So you are staying in Germany for New Year? Then be prepared to watch the cult sketch “Dinner for One”. But why is the film so popular in Germany anyway? What makes it so special?
The sketch “Dinner for One” or “The 90th Birthday” was written by the Briton Lauri Wylie around 1920 and initially performed on English stages as a play. He became popular in the cast with the English comedian Freddie Frinton and his partner May Warden. Heinz Dunkhase directed it, although Frinton was the actual creator of the production. The actor had great success with the play and toured across the UK.
From an English play to a German film
The sketch ran for the first time on German television in 1961 on the live broadcast of the North German Radio “Let yourself be entertained”, which was moderated by the singer Evelyn Künneke. A year later, the German entertainer Peter Frankenfeld discovered the piece in England and finally brought it to Germany as a film production.
For his program “Good evening, Peter Frankenfeld”, the 18-minute sketch was performed in 1963 in the Hamburg Theater am Besenbinderhof in front of a live audience and recorded as a black and white recording. It is introduced by Heinz Piper in German, but otherwise spoken in English as in the original because Frinton refused to speak German due to his war experience.
What happened on the 90th birthday
But what is it that makes the sketch? The framework of the plot is the 90th birthday of the protagonist Miss Sophie, who, like every year, wants to celebrate her birthday with her four dearest friends – Sir Toby, Admiral von Schneider, Mister Pommeroy and Mister Winterbottom. This time, however, this only turns into the “Dinner for One”, because the guests have all passed away.
However, the old lady cannot accept the fact that the invitees are not there and wants everything to be the same as always. Her long-serving butler James fulfills this wish and from now on has the task of not only serving the food and drinks for everyone, but also drinking and eating for the invited but not present friends. The sketch takes place in a single room and has only two protagonists in total.
The running gangs make it all
Again and again: During the celebratory dinner, Butler James serves the annual birthday menu for Miss Sophie and the four guests who are not present, because Miss Sophie would like “The same procedure as every year, James!” On this birthday too. The four courses consist of the so-called mulligatawny soup – a spicy Indian curry soup -, North Sea haddock, chicken and, as a dessert, fruit.
James has to drink the drinks of the invited gentlemen with every course and imitate their toasts. Due to the alcoholic drinks, which range from sherry to white wine to champagne and port wine, he becomes more tipsy as the evening progresses and fluctuates with the waiter. While serving, James finally stumbles over and over again over the head of the tiger skin that is lying on the floor. Ultimately, completely drunk, he even takes a sip from the flower vase.
New Year’s Eve classic
Thanks to these running gags, the sketch thrilled German TV viewers and was repeatedly broadcast as a break filler on ARD. Until Henri Regnier of Norddeutscher Rundfunk finally took the recording out of the archive on December 31, 1972 and it was then given a permanent slot on German TV New Year’s Eve. Even though it wasn’t originally used as New Year’s Eve entertainment. The saying “Happy New year, Miss Sophie”, which the butler pronounces as a toast for Mister Pommeroy, probably contributed to the election as New Year’s Eve.
Since then, the cult sketch has still been one of the few programs on German television that is shown unsynchronized in English. On New Year’s Eve 1999, the Norddeutscher Rundfunk broadcast other versions of “Dinner for One”: A version in Low German and a colored version were presented. Since then there have been other post-productions, including a version with commentary in German for the visually impaired or the parodies “Dinner for Chon” and “Döner for One”.
In Germany, the sketch has thus become an integral part of the New Year’s Eve television program on public television. It is now our most frequently repeated program and was listed in the Guinness Book of Records in 1988 as “the world’s most repeated television production”. In 2004, a record year, over 15 million Germans watched the sketch.
“Dinner for One” is now celebrating its 58th anniversary on German television, because Miss Sophie’s 90th birthday will also be shown on New Year’s Eve 2020. Some broadcasters present the sketch from noon on December 31st until the morning of New Years Day. In the meantime, the classic can not only be watched on television just in time for New Year’s Eve, but also daily in the television media libraries.
