Comedy in one act.

Immensely popular in Germany and the Nordic countries, as well as in such widely diverse places as South Africa, Poland, and Bulgaria, this delightful little gem of British music hall comedy is sadly neglected in Britain, where Freddie Frinton is considered no more than a provincial dilettante actor.

Freddie Frinton (born 1911 in Lincolnshire, died 1968 in London, of a heart attack) adapted the sketch (which dates from the 1920s) in 1945, to be performed with his acting partner May Warden in the Winter Garden at Blackpool. The play was an instant success in this limited venue, and ran for 18 years. In 1963, after thousands of performances, Dinner for One came to the attention of two programme editors at the German TV station NDR (Nord-Deutscher Rundfunk), Heinz Dunkhase and Peter Frankenfeld, who invited Frinton and Warden to come to Germany and perform their sketch on television.

The results went beyond the wildest expectations of everyone involved. 29 years later, Dinner for One (titled in German: Der 90. Geburtstag, "The 90th Birthday") is a staple of New Year's Eve television in all the countries mentioned above. If you attend a New Year's Eve party in one of these countries, odds are that you will see that the party comes to a sudden halt when the sketch is broadcast, as everyone sits down to watch television - only to resume partying with undiminished vigour afterwards. A devoted host of fans know the sketch by heart, and the catchphrase of Frinton's character "The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?" never fails to draw a smile, when used in ordinary conversation - and an answer of "Same procedure as every year, James".

The play itself is a bagatelle, to be sure - it tells, in 18 brief minutes, the story of the aging birthday girl, Miss Sophie (played by May Warden), who has outlived all her close friends, and her devoted butler James (played by Freddy Frinton), who undertakes to act out the presence in spirit of all these deceased friends. Doing so, he brings to life the idiosyncratic persons of Sir Toby, Admiral von Schneider, Mr. Pommeroy and Mr. Winterbottom.

Though the subject is a melancholy one - the loss of friends to unforgiving time - the play is not the slightest bit maudlin. On the contrary, this is a Comedy-with-a-capital-C, the best that burlesque variety shows can produce. Frinton's character, the butler James, waddles through his "alter egos" in an increasing state of inebriation (since he must drink toasts for the birthday girl in the name of all the absent friends). Throughout, the mood is upbeat and ironic - and there can be no doubt that this is what has brought a smile to viewers' faces for over a generation.


In a /msg, call has made a very good case for there being a third character in the sketch - the tiger skin rug. This observation is herewith endorsed.

Dinner for One otherwise known as the Same Procedure As Last Year or as Der 90. Geburtstag (The 90th Birthday Party) is an eighteen minute British comedy sketch which has become a German cultural phenomenon. At one time it featured in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's most frequently repeated television programme, until Guinness World Records abandoned that category in 1996 when the proliferation of television channels and repeats began to make such measurements rather pointless.

The sketch features an anniversary dinner hosted by Miss Sophie and served by her butler James. (Although the script is deliberately unclear about the reason for the dinner.) The basic joke is that the four dinner guests, Mr Pommeroy, Mr Winterbottom, Sir Toby and Admiral von Schneider are all long dead. The butler plays along with his employer's delusion as he serves the imaginary guests with food and drink. As he does so the butler feels obliged to drink each guest's share of the sherry, port, champagne and wine as it is served and so rapidly becomes more and more inebriated as the evening progresses. The positioning of a tiger skin rug between the dinner table and the sideboard "adds to the humour" as the butler either trips over or avoids tripping over the tiger skin rug in question.

At regular intervals during the dinner the butler asks, "The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?", to which his employer invariably replies "The same procedure as every year, James!" Whilst at the end of the evening the pair walk arm in arm up the stairs towards the bedroom as James asks, "By the way, the same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?", thereby adding the necessary nudge-nudge, wink-wink moment.


According to IMDB the sketch was originally written by Morris Laurence Samuelson, otherwise known as Lauri Wylie, and premiered at the Duke of York's Theatre in London in 1948. It was later performed on Broadway in 1953 as part of John Murray Anderson's ALMANAC revue with Hermione Gingold appearing as Miss Sophie and Billy De Wolfe as James the butler. The sketch is however most closely associated with the British comedian and actor Freddie Frinton.

Frinton spent most of World War II in Stars in Battledress and then went into Variety after the end of the war, but would now be best remembered for having stared alongside Thora Hird in the television sitcom Meet the Wife in the years 1963 to 1966. According to Roy Hudd, Frinton was "the superlative stage drunk" whose catchphrase was "Good Evening Occifer"; a remarkable achievement in many ways given that he was a life long teetotaller. He was therefore a natural for the part of James, the drunken butler, and bought the rights to the play sometime in the late 1950s and made it a regular feature of his stage act. Initially the role of Miss Sophie was played by a young actress called Audrey Maye, although when she decided to get married and quit acting, the role was assumed by her mother May Warden.

