• Germany's news in English
 
app_header_v3

50 years of a New Year's dinner for one

Kerstin von Glowacki · 31 Dec 2013, 09:00

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."

Story continues below…

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 news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Kerstin von Glowacki (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Germany says 'won't let anyone take Europe from us'
Steinmeier called the European Union “a successful project of peace and stability”. Photo: DPA

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on Saturday that the EU would weather the shock of the British vote to leave the union as he convened crisis talks.

Brexit vote
Brexit will turn Berlin into 'Europe’s startup capital'
A sign in Berlin's tech giant and startup-building company Rocket Internet. Photo: DPA.

London is currently thought of as the main hub for startups in Europe, but that will all turn around when the UK leaves the EU, tech industry experts say.

Brexit vote - Analysis
'Germany needs to make UK come to its senses'
British Leave campaigners celebrate Brexit result. Photo: DPA

Britain leaving the EU means trouble ahead for Germany - and its hardest task will be convincing the Brits to drop a self-defeating ideology, a leading foreign policy expert told The Local.

How to get German citizenship (or just stay forever)
Photo: DPA.

Considering a change of passport after the UK's vote to ditch the EU? Here’s how to do it.

Germany makes fracking verboten
A sign in North Rhine-Westphalia. Photo: DPA.

German lawmakers approved a law that essentially bans fracking, ending years of dispute over the controversial technology to release oil and gas locked deep underground.

Brexit vote
German far right 'cries for joy' after UK votes to leave EU
Left to right: AfD's Beatrix von Storch and Frauke Petry. Photo: DPA

The far-right AfD party called for a "new Europe" and the resignation of the EU's top two politicians in the wake of the Brexit vote.

Brexit vote
Merkel: Brexit has cut into European unity
Angela Merkel at a press conference after the Brexit vote on Friday. Photo: DPA.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Friday that the UK's decision to leave the EU has created a "cut in Europe" and the project of European unity.

Couple copulating on bridge shut down Autobahn
Kaiserlei Bridge in Frankfurt. Photo: Dontworry / Wikimedia Commons.

It was a highly unusual choice of location for a romantic rendezvous, police in Frankfurt point out.

Brexit vote
Germany: Brexit vote is a 'sad day for Europe'
A British flag along with other flags of European Union member countries flies in front of the European Council building in Strasbourg, France. Photo: EPA.

Top German leaders declared that it was a "sad day for Europe" after British voters opted to leave the European Union.

Viernheim hostage-taker wasn't carrying lethal weapon
A police officer stands guard in front of the cinema in Viernheim. Photo: DPA

The 19-year-old German man who took over a dozen people hostage in a cinema in western Germany on Thursday was carrying replica weapons, prosecutors have confirmed.

Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
Features
How two gay dads cut through German red tape to start a family
Sponsored Article
Education abroad: How to find an international school
Features
Six odd things Germans do in the summer
Travel
These 10 little-known German towns are a must see
Sponsored Article
US expats: Taxes are due June 15th
National
Five things to know about guns in Germany
Sponsored Article
Avoid hidden fees when sending money overseas
Gallery
7 photos which show the aftermath of Bavaria's Autobahn bridge collapse
Culture
10 things you need to know before attending a German wedding
National
Eight weird habits you'll pick up living in Germany
Sponsored Article
Health insurance for expats in Germany: a quick guide
Lifestyle
Six reasons 'super-cool' Berlin isn't all it's cracked up to be
Society
Only one country likes getting naked on the beach more than Germany
Lifestyle
23 ridiculously fascinating things you never knew about Berlin
Culture
8 German words that perfectly sum up your 20s
Sport
How to sound like an expert on German football this summer
Lifestyle
Can't make it past the door at Berlin's most famous club? Help is at hand
Business & Money
Why Frankfurt could steal London's crown as Europe's finance capital
Features
6 surprising things I learned about Germany while editing The Local
Culture
Five sure-fire ways to impress Germans with your manners
Features
6 reasons Germany's summer is unbeatable for thrill-seekers
National
The future belongs to these 10 German regions
Society
How pictures of footballers on chocolates made Pegida really mad
Health
New father's tragic herpes warning touches 1000s online
National
Bayer's Monsanto takeover would be 'diabolical': environmentalists
7,902
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd