Dinner for One
|Dinner for One|
|Directed by||Heinz Dunkhase|
|Written by||Lauri Wylie|
|Running time||18 minutes|
Dinner for One, also known as The 90th Birthday, or by its corresponding German alternative title, Der 90. Geburtstag, is a two-hander comedy sketch written by British author Lauri Wylie for the theatre in the 1920s. German television station Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) recorded a performance of the piece in 1963, in its original English language, with a short introduction in German. This comedy sketch went on to become the most frequently repeated TV programme ever (according to the Guinness Book of Records, 1988-1995 eds.; later editions no longer have the category).
The 18 minute single take black-and-white 1963 TV recording featuring British comedians Freddie Frinton and May Warden has become an integral component of the New Year's Eve schedule of several German television stations. Versions of the sketch are also shown by Danish, and Swedish channels, a December 23 staple on Norwegian national television, and a cult television classic in Finland, Estonia, Lithuania the Faroe Islands and Austria; on New Year's Eve 2003 alone, the sketch was broadcast 19 times (on various channels). As of 2005, the sketch has been repeated more than 230 times. It is famous in other countries as well — including German-speaking Switzerland and South Africa. It is likewise broadcast on New Year in Australia on SBS.
In 2003 the Danish TV producer Paul Anthony Sørensen produced and directed an international documentary about the sketch. In the documentary we meet the relatives of Freddie Frinton (who played the manservant James) and May Warden (Miss Sophie) and get to know the story behind the sketch. The documentary was nominated for the Rose d'Or 2004.
The sketch presents the 90th birthday of elderly upper-class Englishwoman Miss Sophie, who hosts a celebration dinner every year for her friends Mr Pommeroy, Mr Winterbottom, Sir Toby, and Admiral von Schneider. (The plot has nothing to do with New Year's Eve. There is a "Happy new year" toast, but this is purely a reference to Miss Sophie's birthday.) The problem is that due to Miss Sophie's considerable age, she has outlived all of her friends, and so her equally aged manservant James makes his way around the table, impersonating each of the guests in turn. Miss Sophie decides on appropriate drinks to accompany the menu: Mulligatawny soup (Miss Sophie orders dry sherry), North Sea haddock (with white wine), chicken (with champagne), and fruit for dessert (with port) served by James, who finds himself raising (and emptying) his glass four times per course. That takes its toll, increasingly noticeable in James's growing difficulty in pouring the drinks, telling wine glasses from vases of flowers, and refraining from bursting into song. Even before the alcohol begins to exert its influence, he keeps tripping up on the head of a tiger skin lying on the floor between the dinner table and the buffet, although on one occasion he surprises himself by avoiding it.
The crucial exchange during every course is:
- James: The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?
- Miss Sophie: The same procedure as every year, James!
After the dinner, Miss Sophie indicates to a very drunk James that she wishes to retire to bed, to which James responds:
- James: By the way, the same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?
- Miss Sophie (delightedly): The same procedure as every year, James!
- James: Well, I'll do my very best!
Origin of the sketch
Wylie is said to have written the sketch in the 1920s. Some sources indicate that Frinton performed Dinner for One on stage with Warden on Britain's seaside piers as early as 1945, paying royalties to Wylie until he bought the rights in the early 1950s. However the sketch was also staged elsewhere, for example in 1953 in John Murray Anderson's Almanac (the show that also featured Harry Belafonte in the early days of his career) at Imperial Theatre with Hermione Gingold playing Miss Sophie, Billy DeWolfe as the butler, and apparently featuring four dead friends.
In 1962, German entertainer Peter Frankenfeld and director Heinz Dunkhase discovered Dinner for One in Blackpool. The sketch was staged in Frankenfeld's live show shortly thereafter, and recorded on July 8, 1963 at the Theater am Besenbinderhof, Hamburg in front of a live audience. The introductory theme was composed by Lew Pollack and recorded by the Mantovani orchestra. According to the NDR, Frinton and Warden were paid DM 4,150. The show was re-run occasionally until it gained its fixed spot on New Year's Eve in 1972.
It is a curiosity that this sketch has become a tradition in Germany, where up to half the population may watch it every year on New Year's Eve, but it is relatively unknown in Britain and has never been seen on television in Canada or the United States. It is also shown on New Year's Eve in many other mainland European countries, particularly Nordic countries, and also screens on SBS in Australia. In Norway, however, it is shown every year on the evening of December 23. It is known as far away as South Africa where it is also broadcast on New Year's Eve. In Sweden, the show was put on hold for a period of six years, deemed "unsuitable" because of James's heavy drinking. However, the TV network then relented to popular demand and brought it back. In 1985 the Danish television network, DR, decided not to broadcast the sketch. However, the network received so many complaints that they had to show it the next New Year's Eve. With this single exception, Dinner for One has been shown on DR every December 31 since 1980.
Although the sketch is most popular in non-English speaking countries, it is typically shown in the original English without dubbing or subtitles. It is easy to understand with even a basic knowledge of English due to the general physical nature of the comedy. The performance remains practically unknown to the English speaking world, and British people are surprised when encountering fans' ability to quote dialogue. Although a small clip was broadcast in an edition of QI in January 2010, it has not been broadcast in its entirety on British TV for at least 30 years. It has never been shown in North America.
