• Germany's news in English
 
50 years of a New Year's dinner for one
Dinner for One is watched by millions of Germans every New Year's Eve. Photo: DPA

50 years of a New Year's dinner for one

Published: 31 Dec 2013 09:00 GMT+01:00

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):

Sir Toby

Mr Winterbottom

Admiral von Schneider

Mr Pommeroy

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.

For more stories about Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter

Kerstin von Glowacki (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Migrant wounded in German police shooting
Photo: DPA

Migrant wounded in German police shooting

A Guinean migrant who caused a brawl in a home for asylum seekers in Germany was shot and seriously wounded by police, local media reported. READ  

July asylum applications hit 'all-time record'
An asylum seeker reception centre in Trier. Photo: DPA

July asylum applications hit 'all-time record'

More people applied for asylum in Germany in July than in any previous month on record, the Ministry for Immigration and Refugees announced on Friday. READ  

This Week in History
The 1,000s of Germans massacred after WWII
Germans fleeing from eastern Europe after the Second World War. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The 1,000s of Germans massacred after WWII

Seventy years ago on Friday, a munitions depot exploded in the Czechoslovakian town of Ústí nad Labem. For the thousands of Sudeten Germans who lived in the town, the event was a death sentence. READ  

Minister seeks to rid laws of 'Nazi language'
In the center, Nazi lawyer Roland Freisler, who wrote laws that are partially still in existence today. Photo: German Federal Archive / Wikimedia Commons.

Minister seeks to rid laws of 'Nazi language'

Germany has made great efforts to purge legal system of remnants of Adolf Hitler's regime, but some laws still bear traces of the Nazi past. The Justice Minister wants to change this. READ  

Treason investigation of Netzpolitik halted
Netzpolitik published documents outlining the internal spy agency BfV's spy programmes and budget. Photo: DPA

Treason investigation of Netzpolitik halted

Update: Federal prosecutors announced on Friday they are suspending investigations of treason against 'digital rights' website Netzpolitik for 'the greater good' of upholding freedom of the press. READ  

Newborn baby found in Munich airport toilets
Munich Airport. Photo: DPA

Newborn baby found in Munich airport toilets

A newborn baby was found in a toilet in Munich airport on Thursday. Police so far have no clue as to who or where the mother is. READ  

Brit arrested in Munich for meth smuggling
Photo: BVZ/Zoll

Brit arrested in Munich for meth smuggling

A 50-year-old British woman is being held in custody in Munich on suspicion of attempting to smuggle two kilos of crystal meth out of Munich airport disguised as sweets. READ  

Start-up helps new Berliners slash red tape
Hate waiting in line at the Bürgeramt? There's a company that lets you pay to get the perfect appointment. Photo: DPA.

Start-up helps new Berliners slash red tape

Why waste time jumping through the hoops of German bureaucracy when you can pay someone else to take the hassle off your hands? A new Berlin company is offering to do just that - and it's got city officials fuming in the process. READ  

Michael Jackson shrine may have to beat it
A fan visits the makeshift Michael Jackson memorial in Munich. Photo: DPA.

Michael Jackson shrine may have to beat it

A memorial set up in Germany by some of Michael Jackson's most ardent fans the day after his sudden 2009 death has come under threat in a strangely emotional turf war. READ  

Ai Weiwei in Germany as UK slammed over visa
Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei arrived at Munich airport on Thursday, greeted by his son and son's mother, filmmaker Wang Fen. Photo: DPA.

Ai Weiwei in Germany as UK slammed over visa

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei arrived in Munich on Thursday on his first overseas trip since he was arrested nearly four years ago, after Britain denied him a six-month visa because he did not declare a supposed "criminal conviction" on his application. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Sport
Germany star scores own goal with PR gaffe
Features
'Women-only' parking: sensible or sexist?
Politics
Satire and reality blur in parody party's strife
National
13-year-old boy detained for trying to join Isis
Culture
Berlin restaurant serves up Greek Crisis Menu
Rhineland
Doctor on trial after woman wakes in morgue
Society
Six odd things Germans do in the summer
Sponsored Article
Outsourcing drives Apreel's Europe growth
Society
Police bust kinky Bavarian couple over painful love-making
Politics
Merkel brings Palestinian girl to tears
Hamburg
Amateur archaeologist finds Nazi gold hoard
National
Could Merkel learn a lesson in love from this doppelganger?
Travel
Why you should stay in Germany for the summer holidays
Sport
German press tell Schweinsteiger 'good riddance'
National
Hamburg gets a bouncing 100kg baby girl
Society
In North Germany, money sometimes DOES grow on trees
National
Hero mechanics stop Bavaria shooting spree
International
Denmark says that border controls are coming
National
Did hackers take control of German missile battery?
Politics
Munich gives gay pride green light
Business & Money
Berlin rent controls hit prices hard
National
Fighting to breastfeed in public without shame
Society
Ice cream for dogs 'gobbled up in one gulp'
Education
Are hotpants a feminist issue?
Rhineland
Lion cub reunited with mother
National
How the heatwave is cracking Germany's Autobahns
International
Why the French are more sympathetic to Greece than the Germans
Sponsored Article
Crans-Montana: International expat hub
Gallery
Police seize pensioner's WW2 heavy weapons haul
National
How to survive the Europe-wide heatwave
Sport
Is Schweini already out of the door at Bayern?
Politics
How German media shaped the Greece crisis
National
Car assembly robot crushes worker at Volkswagen
Rhineland
Weathermen red-faced over heatwave snow warning
Society
An eye for an eye? Mum protects child in playground with pepperspray
National
As it happened: Queen Elizabeth's final day in Germany
National
As it happened: Queen Elizabeth's second day in Germany
National
Queen Elizabeth II's first day in Germany - as it happened
National
Bus passengers tell fake racists where to get off
Politics
What's really in the Queen's handbag?
National
Germans say USA doesn't respect freedom
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

7,196
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd