How a British comedy became a German tradition

Dinner for One is watched every year in Germany, but it is virtually unknown in Britain.

Maren Thom

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The BBC reports that the Scottish Comedy Film Festival is putting on the first ever UK screening of Dinner for One.

Dinner for One, or The 90th Birthday, is a fixture of festive German television. Every New Year’s Eve, Germans gather around the TV for its ritual screening. Performed entirely in English by British actors, Dinner for One is based on an old music-hall skit. It was filmed in Hamburg in 1963 and has been shown every year from 1972 onwards. Over a third of Germans tune in each year. Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg, all the Scandinavian countries, Estonia and even South Africa have also adopted this tradition, many of them showing the German version.

It plays out the dinner party of an aged British aristocrat, Miss Sophie (played by May Warden). The snag is that everyone in her social circle is dead. Each year, she pretends to have dinner with her four closest male friends. Her trusted butler, James (played by music-hall comedian Freddie Frinton), serves food and drink to the imaginary guests. He also has to pretend to be each guest whenever it is their turn to toast Miss Sophie. With each course, he has to down everyone’s drinks.

The beginning of each course is preceded by a rehearsed ritual between the two characters. James asks, ‘The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?’, to which Miss Sophie always replies, ‘Same procedure as every year, James’. The joke is a classic repeat-and-heighten formula. From the start, the characters’ English eccentricity creates an absurd atmosphere. With each course and toast, James gets drunker and the absurdity grows.

That this old English comedy sketch is so well known across Europe, but so unknown in Britain, is one of those curious cultural oddities. No one seems to know exactly how or why.

My pet theory is this. Germans like to behave irresponsibly on certain days of the year, when it is socially acceptable to do so. Sylvester (New Year’s Eve) is one of those days. It is one of the biggest party nights in the German calendar. Unlike in the UK, in Germany Christmas is a serious, solemn affair, all about quiet contemplation and good behaviour. But we Germans still feel the need to go a bit nuts, to die Sau rauslassen (let the sow out), at the end of the year.

Each year, we spend around €137million on fireworks for New Year’s Eve. Our dedication to blowing things up is truly a sight to behold. But the party really begins earlier in the day, with the traditional viewing of Dinner for One. The comfort of watching a repeat helps us to switch off and frees up the mind for partying.

There are several academic studies on why Germans love this sketch while most Brits have never heard of it. The stock British answer tends to be that the German sense of humour has no subtlety. This, some say, is how the Germans can enjoy this predictable, dated film. This theory tends to be advanced by those who only like ‘edgy comedy’. It fails to understand the timeless, universal appeal of comic timing and precision – it is an art in its own right.

But the fact that the gags in Dinner for One are predictable does not make it a bad comedy. On the contrary, that is part of its genius. We see the disaster coming, and then the disaster is executed with great comic skill. Frinton’s mastery of physical comedy reveals the full depth of James’ tragicomic relationship with Miss Sophie.

German academics have a different take on why the sketch never took off in Britain. They argue that it was too risky to be shown on the BBC when it was first filmed, thanks to its anti-aristocratic tone. The poor butler is forced to play along with the fantasies of a deluded aristocrat. This doesn’t ring true. The BBC has allowed comedians to mock the aristocracy for some time now. But Germans hold to this theory because the stereotype of the Engländer as effete, stoic royalists is still pervasive. It is a staple in German comedy, even today.

And let’s face it, a stereotype only works when there is a kernel of truth to it. While that kernel survives, Germans will continue to think of the English as kitschy relics of a bygone era. Dinner for One’s Englishness reminds us of simpler times and old certainties, which helps us to tune out the confusion of postmodern life and to enjoy the simple pleasures of New Year’s Eve: the same procedure as every year.

Maren Thom is a writer based in London.

Picture by: YouTube.

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