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.