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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 January, 2004, 13:26 GMT
Germany feasts on Dinner for One

By William Horsley
BBC correspondent in Germany

It's like an initiation ceremony, spending New Year's Eve in Germany. The first time I did, I could hardly believe I was really watching the madcap piece of British music-hall comedy that popped up on my TV set.

Scene from Dinner for One, courtesy of NDR
"The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?": Picture from NDR
Soon afterwards I found out that many Germans know by heart the names of all the characters in Dinner For One.

It is not surprising really, as they watch the same piece every year. It is a cult, a ritual, a piece of quintessential English humour that has now become immortal, abroad.

This year, as every year, I've heard Germans laughing out loud as they recite the refrain spoken time after time in Dinner For One.

"The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?" the butler asks the genteel, elderly lady. And then Miss Sophie's reply: "The same procedure as every year, James."

Continental-scale joke

Those simple lines are also, I have found, a sure way of breaking the ice with strangers in Germany, or Austria, or Switzerland, or the other countries where it has taken root in the hearts of many millions of people.

It's a shared joke on a continental scale.

The barely 15 minutes of Dinner For One are a crescendo of laughs

So each year, on New Year's Eve in homes across Europe, the curtain rises on the same stage scene - a country house, with a table lavishly set for a dinner party.

And it is a stage. Because 40 years ago a German television station, Norddeutsche Rundfunk, signed up the British comedian Freddie Frinton, to perform his popular stage version of Dinner for One, in English, in a Hamburg studio.

What people see now is the black and white recording made then.

Freddie Frinton plays the part of an elderly butler, James, who is serving the lady of the house, Miss Sophie, played by May Warden, at the party for her 90th birthday.

Crescendo of laughs

Four other places are set for her male friends, Sir Toby, Admiral von Schneider, Mr Pommeroy and Mr Winterbottom. But the chairs are empty, because sadly they all passed away long ago. Hence the title, Dinner For One.

James is immaculate in his black tie and tails, and the very model of an English butler.

But he is frail and unsteady on his feet, and he gets more and more drunk as the evening goes on.

Butler and Miss Sophie depart upstairs in the punchline. Picture from NDR
Butler and Miss Sophie depart upstairs in the punchline. Picture from NDR
Because Miss Sophie, all dressed up for the big occasion, insists that her butler should fill, and then drink down, the glasses of all the guests, first he goes round pouring out the sherry, to go with the mulligatawny soup; then the white wine, with the North Sea haddock; next champagne, with the chicken, and finally the port.

Each time James has to serve another round of drinks, he asks his high-spirited lady employer if he should follow the "same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?"

And each time the answer comes back "The same procedure as every year, James."

Are you going to bed?

The barely 15 minutes of Dinner For One are a crescendo of laughs.

There's the tiger-skin rug, which James duly trips over on each of his journeys between the table and the sideboard.

And the routine each time James has to impersonate the absent guests. For Admiral von Schneider he clicks his heels in the old Prussian way and barks "Skol" each time he downs another drink.

As Sir Toby, the bluff Englishman, he shouts "Cheerio".

The behind-the-scenes story of Dinner For One is more bitter-sweet

The laughter of the live studio audience who watched the performance all those years ago is still infectious.

At last Miss Sophie announces meaningfully that she's tired, so "I think I'll retire". "Are you going to bed?" her loyal butler asks?

And then..."The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?"

Back comes her reply: "The same procedure as every year, James." And the two of them run arm in arm up the stairs towards the bedroom.

A day or two after my first experience of this New Year ritual, I found myself in a bank in Berlin, on a second visit to open a bank account.

The lady behind the counter was looking very strict, and handed over several forms in German for me to fill in. I looked over one of them, and asked innocently: "The same procedure as last year?"

At once the stern bank lady unfroze. She glanced at me and said: "The same procedure as EVERY year, Herr Horsley!" And we both laughed.

The behind-the-scenes story of Dinner For One is more bitter-sweet.

To the end of his life, Freddie Frinton heartily disliked Germany and the Germans, thanks to his own wartime experience.

He refused to allow a German-language version to be made. That is what has led to the extraordinary fact that today the Germans as a nation have embraced a trifling one-act play in English as their all-time favourite entertainment.

Equally odd is the fact that this piece of comic acting of pure genius, which delighted British audiences in seaside resorts for many years, has so far been spurned by British television, including the BBC, as something unfamiliar that probably wouldn't catch on.

Nonsense, I say. It's sheer stardust. "Cheerio!"

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 8 January, 2004 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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