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The Culture Vulture

About cultural things: music, dance, literature and theatre.

"DINNER FOR ONE" - A New Year's Eve Phenomenon
Saturday, December 31, 2022 @ 5:04 PM

“Dinner for One” is a two-hander comedy sketch, written by British author Lauri Wylie for the theatre. After featuring on the stage, the German TV broadcaster, Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) recorded the sketch in 1962 as an 18-minute black-and-white videotape recording, performed by British comedians Freddie Frinton and May Warden.

“Dinner for One” has become traditional viewing on New Year's Eve in European countries such as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Estonia, or on Christmas Eve in Norway.

Since 1995, it has been the most frequently repeated television programme in Germany ever. Despite starting on the British stage, the sketch has only recently started to gain recognition in the UK

 

For the very first time

I came across “Dinner for One” the first time I spent Christmas and New Year in Germany with my then wife-to-be, Rita, in 2009.

Like most British people, it seems, I’d never heard of it, although I knew of Freddie Frinton.

I was intrigued by the sketch and fascinated by how much German folk love the show, even though they watch it ritually every year.

 

 

 

 

 

Origin of the sketch

Lauri Wylie debuted “Dinner for One as a sketch in his London stage revue En Ville Ce Soir in 1934.

Frinton and Warden performed “Dinner for One on stage on Britain's seaside piers as early as 1945.

In 1962, German entertainer Peter Frankenfeld and director Heinz Dunkhase discovered “Dinner for One in Blackpool. The sketch was staged in Frankenfeld's live show soon afterwards, and recorded on 8 July 1963 at the Theater am Besenbinderhof in Hamburg in front of a live audience.

The sketch was recorded in English with a short introduction in German. According to the NDR, Frinton and Warden were each paid DM 4,150 (2,075€).

The show was re-run occasionally until it gained its fixed spot on New Year's Eve in 1972.

 

Plot

Heinz Piper introduces the story as the master of ceremonies (MC): 

Miss Sophie (Warden) is celebrating her 90th birthday. As every year, she has invited her four closest friends to a birthday dinner: Sir Toby, Admiral von Schneider, Mr. Pomeroy, and Mr. Winterbottom. However, she has outlived all of them, requiring her butler James (Frinton) to impersonate the guests.

James has to serve Miss Sophie the four courses – mulligatawny soup, North Sea haddock, chicken and fruit – but also serve the four imaginary guests the drinks chosen by Miss Sophie (sherry, white wine, champagne and port for the respective courses). He must also slip into the role of each guest and drink a toast to Miss Sophie.

As a result, James becomes increasingly intoxicated and loses his dignified demeanour; he pours the drinks with reckless abandon, breaks into "Sugartime" by the McGuire Sisters for a brief moment, and at one point accidentally drinks from a flower vase, which he acknowledges with a grimace and exclaims "Oooh! I'll kill that cat!"

There are several running gags in the piece:

  • James frequently trips over the head of a tigerskin rug; as an additional punchline, he walks past it in one instance to his own astonishment, but then stumbles over it on the way back. In another instance, he gracefully steps over it, and in the final instance, the tipsy James leaps over the head.
  • Sir Toby would like to have poured a small extra amount of each drink, and James complies with the request with initial politeness and then increasing sarcasm.
  • Miss Sophie expects James, as Admiral von Schneider, to knock his heels together with the exclamation "Skål!" (Scandinavian for "Cheers!"). Because this action proves painful, he asks each time whether he really has to, but obliges upon Miss Sophie's insistence. The gag is broken as an additional punchline when the drunk James' feet miss each other, causing him to stumble.
  • Before each course, James asks and gradually babbles "The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?"; Miss Sophie replies "The same procedure as every year, James".

 

Finally, Miss Sophie concludes the evening with an inviting "I think I'll retire", to which James and Sophie repeat their exchange concerning the "same procedure". James takes a deep breath, turns to the audience with a sly grin and says "Well, I'll do my very best" before the pair retreat to the upper rooms.

 

 

Watch the original 1963 version here: Dinner for One with Freddie Frinton and May Warden - YouTube

 

Broadcasting countries

The sketch has become a viewing tradition on New Year's Eve in German-speaking countries, where up to half the population may watch it every year on New Year's Eve. Some die-hard fans even copy the meal served in the sketch.

The full 18-minute version is typically aired in Germany on TV Channel Das Erste in the afternoon, and on the regional third channels several times throughout the afternoon and evening. In Austria and Switzerland the sketch is also aired on New Year’s Eve.

It is also a New Year tradition in Scandinavian countries.

In Finland, the show is viewed by 400,000 viewers each New Year's Eve.

In Sweden, the show was suspended for six years after its first screening, deemed unsuitable because of James' heavy drinking. However, the TV network finally capitulated to popular demand and brought it back. It has been broadcast every year since 1976 in Sweden, with the exception of 2004 in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

In 1985, the Danish television network, DR, decided not to broadcast the sketch, but received so many complaints that it returned the following year. With this single exception, “Dinner for One  has been shown on DR every 31 December since 1980.

