Dinner for One

by Diane Duane
James the Butler and that tigerskin

A peculiar thing happens in a number of European countries, mostly (but not all) German-speaking, on or around New Year’s Eve. The TV stations begin showing the same brief comedy sketch again and again. What’s truly unusual about this is that the sketch is in English — recorded nearly 50 years ago in front of a German audience — and has since become a cult classic. For a surprising number of German-speaking people, the words “Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?” are not only the English-language phrase they know best, but are held in the same kind of humorous context as the phrases “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” or “It is an ex-parrot!”

The sketch “Dinner for One” — the German name of the sketch translates as “The 90th Birthday” — doesn’t really have anything to do with New Year’s (though one “virtually present” character does say “Happy New Year” at one point, which may be the source of the confusion). It tells the story of a birthday party. Miss Sophie (played by actress May Warden, who later appeared on Doctor Who and in A Clockwork Orange) is 90, and the table is set for herself and her four friends: Sir Toby, Admiral von Schneider, Mr. Pommeroy, and Mr. Winterbottom. Unfortunately time has taken its inevitable toll, and of the five of them, only Miss Sophie is still alive.

Assisting at dinner is James, Miss Sophie’s butler (played by veteran British comedian Freddie Frinton). It falls to him not only to serve dinner, but to impersonate the four missing dinner guests for a lady who may or may not be entirely clear that they’re no longer among the living. As part of the act, James has to drink their traditional toasts to Miss Sophie — all of them — and becomes progressively more sloshed and goofy as dinner progresses. But he just keeps soldiering on — serving dinner and “channeling” the four missing guests, while also locked in silent battle with the tigerskin that lies in wait for him every time he makes another circuit of the table.

The sketch is a tremendous showcase of Freddie Frinton’s complete mastery of comic timing, and for a long time we were forced to simply describe it at one remove to people who hadn’t been in a country where and when it was being aired. But time has moved along, taking “Dinner for One” with it into the new century, and the whole business is now happily viewable on YouTube — both in its original black and white, and in a newer colorized version.

I prefer the black and white version, and the link to that is here. It’s also embedded below. (Note that the original German version starts with a gentle intro by a German-speaking host, who explains what’s forthcoming to those who haven’t seen it before, and more or less reassures the audience that it’s okay to find this poor dotty old lady a bit amusing. If you prefer to skip the intro, advance the video to about the 2min:25sec stage.)

A holiday tradition has built up around “Dinner for One” in the German-speaking countries of central Europe, and elsewhere too (in Scandinavia, the Baltics, and as far afield as New Zealand). On New Year’s eve it shows on practically every TV network, public or private, in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Some of them show it several times back to back. (At least one of the channels within the last few years showed it for 24 hours straight… quite a run for an eleven-minute short.) It also appears in dubs in many regional European dialects, and even in Latin.

All this loving attention has won “Dinner for One” the uncontested title as the single most rerun piece of standalone television on Earth. People stage drinking games around it; they hold dinner parties based on the one that James serves to Miss Sophie; they hunt down the best recipes for “the fowl” and that “North Sea haddock”; they enthusiastically debate the choice of the wines that go with each course. The skit’s fandom includes millions of people across all walks of life who have nothing in common except this one remarkable piece of comedy, to which they return year after year — most of them swearing that a New Year’s without it is simply unthinkable.

The aspect of this phenomenon that remains truly bizarre is that though “Dinner for One” was filmed in the UK, it’s never been aired there except in one seconds-long excerpt on that most excellent of quiz shows QI, and is almost completely unknown to British people. Every now and then it pops up on the British radar due to very occasional coverage in the UK press, like this 2002 article in the Guardian and this one in 2004: but then it vanishes again. The BBC seems uninterested in airing it: they apparently don’t think it’s funny. (And they have no answer whatsoever for why the Germans, who most British people apparently seem to think have no sense of humor, find the “Dinner for One” skit hilarious and will recite it to each other, in English [whether they understand the English or not] as if it was a Monty Python skit.)

This is a situation that probably won’t change any time in the near future. But “Dinner for One” itself is worth spreading around for its gentle awesomeness. Meanwhile, over at EuropeanCuisines.com, we’ve posted recipes / articles on the four courses:

NDR now has a whole page devoted to the story of “Dinner for One” and its stars, here.

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