The amazing thing is that while the originally English play is a classic in Germany and also in Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria and Australia, it was only shown two years ago – on New Year’s Eve 2018 – for the first time on British television.
12 facts about Dinner for One you did not know
1. “Dinner for One” recorded in Hamburg
The English-language sketch piece “Dinner for One” was recorded for television on July 8, 1963 in Germany – in the Hamburg Theater am Besenbinderhof. It was shown for the first time on March 8, 1963 in the live TV show “Good evening, Peter Frankenfeld”.
2. “Dinner for One” written as early as 1920
“Dinner for One” was written in 1920. The “Dinner for One” sketch was officially performed for the first time in 1948 at the Duke of York’s Theater in London as part of a revue, but there are also sources that date the stage version further back. When Frinton (he wasn’t the first butler actor) took on the role of James, he toured the country with changing actresses.
A young woman named Audrey Maye also played the old lady. She suggested her mother May Warden when she left production. This is how the sketch cast came about, which then became popular in 1963 with the Hamburg recording.
3. Butler actor Freddie Frinton refused the German version
“Dinner for One” was recorded in English for German television because butler actor Freddie Frinton refused to do a German version. Due to the Second World War, Frinton had a pronounced aversion to Germany.
4. Scandinavian “Skol” instead of German “Prost” because of aversion to Germany
The World War II veteran Frinton was so averse to Germany that he exclaimed a Scandinavian “Skol!” Instead of a German “Cheers!” As a toast from Admiral von Schneider. This is also used as an explanation for why he asks “Do I really have to?” Every time Miss Sophie demands the role of admiral from him. Another way of looking at James’ displeasure is that the jagged Prussian clamming of his heels is causing him ankle pain.
5. Tiger was initially not included in the performance
The tiger, on whose head the butler notoriously stumbles (eleven times in all), was initially not included in the performance. It was reportedly added at the request of the mayor of a city the ensemble toured. Frinton’s first stumble over the big cat’s fur was accidental. But brought him so many laughs that the tiger was integrated.
6. “Dinner for One” in England will only be seen for the first time in 2018 on New Year’s Eve
“Dinner for One” will be shown on New Year’s Eve in many countries, including Germany, including Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria and Australia – in Freddie Frinton’s home country of England, on the other hand, it was shown for the first time on New Year’s Eve 2018. The fact that the show prevailed as New Year’s Eve program in many places is possibly due to the saying that Butler James recited instead of the absent Mr. Pommeroy: “Happy new year, Miss Sophie”, based on the upcoming 91st year of the birthday child.
7. Sweden worries about being a role model because of the high amount of alcohol
Sweden was not always on fire – until 1969 “Dinner for One” was not shown there. It was feared that the extreme alcohol consumption in the film might encourage compatriots to do the same butler James.
8. James drinks to Miss Sophie 18 times
James drinks 18 times on Miss Sophie’s 90th birthday. Not counting is the sip from a flower vase, after which he mumbles (in English) “I’ll kill the cat!”.
9. These are the drinks for the party
The drinks of the birthday party: sherry, white wine, champagne, port wine.
10. The menu
What’s on the menu for the evening? Mulligatawny soup (a spicy curry soup based on an Indian recipe), North Sea haddock, chicken and fruits.
11. German audience record in 2004
The sketch came to Germany after the German TV show host Peter Frankenfeld saw it in Blackpool’s Winter Gardens in 1962. The record number of viewers on German television was in 2004. At that time, 15.6 million watched “Dinner for One”. In the meantime there have been many parodies – including one with Otto Waalkes and Ralf Schmitz, which will postpone the fun drinking events to the year 2038.
12. In the GDR, “Dinner for One” was called “Memorial Meal” instead
“Dinner for One” was also broadcast in the GDR – between 1978 and 1987 under the title “Memorial Meal” and with other actors. It wasn’t until 1988 that the version with Frinton and Warden was shown.