by Mike Peake, London Telegraph
In the big book of international stereotypes (which is, of course, forever being updated, Russian poisoners take note), Germany is not a country known for its vice-like grip on humour. It is undoubtedly a sin that it has been so cruelly separated from comedy. This, after all, is the country which gave us stand-up legend Helge Schneider, who reached Number One in the German charts with Katzeklo (“Kitty litter-box, kitty litter-box, it makes a cat so happy”).
But it may yet turn out that our German cousins have the last laugh. Well, for one day a year at least, because New Year’s Eve, in Germany, is marked by a hallowed tradition with which we just can’t compete. “New Year, without Dinner for One, would be like Christmas without It’s A Wonderful Life,” says Kathrin Haarmann, a German expat who lives with her husband and two young children in south-west London. “I saw a DVD of it for sale on the internet and we simply had to have it.”
The short 1963 comedy sketch, starring the late British comedian Freddie Frinton, a music-hall staple in the 1950s and 1960s, is screened on most major German television channels every December 31, and has been since 1972. Incredibly, it has entered the record books as the world’s most repeated television show (230 airings and counting).
Almost always broadcast with its original English soundtrack, it is quite brilliant in its simplicity: Miss Sophie, celebrating her 90th birthday, sits down to dinner with four friends and is served by her faithful butler, James (Frinton). But there’s a catch. None of the old maid’s guests — Sir Toby, Admiral Von Schneider, Mr Pommeroy and Mr Winterbottom — is actually in attendance because all of them presumably have long since expired. So it’s down to James to hop from chair to chair and fill in for Miss Sophie’s enigmatic erstwhile suitors.
Before every course and its accompanying splash of booze, the rapidly declining butler slurs: “The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?” And his aged employer replies: “The same procedure as every year, James.”
It gets better with repeated viewing, especially if you’re drinking along with James, who downs each guest’s tipple in turn. Indeed, four rounds of as many liquors in 11 minutes gives considerable lift to the show’s roguish, if hardly sidesplitting, punchline, which comes when the butler offers to escort his employer upstairs to bed for the “same procedure as last year”. Not bad, given that the sketch, by British author Lauri Wylie, was penned in the 1920s.
“That line has become a very popular catchphrase here,” says Tim Gruhl, the programme editor at the Hamburg based television Channel NDR, which originally recorded the sketch, live on stage, in 1963. ” ‘Same procedure as last year’ has made its way into everyday vocabulary, and even crops up in newspaper headlines and advertisements. But the show itself is forever entwined with New Year. We hold the television rights, and take care that it is shown exclusively on New Year’s Eve.”
But why? And why has it become such a hit?
“Personally,” says Tim, “I think it reminds us of the 1960s, when the German economy was booming and when watching television was a family experience. It’s a very funny, harmless programme that’s become a cult that you can hardly escape.”
A cult it most definitely is. The sketch regularly attracts 20-30 per cent of viewing audiences. The German airline LTU shows it on all its New Year flights, and Dinner for One recently ventured across the border to Austria, where it has become compulsive annual viewing. Less easy to explain is the show’s popularity in Australia, where Dinner for One is now shown on the SBS channel every year. Or, indeed, Norway, where it has become a uniquely December 23 televisual ritual. “We all watch the film together as a family,” says Anders Løken, who works for Hewlett Packard in Oslo. “We like the humour and it has a melancholic touch that moves us.”
And yet this quintessentially British skit has apparently never been shown on television in the UK. You can watch it on the internet, you can buy it on eBay (of the 55 copies for sale at the time of writing, 49 sellers lived in Germany), but ask the average Briton about Dinner for One and you’ll be met with vacant stares. “I’ve never heard of it,” says a spokesman at the BBC press office. “I guess the nearest thing we have that you might call a New Year’s Eve television tradition is Jools Holland’s show.”
For Frinton, the illegitimate son of a Grimsby seamstress, his legacy seems destined to live on anywhere but home. He died in 1968 — evidently just weeks before he was set to re-record the sketch in colour — and his place in the local history books is shaky, at best. There is a smattering of British fans, such as retired university lecturer Malcolm John from Portsmouth, who performed Dinner for One with his local amateur dramatics company last summer (“It went down a storm,” he says), but closer to Frinton’s Lincolnshire birthplace, his mark has not been quite so indelible. “I’ve never heard of him,” says a young chap in the newsroom at the Grimsby Telegraph. “How are you spelling Frinton again?”