The 53-year-old sketch, unheard of in the English-speaking world, is watched by millions of Europeans every year
The honest truth is that most of us hate New Year’s Eve. In the wake of Christmas festivities, when all the money is spent and all the turkey has been curried, the forced fun of counting down the seconds to the end of another year and the beginning of the next, with its half-formed promises and well-intentioned gym memberships, feeling fundamentally flat. Someone on RTÉ will present a pre-recorded run through the numbers, we’ll belt out the lines of Auld Lang Syne, and then probably indulge in whatever is left lying around the bottom of glass bottles.
Not so in Germany, and many countries in central Europe, where the New Year is rung in with an 15-minute British comedy sketch from 1963.
Dinner for One, as the black-and-white skit is called, stars Freddie Frinton and May Warden, and while it is almost entirely unheard of in the English-speaking world, it is a stalwart of seasonal television station viewing all over Europe. In Germany, where there are a number of regional broadcasters rather than one national one, all of them, along with a few of the commercial and digital networks, play out the sketch about a 90-year-old woman’s birthday dinner party, making it the highest rated TV show in the continent’s most populated country.
Having fought in WWII, Frinton never warmed to his German hosts and outright refused to allow the sketch be performed in German [YouTube]
In a nation not exactly renowned for its comedic chops, Dinner for One has built a huge cult audience, spawning fan clubs and leagues of viewers attempting to recreate it at home. There are many who know its words by heart, can match Frinton’s slapstick pratfalls move for move, and it remains an annual hit, never failing to bring down the house.
Should you ever end up stuck in a lift with a po-faced German tourist and need to say something to break the ice, the best thing to do is look him or her squarely in the eye and utter the words, “Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?” Even the sourest-looking grump, trussed up in Jack Wolfskin raingear and carrying Alpine hiking poles, will be unable to resist the siren call and not reply with “Same procedure as every year, James,” before collapsing – or at least leaning heavily on the aforementioned Alpines – in a fit of Germanic giggles.
Dinner for One is a sketch much older than the television version known to Europeans, and owes its origins to vaudeville acts in music halls in the 1920s. Forty years later, a German TV producer, who was holidaying in Blackpool, was in the audience when it was performed by Frinton, who was then invited to come to Hamburg and record the skit for a one-time broadcast on West German television.
Filmed in front of a live audience, consisting of studio employees and secretarial staff, the cameras recorded James the butler drunkenly wobbling to and fro while serving Miss Sophie’s guests’ vacant seats, they all being former lovers she’s outlived, and assuming their identities to toast her health and happiness on her 90th birthday. “Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?” James asks, getting drunker and drunker. “The same procedure as every year, James.”
Almost entirely forgotten by English-speaking audiences, Frinton is a household name in many European countries [YouTube]
It all builds up to one final run of the “same procedure” line, this time with James following his mistress into the bedroom, looking into the camera with a knowing nod, “I’ll do me very best!”
In the 1970s, when a live broadcast ran into problems, the Dinner for One tape was hauled out to fill a gap in the schedule, and proved such a hit with viewers that they played it again the next year. And the year after that. And same procedure as last year, forever more.
Frinton, a TV star in the UK during the 1950s, had seen his star diminish somewhat before he took his act to Germany. He died long before it made him a household name – though he remains largely forgotten in the British Isles today. But in Germany, and now Austria, Denmark, and Switzerland, he’s an icon.
The sketch has entered the viewing public pantheon of shared moments everyone knows about, something like the ESB advert in the 1980s, with Alan Hughes being driven home and Dusty Springfield mournfully embracing getting older at Christmas.
So perhaps, as we usher in 2017, your New Year’s resolution, and a very achievable one at that, should be to give Dinner for One a go and see what all the fuss is about.