It was therefore alongside Warden that Frinton performed the sketch at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool in 1962 where it was seen by the German entertainer and TV personality, Peter Frankenfeld who was there with his producer Heinz Dunkhase. They were so impressed that they invited Frinton and Warden to perform the sketch on German television. Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) duly broadcasted a live performance from the Theater am Besenbinderhof in Hamburg. This was apparently so well received that they were asked to return for a studio recording which took place between 30th April and 4th May 1963. Featuring introductory music by Lew Pollack performed by Mantovani, and with the explanatory narration provided by Heinz Piper, Frinton and Warden received the sum of 4,150 DM for the recording, together with a repeat fee which was apparently quite unusual for the time.

Although this recording was broadcast on a number of occasions, the show did not really take off until 1972, when it was shown on New Year's Eve and received such high ratings that the exercise was repeated in the following year, after which it become part of the German national New Year ritual and transformed Freddie Frinton into a cult figure in Germany. The ironic twist was that Frinton allegedly disliked both Germany and the Germans and refused to make a German-language version of the sketch, although it is notable that his dislike did not extend as far as refusing to accept German currency.

By 1997 Dinner for One was attracting an audience of 11.93 million, which was more than the 9.28 million that tuned in to the New Year address of the Federal Chancellor, and in 2003 it attracted an audience of 13 million. According to Jürgen Meier-Beer, who was the head of light entertainment at NDR in 2002; "It usually has the highest rating of any programme shown during the year. We have an average market share in our area of 8%. Dinner for One gets us up to 20% to 30% every time. We reckon that one in every two viewers in our area will watch it at some point on New Year's Eve." Its popularity is such that many Germans treat it as a drinking game and seek to match the butler drink for drink during the course of the sketch and some restaurants have been known to have put on Dinner for One themed evenings where guests can eat the same food as the characters.

NDR were going to record a colour version in 1968, only Frinton had a heart attack and died on the 16th October 1968 three weeks before the scheduled shoot. They later produced a digitally remastered colourised version in 1999 which upset some purists as well as a version dubbed into Plattdeutsch. Other countries have also taken Dinner for One to their hearts such as Norway, where they prefer to watch it on the 23rd December, Switzerland, where they have their own eleven minute version, and Sweden although the Swedes apparently prefer to watch Ivanhoe as their New Year treat. However although the BBC thinks that it might possibly have screened the Swiss television version in 1963, it has never otherwise been shown on British television. Or on American television for that matter, although it has appeared in other English language markets such as Australia and South Africa. But despite its popularity in at least some parts of the world, Dinner for One has attracted a number of complaints. The presence of the dead tiger skin has upset conservationists, the Grey Panthers once objected to the suggestion that James and Miss Sophie were engaged in a carnal relationship, whilst it was banned in Sweden for a while on the grounds that it encouraged drunkeness.


Apparently the Germans find it inexplicable that the British don't find Dinner for One as hilarious as they do. A professor of culture at Bremen University named Rainer Stollmann was of the opinion that its broadcast might upset Britain's delicate class system, since Dinner for One has "dangerously revolutionary undertones". A remark which, it has to be said, is funnier than anything that appears in Dinner for One since, although Wylie might have written the sketch in 1948, it wasn't an original concept, more his version of a basic idea that had been doing the rounds of the Musical Halls since the 1920s. The drunken butler and the dotty old aristocrat living in the past being stock comic characters dating back decades if not centuries. It was therefore pretty old hat when it premiered in 1948 and very much past it when Freddie Frinton began peforming the sketch. Indeed by the time that NDR was putting Dinner for One on German television, British Comedy had already progressed through ITMA and the Goons and had recently invented satire with That Was The Week That Was. The British therefore find it inexplicable that the Germans are so keen on such an outdated piece of old Music Hall comedy, and believe that this says more about the Germans (as in sense of humour, lack of) than it does about them.


SOURCES

  • William Horsley, Germany feasts on Dinner for One, 10 January, 2004
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/3376853.stm
  • John Hooper, British comedy lives on in German television, The Guardian, December 31, 2002
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/germany/article/0,2763,866820,00.html
  • Mike Peake Gesundheit to an old favourite, Daily Telegraph, 30/12/2006
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2006/12/30/bvdinner30.xml
  • Luke Harding, When the Germans see the butler, the British can't see the joke, The Guardian December 24, 2004
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/germany/article/0,2763,1379521,00.html
  • Germans follow same procedure every year, December 31, 1997
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/special_report/42282.stm
  • Dinner for One - Alles rund um die Kultsendung
    http://www1.ndr.de/ndr_pages_std/0,2570,OID258514,00.html
  • Trivia for 90. Geburtstag oder Dinner for One, Der (1963)
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0121210/trivia

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