties have in common. – a 20 minute television interlude to watch a black-and-white sketch in English called "Dinner for One". It was first released in 1963, making 2013 its 50th anniversary. Loved in Germany, it’s virtually unknown in the rest of the world.
Dinner for who?
Okay, let's start with the basics: The dinner is for Miss Sophie, the last member of an old English family. The sketch, which is also known as "The 90th Birthday," is about the old lady's anniversary celebration in the dining room of her musty mansion with Miss Sophie – played by May Warden – sitting on the head end of the table and Butler James – played Freddie Frinton – making sure no glass (or no eye) in the house stays dry.
Why is it so popular on New Year's Eve?
The first time the programme was aired on New Year's Eve in 1972, the sketch was more a filler in between broadcasts. But due to its great popularity it quickly gained a regular place in the Silvester TV schedule. It holds the record of the most repeated show on television and regularly attracts millions of viewers to each New Year's Eve.
Why is the dinner only for one? Doesn't the old lady have any guests?
Sure, Miss Sophie has invited her friends, but they unfortunately all died some time ago. Not to be hindered by this slight setback the dinner goes ahead as usual and her guests are (or were):
Admiral von Schneider
All men? What a saucy old granny…
Well, some people say all of them have been former admirers. Unsuccessful ones, though. Her butler James is the only one who gets lucky on an annual basis, but we'll get to that later.
And what’s so funny about the sketch?
The sketch's comedy comes from Butler James taking the places of all of Miss Sophie's long dead friends. First he has to serve all "guests" drinks for every course (in his capacity as butler, of course) and as none of them are actually there anymore, he has to empty their glasses himself.
So a boozy butler and his mistress fake a party?
Pretty much! James slips into the different personas and toasts Miss Sophie in each guest’s appropriate way. For Admiral von Schneider, for example, he clicks his heels together every time and salutes with a loudSkol of the top of his voice. For Mr Winterbottom on the other hand, he puts on a thick northern English accent.
We’re still waiting for the joke…
Hang on, it's coming. Because with every drink he slugs back, the usually reserved and refined demeanour of Butler James starts to slip as he slurs and stumbles his way around the table. Added to this an unfortunately positioned tiger skin rug, the head of which James has to overcome on his frequent trips to the bar. Appropriate for the era when it was made – the whole routine had a healthy touch of slapstick.
And Miss Sophie?
The old gal never leaves her place and is totally oblivious about the amount of the butler's alcohol consumption and orders him to serve the respective courses. Dinner consists of:
Mulligatawny soup – with sherry
Haddock – with white wine
Chicken – with champagne
Fruit – with port
Mulligatawny-what? Doesn't really sound like a German dinner.
Well, it isn't! The actors May Warden and Freddie Frinton first performed "Dinner for One" in the British seaside town Blackpool in 1962. The German entertainer Peter Frankenfeld, discovered the duo, brought them to Germany and the sketch was seen on his live show on regional public broadcaster NDR one year later.
Really? Wasn't it recorded in Britain?
No, it was recorded in Hamburg in 1963. The broadcaster NDR had all the props ready, as well as a polar bear skin rug, that never was used, however, since Frinton brought his own tiger skin. After all, the stumbling over the rug was well rehearsed and depended on the height of the head. The polar bear ended up in the NDR’s prop closet – covered with dust and a sign around its head saying "Freddie Frinton."
So far so good, but why is it all shown in English?
Despite the Teutonic habit to dub anything foreign on telly, "Dinner for one" was never put into German unlike everything else on TV. The dialogue is simple and repetitive and the introduction of the sketch comes in German. Actor Heinz Piper explains the only two sentences you need to know.
Butler James: "Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?"
Miss Sophie: "Same procedure as every year, James."
Right, not exactly rocket science, huh?
Not exactly, no. And still Piper managed to make a mistake in both of the sentences. Instead of saying "AS every year, he said "THAN every year". Protests and angry letters from English teachers across the country made the NDR correct the grammar mistake. It simply got dubbed instead of re-recorded, but when you listen closely you can tell.
Does it come at least with German subtitles?
Some versions do. In the late 1960s even a colour version was planned, but due to Frinton's sudden death in 1968 it was never realised. In recent years there have been versions in regional dialects like Low German, Swiss-German, or Hessian.
But don't worry; you'll know when to laugh, as even the recording crew is giggling along.
What do the Brits have to say about all this?
Surprising to most Germans – who consider the skit quintessential British humour – hardly anyone in Britain knows it even exists. And for those who do, the significance it has for the Germans and the place it holds in their hearts is rather perplexing.
Oh, what was that with the butler getting lucky?
Right, in the last scene, Miss Sophie gets ready for bed and calls over her shoulder for James one last time while climbing up the staircase to her bedroom. He slurs: "The same procedure as last year?" and Miss Sophie answers "The same procedure as every year." With James promising he'll do his best "as every year," they both go upstairs together.
Dinner for One can be viewed on the ARD's regional television affiliates throughout New Year's Eve. For a listing, search here here.