German New Year's Eve ritual: ‘Dinner for One’
The black-and-white British slapstick sketch, totally unknown in the English-speaking world, has become the highest-rated TV show in German history.
Millions of Germans will settle down in front of their TV sets on New Year's Eve for what has become an annual ritual -- the airing of an ancient British comedy sketch starring a long-dead, music-hall comedian.
This year is the 45th anniversary of the broadcast, which has become as much a part of New Year's Eve for Germans as singing "Auld Lang Syne" is in English-speaking countries. The 15-minute sketch, acted by Freddie Frinton and May Warden, this year will be televised by every major regional public-TV channel in Germany and by a few commercial networks as well.
The black-and-white British slapstick sketch, totally unknown in the English-speaking world, has become the highest-rated TV show in German history, and has spawned fan clubs and a cult following of viewers who stage parties to recreate the sketch at home.
In a nation not exactly known for its ribaldry and thigh-slapping humor, the New Year's Eve showing of Dinner For One never fails to bring down the house. There are viewers who have memorized every gesture, every line of the English-only sketch.
The mere mention of the tagline "Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie" will break the ice with the sternest of stern-faced Germans. Mention that line, regardless of the situation, and be prepared for the stern-faced German to reply with, "Same procedure as EVERY year, James," and then watch the Germans collapse into hysterical laughter.
It is a phenomenon that has become ritualized into tradition. The Dinner For One sketch was originally performed in the 1920s in the British music halls. This 15-minute TV adaptation is performed by 1950s British TV comedian Freddie Frinton and his longtime on-stage partner May Warden. In the early 1960s, a German television producer had caught the stage act at Blackpool and invited Frinton to fly back to Hamburg with him to tape the sketch for one-time broadcast in 1963.
Studio employees and in-house secretaries served as the live audience for the sketch about a butler who gets riotously drunk whilst serving food and drinks to his employer, Miss Sophie, and her guests on her 90th birthday.
The running joke is that Miss Sophie is sitting all alone at a table because she has outlived all her male guests -- who apparently were her former lovers. Butler James assumes the role of each "guest" in order to toast Miss Sophie with champagne, wine, port and so on throughout the meal. Before each toast he asks plaintively: "Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?" to which she responds, "The same procedure as EVERY year, James."
The "same procedure" gag line is repeated one final time after dinner as butler James escorts Miss Sophie upstairs to bed, with Frinton leering knowingly at the audience and affirming, "I'll do me very best!"
After the first broadcast in 1963, the videotape was stored away for about a decade. Then in the early 1970s, the sketch was used as a New Year's Eve filler on NDR television in Hamburg and proved to be a huge hit. NDR repeated it the next year, and soon other public broadcasters linked up with NDR to air the show as well.
It quickly became a regular part of the German New Year's Eve celebrations. Parties come to a standstill as guests gather round the television to guffaw at James and Miss Sophie going through "the same procedure as every year."
Over the years somehow, it has become a cult classic in Germany -- to the extent that it's shown on dozens of regional channels at some point during over New Year, and NDR shows it six or seven times during New Year's Eve.
"It usually has the highest rating of any program shown during the year," said Juergen Meier-Beer, NDR's head of entertainment. "We have an average market share in our area of 8 percent. Dinner For One gets us up to 30 percent every time. We reckon that one in every two viewers in our area will watch it at some point on New Year's Eve."
In recent years it has also been shown in Austria, Switzerland and other countries.
Ironically, Frinton died long before his sketch made his name a household word across central Europe.
Every German alive today knows the entire skit Dinner For One by heart. Most Germans are shocked to learn that the rest of the world is ignorant of this pearl of British humor.
English-speaking visitors to Germany are invariably flummoxed by continual references to this obscure music-hall sketch. In a bid to make casual conversation, a German will ask, "What do you think of Dinner for One?"
"Dinner for one what?" goes the reply.
"You know -- Dinner For One: James, Miss Sophie, same procedure as every year?" And then they break into an uncontrolled fit of giggles.
Given its astounding popularity in Germany, they assume that it must be a huge hit elsewhere in the world -- and they feel flattered to have been lucky enough to get in on the big British joke.
Germans invariably are amazed that few people in Britain under the age of 50 know who Frinton was. In fact, Frinton was a master at playing comic drunks and had a huge following on British television in the 1950s.
He was a bit past his prime when he taped the German version of his popular sketch. Viewed for the first time, the sketch seems dated and stale, an impression not helped by the fact that it was shot in black-and-white and recorded on primitive videotape.
But what Germans love about Dinner For One is the fact that it is a silly moment of merriment that has become enshrined in the nation's psyche. People remember seeing it when they were young, and with people who are no longer present, and they remember New Year's Eves of years gone by.
The sketch, of course, improves from repeated viewing, not unlike the Rocky Horror Picture Show and other cult classics.
And on New Year's Eve, of course, many viewers have been raising their glasses in toasts all evening already and are as riotously smashed as Frinton's character in the sketch. That makes it easy for the millions of German viewers to slur the lines right along with inebriated butler James, giggling all the while.
What many people in Germany don't realize is that the sketch has never -- not once -- been shown in either Britain or the United States, although it has had a few showings on Australian cable TV.
But then, there are those German-language figures who are unknown in Germany. When a German asks what you think of Dinner For One, respond by asking what they think of The Sound of Music.
It will then be your turn. "What? You haven't heard of it? Based on the true story of the Von Trapp family singers, singing nuns, Nazi postmen, frocks made out of curtains, brown paper packages tied up with string. Surely you know the baroness, Maria, and the captain, the hills are alive...?"
You can even launch into a rendition of Edelweiss.
Your new German friends will look at you in utter bafflement as though you're from another planet.
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