In Norway, the show is broadcast on Christmas Eve, also since 1980.

It is broadcast annually on New Year's Eve in Australia (since 1989) and South Africa, though it is not as well known as in Europe. It was shown briefly in the USA (by HBO) in the 1970s.

The sketch is almost completely unknown in the United Kingdom, and its first national British television airing did not come until Sky Arts broadcast the film on New Year's Eve 2018 (although a year before, the film had been screened on Grimsby local channel Estuary TV). The Sky Arts broadcast included English subtitles for the German-language introduction.

Although the sketch is most popular in European countries, it is usually shown in the original English without dubbing or subtitles. It is easy to understand with even a basic knowledge of English due to the physical nature of the comedy. 

 

“Dinner For One” on “The One Show”

In December 2013 Gyles Brandreth presented an interesting item on BBC 1's The One Show about the “Dinner For One” phenomenon, in which he interviews British people, German fans and even Freddie Frinton’s widow and daughter.

You can view that broadcast here: The 'Dinner for One' Phenomenon - BBC 'The One Show' - Bing video

 

 

 

    Gyles Brandreth from "The One Show" [WordPress.com]

 

Different versions

The NDR television channel recorded several other versions in 1963.

Danish TV shows a version in which no audience is heard.

A third, 11-minute version was recorded by Schweizer Fernsehen (Swiss Television) with less alcohol drunk.

Both the 18-minute and 11-minute versions have been released on DVD in Germany.

In 1977, the Dutch public broadcasting system created a Dutch language version, but this never achieved the same popularity as the original.

In 1999, the NDR released a colourised version.

In Denmark a parody of the sketch was filmed, subtitled "The 80th Birthday", in which Miss Sophie's friends are still at the table (though the NDR version mentions that the last of Miss Sophie's friends died 25 years ago).

Other versions have been produced in different German dialects, including one in Low German (Plattdeutsch). This version, "Dinner for One Up Platt" is also aired on NDR in rotation annually along with the original.

On 24 December 2011, a digitally-edited satirical version entitled "The 90th Euro rescue summit, or, Euros for No One", produced by Udo Eling and German state broadcaster ARD, was uploaded to YouTube. It features German Chancellor Angela Merkel as Miss Sophie and French President Nicolas Sarkozy as her butler, James, and has new German, and some French, dialogue about the Eurozone debt crisis.

You can watch it here: The 90th Euro rescue summit, or, Euros for No One - Suchen (bing.com)

In 2016, Netflix made a parody in which Miss Sophie's guests are replaced with characters from Netflix shows, specifically Saul Goodman from "Breaking Bad" and "Better Call Saul", Frank Underwood from "House of Cards", Pablo Escobar from "Narcos", and Crazy Eyes from "Orange is the New Black".

 

Catch phrase: "Same procedure as every year"

The line "Same procedure as every year" (in the original English) has become a very popular catchphrase in Germany. The phrase has entered everyday vocabulary, and is used in newspaper headlines and advertisements. This is also the case in Norway, Denmark and Sweden.

 

Legacy

The sketch resonated strongly with Norwegian, Luxembourgish and German audiences. The sketch is one of the most widely-known pieces of English-language media in Europe despite its relatively minimal impact in Britain.

Deutsche Post issued a commemorative stamp for the show on 11 October 2018.

In January 2021, Google added an easter-egg to their Knowledge Panel. The panel included a tiger's head, which when clicked showed James running across the screen and tripping over said tiger. It also featured sound clips from the film, chiefly the line "Same procedure as every year, James.”

In December 2022, it was announced that German studio UFA would produce a six-part prequel series, set 50 years before the original version.

***

So, as I sit here writing this, we are in anticipation of the “Dinner for One ritual later today, as we celebrate the arrival of the New Year with our evening meal of “raclette”.

 

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

EIN FROHES NEUES JAHR!

¡PRÓSPERO AÑO NUEVO!

 

 

 

© The Culture Vulture

 

Additional material:

Familie Schröder

Norddeutscher Rundfunk

The One Show – BBC1

Wikipedia

 

Tags: Admiral von Schneider, ARD, BBC, butler, Culture Vulture, Dinner for One, Freddie Frinton, Google, Heinz Piper, James, May Warden, Miss Sophie, Mr. Pomeroy, Mr. Winterbottom, NDR, Netflix, Same procedure as every year, Sir Toby



Like 1




2 Comments


lenox said:
Saturday, December 31, 2022 @ 7:19 PM

I remember seeing this show on the TV in Stuttgart around about New Year's Eve 1980 (and then, occasionally since, here and there). My German friends would say 'same procedure as last year?' with great glee.


PablodeRonda said:
Sunday, January 1, 2023 @ 12:34 AM

Watched the original earlier for the umpteenth time. Brilliant as ever. A true NYE classic.


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