'Dinner for One' - A Sketch Well-known to all but the British Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Dinner for One' - A Sketch Well-known to all but the British

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Each country has its New Year's Eve customs. In Germany, everyone lets off fireworks at midnight willy-nilly, (organised firework displays are reserved for festivals and summer events), molten lead is poured into a bowl of water, and the shape it forms when solidified is interpreted as a sign of what will happen to the pourer in the New Year. Streamers, champagne and rampant snogging are, of course, also part of the celebrations.

But ask anyone in Germany and they will confirm that no New Year can be seen in without sitting through 20 minutes of black-and-white television, watching a sketch that everyone knows by heart. This is the phenomenon known as Dinner for One. Its significance to Germans (and Scandinavians and many other continental Europeans) is inconceivable for the British. Although the British public really should be made aware of it, as it has become synonymous with British humour, on a par with Mr Bean, which also enjoys a disproportionately large reputation as being 'typical British humour'.

Viewing rates easily exceed those of the German Chancellor's New Year's Speech.

What Dinner for Who?

The sketch takes place in an ancient English mansion, where the last remaining member of the family, Miss Sophie, is celebrating her 90th birthday. The entire sketch takes place in the dining room, with Miss Sophie at the head of a large table with places laid for her guests. On the left is the sideboard - behind Miss Sophie to the right and at the back is a wide sweeping staircase.

The Guests

Miss Sophie has invited several dignified guests, who, unfortunately, all died some time ago. Some may have been unsuccessful suitors - certainly they are all male.

They are (or were!):

  • Sir Toby
  • Mr Winterbottom
  • Admiral von Schneider
  • Mr Pommeroy

The Plot

The butler, James, has to serve all the guests drinks - a different wine for each course. As, of course, none of the guests are actually there in person, he also takes it upon himself to empty the glasses, toasting his mistress each time in a suitable fashion. For example, he clicks his heels when impersonating Admiral von Schneider, and salutes her with a loud Skol! and plays Mr Winterbottom with a broad Yorkshire accent.

The comedy of the whole sketch is based on how, after starting out as the dignified and subservient butler, James becomes more and more inebriated and staggers round the table, becoming cheekier and less respectful with each tipple. The tension is increased by a tiger skin rug, the head of which he has to negotiate on every trip from the sideboard to the table. Miss Sophie (who never leaves her place, except at the end when they dash off to bed) remains completely oblivious to the whole process.

The Menu

  • Mulligatawny Soup1 (with sherry)
  • Haddock (with white wine)
  • Chicken (with Champagne)
  • Fruit (with port)
- Little drop of soup, Miss Sophie?
- I am particularly fond of mulligatawny soup, James...I think we'll have sherry with the soup.
- Sherry with the soup? Yes... oh, by the way, the same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?
- Same procedure as every year, James.

Why an English Title?

The simple reason is that the sketch is entirely English (actors, situation, dialogue). May Warden, who plays Miss Sophie, and Freddie Frinton2, who plays James, the butler, had been performing it in Blackpool for the summer season of 1962. A German entertainer, Peter Frankenfeld, invited them to play it on his live show on 8 March 1963, where it went down extremely well. The dialogue, being minimal, simple and repetitive, was left in English.

It is this English dialogue which amuses the Germans, as well as the extremely well choreographed actions of the butler.

The sketch was such a success that Freddie Frinton and May Warden (then in her late 70s) were invited to re-enact it for recording in the Hamburg's Theater am Besenbinderhof in May 1963 and directed by Heinz Dunkhase. It is this version which is broadcast to this day, repeated dozens of times - twice on each channel, early evening and again just after midnight on New Year's Eve - and is available on Video and DVD.

The German introduction was read by Heinz Piper, who made a historical error by quoting the line 'Same procedure as every year' wrongly ('same procedure than every year' - the Germans always have difficulties with English prepositions). This was finally voiced over in 1988 and has been read correctly since, although you can still see by the movement of his lips that he is saying something else.

Further Historical Titbits

  • Although the studio had prepared a polar bear skin for the recording, Frinton had his tiger with him and insisted on using that - if the head was any bigger, he said, he would really trip over it!

  • In the sketch he portrays an alcoholic butler, but in real life, Freddie Frinton was teetotal.

  • A colour version was planned for filming in the late 1960s, but Freddie Frinton died in 1968. Since 1999, a coloured version has been created, but people prefer the black and white, for tradition's sake. For example, on hopping through all the channels on New Year's Eve 2003, only one of the seven broadcasts was in colour.

  • It was broadcast occasionally as a time filler at various times over the years, mainly by North German TV

  • In 1972, a German programming director decided to show it on New Year's Eve and since then it has become part of the tradition of New Year all over Germany. It was even aired in East Germany back in the days of the Iron Curtain.

  • One of the oddities of the sketch is that the 'port' which accompanies the last course does not stain the tablecloth.

  • Everywhere where it is regularly televised, it has become a cult, and translated into many languages, including Latin:

  • Ceterum, domina, iubesne me sequi eandem rationem procedendi atque anno superiore?
    - Same procedure as last year, milady?
  • There is a German rock band named after Admiral von Schneider.

  • Recorded in front of a live audience, the woman who is shrieking with laughter is a female German production assistant named Sonja Göth, who just couldn't hold it back despite being asked to

  • Max Ernst filmed a new, and slightly different version in Zürich for the Montreux Festival. You can tell the difference because there is a tablecloth and candles on the table in the German version. The Swiss version is the one broadcast in Norway and Sweden.

  • Swedish TV didn't dare to show it to begin with because of all the drinking going on, but in 1969 Lasse Boberg rescued it from the archives.

  • There is a filmed Danish satirical version that takes place ten years earlier than the original version, with all Miss Sophie's friends still alive.

  • There is an Austrian marionette version.

Whose Idea was it in the First Place?

According to The Guardian the sketch originated in the 1920s and Frinton bought the rights to it in the 1950s. The actual author is, however, unknown.

1For more information about soup in films, read this page. 2Freddie Frinton's birth name was Frederic Coo.

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