The NDR television channel recorded several versions in 1963. Most well-known is the 18 minute version of the sketch traditionally shown in Germany. It has an introduction in German by narrator Heinz Piper and an audience laughing in the background. Every year, there are normally about 15 rebroadcasts of the show in Germany on all of ARD's public regional stations such as MDR, WDR, NDR and BR, and other so-called Third Channels.
Danish TV shows a recording made by NDR on the same stage in which no audience is heard.
A third, 11 minute version was recorded by Schweizer Fernsehen (Swiss Television). This version with less alcohol is also the version shown in Sweden, where the sketch was banned from state broadcaster SVT for a number of years.
Both the 18-minute and 11-minute versions have been released on DVD in Germany.
In 1999, the NDR released a post-processed coloured version.
In Denmark, a parody of the sketch was filmed with the subtitle "The 80th Birthday" in which Miss Sophie's friends are still at the table (that the last of Miss Sophie's friends actually died 25 years ago is only known to those who have seen the NDR version, which mentions this in the introduction). Other versions include one in Low German, various re-enactments or parodies by different comedians, and a version featuring the German glove puppet character Bernd das Brot ("Bernd the Bread").
In 2008, on the occasion of the 60th birthday of German comedian Otto Waalkes, RTL Television showed a parody of the sketch with Otto as "Miss Otti" and departed German comedians as her guests whom the butler (Ralf Schmitz) then impersonated. Whether Miss Otti's ordering of the wine before the fish was an accident or planned is a matter of debate but it brought the house down.
In August 2010, there was a stage production at the Hill Street theatre, Edinburgh, as part of the Edinburgh Festival. Directed by David Lavender, it starred Chris Cresswell as James and Miriam King as Miss Sophie.
On 24 December 2011 a digitally edited satirical version entitled "The 90th Euro rescue summit, or, Euros for No One", produced by Udo Eling and German state broadcaster ARD, was uploaded to YouTube. It features German chancellor Angela Merkel as Miss Sophie and French president Nicholas Sarkozy as her servant and has new German (and some French) dialogue about the Eurozone debt crisis.
Catch phrase: "Same procedure as every year"
The line "Same procedure as every year" has become a very popular catchphrase in Germany, according to Tim Gruhl, the programme editor at the Hamburg-based television Channel NDR. The phrase "has made its way into everyday vocabulary, and even crops up in newspaper headlines and advertisements".
German narrator Heinz Piper originally made a grammatical mistake in his introduction to the 18 minute version: He misquoted Warden’s line "Same procedure as every year" as "Same procedure than every year". While the mistake appears to have gone unnoticed initially, it later prompted annual protest letters to the NDR, most notably from German teachers of English. The NDR eventually responded by editing the recording slightly, substituting a small bit of its audio track with audio which had been recorded during one of the rehearsals. Thus, in 1988, the error had been edited out and Piper could be heard to say "Same procedure as every year". This in turn annoyed some purists who would rather respect the original.
- From All of Us to All of You, a Donald Duck cartoon that has become a Christmas tradition in the Nordic countries
- Tři oříšky pro Popelku, a holiday classic in several European countries
- "SBS schedule". SBS. 31 December 2009. Retrieved 31 December 2011.
- "DR viser ’90-års fødselsdagen’ hver nytårsaften, men hvilket år blev den ikke sendt?". Politiken. 5 January 2007. Retrieved 1 January 2012.
- "Hvornår blev sketchen '90 års fødselsdagen' sendt første gang i Danmark?". DR. 24 March 2011. Retrieved 1 January 2012.
- "Dinner for Who?': Germany's New Year 'Procedure'". Spiegel Online International. 30 May 2006. Retrieved 31 December 2011.
- Hall, Allan (31 December 2011). "Nicolas Sarkozy becomes Angela Merkel's tipsy butler in YouTube satire". The Telegraph. Retrieved 31 December 2011.
- Peake, Mike (30 December 2006). "Gesundheit to an old favourite". The Telegraph. Retrieved 31 December 2011.
- Dinner for One at the Internet Movie Database
- Video of 18 min Dinner for One 1963 on YouTube
- Downloadable versions of Dinner for One at archive.org
- English transcript (NDR)
- Alternative versions
- Dinner for One: The Same Procedure As Every Year On New Year’s Eve December 28, 2011
- Dinner For One: How an obscure British skit became a New Year’s Eve tradition 28 December 2010
- BBC News article 3 August 2009.
- 'Dinner for One' - A Sketch Well-known to all but the British
- British comedy lives on in German television in The Guardian (December 31, 2002)
- The Mystery of Dinner for One. How an obscure British skit has become Germany's most popular New Year's tradition from Slate.com (Dec. 30, 2005)
- "Gesundheit to an old favourite", from The Daily Telegraph (December 30, 2006)
- John Murray Anderson's Almanac at the Internet Broadway Database